Improving Urban Education: Getting Charter Schools Right
By Marcus Winters
According to the
National Center for Education Statistics, the 100 largest
public school districts in the United States, almost all of
which are located in cities, enroll about 23 percent of the
nation's students. The wide reach of these urban school systems
magnifies the impact of their poor performance. Researcher
Christopher Swanson found
that the high school graduation rate in the fifty largest
cities averaged 51.8 percent. Many students who do manage
to graduate from urban schools can neither read nor do math
at a basic level.
Reviving America's cities requires improving urban education.
Illiterate, innumerate kids are at high risk of becoming illiterate,
innumerate adults who require costly government services.
Ensuring future prosperity requires laying a foundation of
human capital in the present. No matter how low a city's crime
rate or how beautiful its parks, it will never succeed in
reversing the suburban flight of its wealthier residents (i.e.
the tax base) without demonstrating significant reform of
its education system.
Expansive school choice in the form of vouchers and charter
schools is the most attractive option available for improving
urban schools. A wide body of evidence accumulated over the
last decade shows that school choice helps kids, increases
the effectiveness of public schools, and saves taxpayer dollars.
Though mayors often have little control over city public
school systems, they can create a political environment conducive
to school choice reform by pushing their state legislature
to enact or strengthen laws authorizing charter schools and
promoting vouchers targeted to special education students.
Charters are public schools that operate outside of the rules
and regulations of a local school systemthey essentially
function as their own school districts. Charter schools already
exist in many cities and laws authorizing them are currently
on the books in forty-one states.
Charter schools can dramatically improve the education provided
to a city's students. For instance, Stanford University economist
Caroline Hoxby found
that students attending charter schools in New York City performed
much better in both math and reading than they would have
had they remained in the public schools. The KIPP
charter school network, which currently operates charter schools
in nineteen states and the District of Columbia, has had phenomenal
success improving student proficiency and sending overwhelmingly
low-income students to college.
However, not all charter schools are created equal. Though
no convincing research suggests that charter schools perform
worse than do surrounding public schools, charter schools
are less effective in some areas than in others. One reason
for this variation in performance is that the laws under which
charter schools operate in some states can impede their ability
to provide a high quality educational alternative.
Adopting a charter school law is not enough to improve urban
education. Nearly all existing charter school laws can be
substantially improved. Statesand public officials pushing
to expand chartersshould keep the structure of their
charter-authorizing law in mind. This is crucial for laying
a foundation for more (and more successful) charters which,
in turn, have the potential to improve their competitors in
the established public school systems.
With that concern in mind, the nonprofit Center for Education
Reform has evaluated
charter school laws in states across the nation and given
out only three "A" grades. Seventeen states were
given a grade of "D" or "F." To improve
urban education, states should consider the four criteria
that CER used to evaluate their own charter school laws: whether
public school authorities have sole power to authorize charters,
whether growth of charters is capped by the authorizing law,
the degree of autonomy granted to charter schools, and whether
established charters are adequately funded.
Determining which entities may authorize charter schools
is the first thing to take into account when crafting a charter
school law. In some states the school district itself is the
only body empowered to legally authorize charter schools.
Where this is the case, authorities prefer applications for
charters which will serve students that the district is uninterested
in (e.g. dropouts) since these schools will compete for both
students and resources. Districts also have a clear incentive
to keep the most effective charter schools out; students may
be enticed to leave. Allowing school districts to authorize
charter schools is like letting the local McDonald's franchise
decide which restaurants may open in its neighborhood. Under
effective charter school laws, districts are only one of several
authorizing entities. Other potential authorizers include
universities, independent boards, and mayors.
Skeptics, opponents, and entrenched interests employ a variety
of methods to inhibit the transformation of urban school systems
and ration access to high quality charter schools. Arbitrarily
capping the number of allowable charter schools reduces pressure
on public schools to improve in order to compete for students
and resources. Several states, observing the benefits of charters,
are now bumping up against caps on the number of schools their
authorizing laws allow. These laws are keeping good schools
from expanding. President Obama has called on all states to
remove caps on charter schools.
Critics also seek to stymie the spread of charters by writing
authorizing laws in ways that limit the autonomy of each school.
Some states insist that charter school teachers belong to
the local teachers union, and some laws actually hold charter
schools to the school district's collective bargaining agreement.
Requiring unionization keeps charter schools from offering
a true alternative to the public school system.
Setting an appropriate funding level is also important when
adopting a charter law. Most states provide charter schools
with only a fraction of the per-pupil resources allocated
to public schools. It is quite reasonable for charter schools
to receive fewer dollars since the inefficiency of urban public
schools is often the primary justification for adopting charter
schools. However, the resource disparity can be quite large.
In several instances, charter schools have received no funding
for capital outlays.
Charter schools are a well-known reform with the potential
for outsized impact on the quality of education in most cities.
Though less well-known, special education voucher programs
are also attractive and can be just as effective at reforming
urban education. These, like charters, affect cities disproportionately
but require state authorization.
The portion of the nation's students who are in special education
has grown by 63 percent since a 1976 federal law mandated
that schools offer disabled students an acceptable level of
education. As of 2007,
13.6 percent of the nation's public school students received
special education services. That number is often much higher
in urban school systems. Since kids in special education require
additional services, the growth in enrollments has been quite
expensive for cities. On average, Washington D.C., provides
schools with an additional $10,917 per special education
Special education voucher programs allow disabled students
to use taxpayer dollars to pay private school tuition. Laws
authorizing these programs are currently on the books in Florida,
Utah, and Georgia. Ohio has a voucher program that is exclusive
to autistic students. Several other states have introduced
bills to adopt these programs with varied levels of success.
Scholarship programthe first and by far the largest
such programoffers an attractive template. Under the
program, every child placed in special education and enrolled
in a public school for at least one year is eligible for a
voucher that is worth the lesser of the tuition at the desired
private school or the amount the public school would have
spent educating the child. Students with more severe disabilities
receive vouchers that are worth more money.
of Florida parents with experience in the program found that
kids received more services in the private school than in
their previous public school. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration
of the program's popularity is that 90.7 percent of parents
surveyed whose children had used a voucher before returning
to the public school systemparents who, for whatever
reason, felt that the program was not right for themsaid
that they believed the program should remain available to
others. Further, recent research
shows that Florida's public schools have responded by improving
education for their remaining disabled students.
Unlike other costly interventions like reducing class sizes,
the educational benefits of special education vouchers come
with considerable cost savings for taxpayers. Since vouchers
are worth only up to the amount that a public school would
have spent on a student, these programs are at least cost
neutral. It never costs more to give a kid a voucher. Most
often, however, private schools educate disabled students
at a far lower cost than do public schools. In 2008,
special education voucher given out in Florida was worth
$7,500that's less than what the state spends to educate
a regular enrollment student. The money saved from
allowing disabled kids to attend their chosen school could
be allocated toward improving public school programs or expanding
any number of other services.
Though not uncontroversial, special education voucher programs
are more politically palatable than general voucher programs.
That's because they serve a particularly vulnerable population
that taxpayers are often willing to help (or at least unwilling
to abandon) and that almost everyone agrees is not well served
by the current system. And unlike programs targeted to students
in low performing public schools, special education reaches
across the income and demographic spectrums.
School choice offers a way to improve urban education and
save scarce taxpayer dollars. Mayors and advocates of improved
urban schools should work toward expanding the educational
options available to urban students and ensuring that the
laws governing these programs contribute to an environment