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School Choice and Charters: Increased and Improved Options for Everyone?

Rebecca Benjamin '07

School Choice manifests itself in three main ways.  There is the most extreme version—vouchers that allow students to use public funds to go to private schools; and the least extreme—a program of options within a public school system.  For example, in many large cities students have many different options of public schools in their district from which they can choose, instead of one public school that they are required to attend.  In the middle are charter schools.  Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are allowed to operate independently of the public school system, for the most part.  Different school systems have different rules as to how independent charter schools can be, and charter schools assert their independence in varying ways.  In this paper, I will focus on charter schools.  Charter schools are a part of school choice policy, yet the effects of charter policies may be very different from the effects of other choice programs.  While many of my observations and much of my analysis may be applicable to other choice programs, I base my analysis on charter schools in particular.  I analyze charter schools on the basis of equity of access to an excellent education.  Do charter schools further the cause of equity, by providing excellent schools for all children, or do they further inequity by limiting access to them and giving children from some backgrounds a worse education than others?  My analysis proves that charter schools, as they are today, exacerbate inequity among students.  Choice in itself does not promote equity, and charters in particular create inequity.  I propose a variety of policy initiatives that allow choice to become a more equitable program—that allow all students to benefit from increased options and excellent educations.

The arguments

Teachers, community members, and corporate organizations, depending on the rules in the state, can start up a charter school.  They get their charter, along with per-pupil funding, from the state or district.  How much regulation comes from the entity that granted their charter varies, but often charter schools will run completely independently from the school district, evaluated approximately every five years.  The theory is that charter schools will be held accountable by their customers—students and parents who can take their business, and per-pupil money, elsewhere.  Charter schools will have the freedom to experiment with different educational strategies, and can be a testing ground for new policies which the public school system could, in theory, adopt.  As Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson explain, supporters of charter schools "argue that charter schools will function as public education's R&D sector.  As such, the benefits of charter schools will extend to non-charter students as traditional public schools adopt and emulate these new innovations" (2002, p.6).

Advocates of school choice, charter schools, and other such programs that create alternatives to the local public school, some of which (e.g. charters run by Educational Management Organizations, vouchers) give public funds to private intermediary organizations rather than directly to public schools, call it 'the American way.'  Choice breeds competition, competition breeds excellence, excellence means a good education for our children.  The word "choice" brings to mind images of freedom—after all, shouldn't parents be able to choose which school their children attend?

Opponents of school choice may claim that charter schools and vouchers are leading to 'the privatization of public schools.'  More and more of our students are being educated by private organizations, whether they are private schools or EMO-run charters. The phrase "privatization of public schools" does not conjure up the same American values that "choice" does.  In fact, privatization sounds good to some.  To others, however, it sounds, like a contradiction in terms.  Isn't privatizing public schools negating the point of them in the first place?  Aren't public schools meant to be a public institution, and don't they need to be in order to protect our rights to them?  To examine this question, we must examine why public schools exist today, and the struggles that public schools have been facing recently.  Can a privately run school do what we expect of our public schools?

Why we must assess equity

The stated aim of the public school is to give all students an equitable education and to prepare them for the workforce.  In school, students learn to become members of a democratic society.  They are given the tools they need to succeed in the post-school world.  What these tools are is highly debatable, but the fact that it is the job of the public schools to give every student an equal chance is not.  The civil rights movement brought a strong focus onto schools and whether or not they were giving black students an equitable education in comparison to white students.  Since then, policy makers have debated whether or not schools are equitable, and how to make them so. 

Equity is a vital issue when we consider public education; and thus, we must assess charter schools and choice programs in terms of equity.  Does school choice policy promote equity?  Or does it further inequity?  Amy Stuart Wells et al explain that "while charter school reform may help empower some parents, students and educators in low income communities by allowing them to engage in a politics of identity, it simultaneously may lead to greater inequality and stratification in the education system overall by forcing greater reliance on private resources" (2005, p.221).  Wells et al are saying that, while charter reform has allowed parents who feel they are being left behind by the public school system as a whole to start charter schools that address their specific needs and interests, it can also cause other problems.  Specifically, it is easiest for parents with the most resources to start these schools, and parents without these advantages will often have to turn to EMOs (Educational Management Organizations)—private organizations—to support them (Wells et al, 2005, p. 220).  This process, they argue, takes the charter school away from the community and creates inequalities.  EMOs, however, are not the only source of inequity in charter schools and school choice systems.

Every state and district with charter schools has slightly different guidelines, and each charter school is run differently, which has various implications for equity.  Some are started by groups of teachers and/or parents breaking off of a more traditional public school.  Others are run by EMOs.  How can we make a generalized policy statement about such a broad movement? As David Plank and Gary Sykes explain, like traditional public schools, "some charters and extraordinarily good and others are astonishingly bad" (p. 179).  This wide differential in charter schools makes it very difficult to make a generalized and substantiated statement about how students in charter schools perform.  We can, however, analyze equity in terms of access to these charter programs, and tendencies in terms of who gets the 'good' charters and who gets the 'bad.'  While school choice affords many students excellent opportunities, and many charter schools are truly amazing places that foster learning in brilliant and nontraditional ways, these choice programs may not promote equity.  Many charter schools, in fact, increase inequities in terms of which students receive the best education as the access to charter programs is inherently inequitable.  While some charter schools make efforts to attract students in an equitable way, in general, charter schools promote increased inequity through admissions policies that favor some groups of students and discourage others from applying.  This goes directly against what public schools should be promoting.  Public money should not be going into an inequitable policy.  While this is to be expected from private schools, it is unacceptable from public schools.  If the policies of choice are to be continued, their effects on equity must be researched, and only policies that promote equity must be continued.

How parents choose: will choice lead to better schools for everyone?

As discussed previously, proponents of choice claim not only that choice is inherently better than no choice, but also that competition will be created through school choice.  Schools have to compete for students, and though it would not be a free market, it would be closer than the current system is (Kahne, 1996, p.93).  Parents and children—the "customers" of schools—now have the freedom to choose the school that they believe will serve them best.  Schools need customers, not only so they can continue to exist, but also because they need the funds that come with each student, and thus will compete to attract students.  This competition, the argument goes, will lead to general public schools improving greatly in quality—all schools will strive towards excellence. 

If this were true, then all schools and by extension all students, not just those in the new charter schools, or other new schools created through choice, would benefit from choice plans.  If this were true, one could argue that it would not matter whether or not choice engenders equitability, because as every school is improving, every student is getting a better education, not just those whose parents were able to choose the "best" school for them.  However, this argument requires that parents choose schools for their children because these schools are in fact better than the other options, and will give their children a better education than the other options.  If this is not the case—if parents are choosing schools for some other reason, like the population attending the school, or the neighborhood it is in—than schools will not be striving towards excellence, but will instead be striving towards whatever the criteria is that parents use to choose one school over another.  So, in order to assess whether or not this is a valid argument by the proponents of school choice, we must assess why parents choose the schools that they do.

Jennifer Holme, in her article Buying Homes, Buying Schools: School Choice and the Social Construction of School Quality asked precisely this question.  While her study was limited in scope, it was certainly informative.  She spoke to white, affluent parents who had moved "for the schools."  These parents had, for the most part, moved out of an urban area because they had heard that the schools were bad, or moved into an area where they had heard that the schools were good.  Holme assessed what information they had used to make this important decision, and discovered that they rarely had any information other than the word of their "high status" friends[1].  She summarizes her findings as follows:

The findings from this study suggest that the market model of accountability touted by school choice proponents as a way to improve the public educational system through competition is inherently flawed.  This study indicates that, given choices, parents will not necessarily choose schools that have the best or most appropriate curriculum and instruction for their child, nor will they "punish" schools that are inferior by exiting such schools.  Rather, this study suggests that parents with resources will most likely choose the schools with the highest-status clientele, and therefore, if choice is expanded, the most serious market pressure schools will face will be the pressure to attract a higher-status student body. (2002, p. 202-203)

Holme's findings show that we cannot rely on school choice to create competition that will lead to better schools—in fact we may instead be able to assume that more choice will lead to more homogeneous schools.  Holme cites her study and others as showing that both affluent white parents, and parents of color, "tend to choose schools where their children are better represented" (Holme, 2002, p.182).  While her study did not show this conclusively, it does imply that further studies could show it to be true—and that it is a risk.  Whatever the answers found by any further studies, we can assert that choice will most likely not promote an equitable education by pressuring all schools to excel.  Instead choice may promote, through competition, schools to attract more "high-status" students and push away "low status" students who will make the school less attractive to high status parents.

Equal access or not?

Charter Schools are supposed to be open to everyone.  They are not supposed to admit students selectively, but are supposed to give every student an equal chance.  In many charter programs, if more students apply than they have space for, they are supposed to lottery off their spots.  No child gets an advantage.  The idea is that access to these schools—to the schools made available through choice—must be equal.  This is an important prerequisite for school choice to foster equity.  However, we still must assess if this lottery system, this way of giving equal access, results in truly equal access.

How schools choose

In Inside Charter Schools: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization, Bruce Fuller explains that "charters attempt to admit a select number of children who show promise and have parents who are committed to the mission and culture of the particular school" (Fuller, 2000, p. 40).  This is clearly advantageous to the school: the school wants to do well, and the more promising the students and the more involved the parents, the better the school will do.  With a lottery or not, the lack of government oversight gives charter schools significant leeway in how they accept students.  While they may have to accept students on an equal basis, there is no requirement as to how they recruit students.  They can get whatever their desirable audience is by targeting information and application materials to that audience (Wells et al, p.237).  For example, an advertisement in a subway is going to attract a different group from an advertisement in the Daily News, which will attract yet a different group from an advertisement in the New York Times.  

What charter schools tell parents and students when they walk in the door can have a huge effect on who attends the schools as well.  Some charters require that parents volunteer a certain number of hours.  This immediately excludes children whose parents do not have the time and resources to give much time to their school, and favors more affluent children.  More affluent students are more likely to have one parent who does not work, and has infinite amounts of time to give to the school.  Students for whom both parents (if they have two parents at home) work full time, students with siblings, students with parents who cannot afford childcare, students whose parents work at an hourly wage job, and students who live far from the school (whose parents would have to spend more time and money getting to the school), are all therefore discouraged from attending many charter schools which have a focus on parental involvement. 

Charter schools, because of their lack of regulation and the market pressure on them to do well, can and do filter their students in many other ways.  Fuller quotes the director of a charter school as saying: "If a parent with a handicapped child knocks on my door, I politely urge her to visit the next public school down the road" (2000, p. 34).  Charter schools are able to do this with many different children, and are in fact benefited by doing so.  Teaching children with higher needs—handicapped children, children for whom English is the second language, children who come from poor and troubled areas, and others 'disadvantaged' students, will require more resources, and thus more money, than affluent white children who 'show promise.'  It is important to remember, however, that while the charter program gives schools the freedom to select students inequitably, and in fact encourages it, it does not always happen.  There may be excellent charter schools that cater to all students equally.  However, many charter schools foster inequality in access by effectively choosing their students.

The information gap

The nature of school choice also limits the equitability of this policy.  Choice puts the pressure on the parents to choose.  Whether the policy is charter schools, vouchers, or choice within the system, parents must make the decision.  This policy means that parents with the resources and knowledge to research and choose the best school for their child are advantaged by this system.  This policy favors children with educated, English speaking parents who are knowledgeable about the school system and have the time to spend researching and visiting schools.  Fuller explains: "We know that the best shoppers for schools are parents who are better educated or more strongly committed to education, and who watch like hawks over their children's homework and school performance" (2000, p.40).  Schools could work to combat this, and some most likely do: distributing information and working to educate all parents about their school.  However, as discussed earlier, there is no incentive for the schools to do this, in fact there is more disincentive, as schools want to attract more involved parents.  Therefore, without significant information programs, choice options like charter schools will not be equally accessible to all students.

How about charter schools in "low status" areas?

Many of the supporters of charter schools have been these "low status" parents.  Charter schools give these parents, historically left behind by the school system, the opportunity to control their own schools—to start up schools that reflect their own ideals.  So, not only do conservatives in favor of small government and decentralization support school choice, but so do "advocates for poor students and students of color [who] have been able to create schools that speak to some of [their] cultural and social needs" (Wells, p.220).  While this has sometimes been the case, schools in these low status areas created by a community without significant resources are often at a disadvantage to more affluent communities who seek to create charter schools.  Charter schools only receive per-student funds.  They must provide their own building and must figure out how to pay for anything extra—including students with special needs (e.g. ESL or Special Education students), who happen to also be highly concentrated among poor and minority groups.

Wells describes a common conflict that charter schools in "low status" communities face:

This policy framework of greater freedom but fewer resources means that poor communities struggling to make charter school reform work for them must choose between either running under-resourced schools or connecting with private for-profit or nonprofit organizations—called "educational management organizations"—to support them. (Wells at al, p.220)

So charter schools in poor communities are at a disadvantage compared to those in richer communities.  They have a difficult choice to make.  Surrender to private institution or suffer with a lack of important resources?  It is easy to see why many communities would opt for the EMO.  But what happens when a school is taken over by an EMO? 

In What's Public About Charter Schools? Lessons Learned About Choice and Accountability, Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson discuss at length how EMO-run charter schools in Michigan fared.  Their analysis showed that EMOs, while in the most disadvantaged areas, were more likely to service students with comparatively more affluent, educated parents, and higher educational aspirations than the average in the area school district.  In addition, EMO-run charter schools more likely to hire less experienced and less qualified teachers than the non EMO-run charter school.  Of course, they also found that charter schools were more likely to attract more students and teachers with the aforementioned characteristics than their host districts, and in addition tend to have more white students, proportionally, than their host districts (studies performed in other states found this as well.)  Again and again charter schools, to use President Bush's rhetoric, leave children behind.

Who gets left behind?

As we have seen, charter schools, and more generally school choice, is not an equitable program.  The programs of choice service a select group, and in fact leave behind the children suffering the most.  As described earlier, school choice favors "high status" families, as schools will attempt to attract these students.  In addition, even when charter schools are built in low income areas, "they tend to exclude those students who have the least involved parents" (Wells et al, p. 221).  Students with involved parents, parents who have the most resources, the most time to spend helping their children with homework, volunteering at the school, researching which school to choose, these are the students who are served, for the most part, by charter schools.  The students with the biggest need, however, are still being left behind.

So where do we go from here?

Charter schools are a truly diverse group of schools.  There is no possible way to claim that all are bad or all are good.  It is apparent, however, that the system of choice fosters inequity.  So is the answer to get rid of choice all together?  More questions need to be asked and researched in order to answer this question.  Can a system of choice be equitable?  If so how?  Are systems of choice within school districts more equitable than charter schools are?  If more oversight is given to charter schools, can they be more equitable?  Are there ways to foster the advantages of charter schools through the regular school system? In Inside Charter Schools we saw that many changes that come with charter schools could probably be made within the regular public school system.  Could more freedom be given to schools, to allow them to function more independently, but still equitably?  In addition, the premise of this argument is that equity in schools is vital and important.  This has been an often debated topic.  What is true equity?  How can we, or do we need to, work towards it?  Can choice help us meet our goals?

While all these questions must be examined further, it is possible, looking at the information that I have analyzed here, to make policy suggestions.  The ideal of choice programs and charter schools themselves are not the issue.  It seems that if choice programs were made more equitable then they would be okay.  Many charter schools are excellent.  They afford their students amazing opportunities that they could not have had anywhere else.  Unfortunately, as we have seen, charter schools are inherently inequitable.  We need the benefits that the freedom of the charter school allows without the inequity. Therefore, in order to create a truly equitable system, instead of creating more and more charters we need to allow public schools operating within the system the freedom to make the changes that charter schools have made.  Schools run by the district will have more direct regulation, preventing them from the kind of selective admissions that we have seen in charters.  However, they must also be given more freedom to innovate and build unique schools.  I suggest a system like the one that existed in New York City when I attended the public schools there.  Urban areas should push towards a wide variety of small and unique schools within a district or city.  These schools should be given the freedom to innovate, while still being watched closely by the district to make sure that they are making progress and not resorting to inequitable practices.  In many cases, the changes that would need to be made are daunting, but they are possible.  Then, with a large variety of schools, every student must be given the choice of which public school to attend.  However, since every student must make a choice, inequities are lowered.  Elementary schools must aid in the process of picking middle schools, and middle schools aid in the process of picking high schools.  With these kinds of options within a regulatory district, we can have the benefits of choice and charter schools while limiting the negative affects.  This solution is not perfect, and still leaves much room for inequity.  However, it is a significant improvement over the current choice proposals.  With my proposal, we can have choice and smaller more innovative schools without giving up equity.

Fuller, Bruce (ed).  Inside Charter Schools: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization.  Harvard University Press, 2000.

Holme, Jennifer. "Buying Homes, Buying Schools: School Choice and the Social Construction of School Quality." Harvard Educational Review, 2002.

Kahne, Joseph.  Reframing Educational Policy: Democracy, Community, and the Individual. Teachers College Press, 1996.

Miron, Gary and Christopher Nelson. What's Public about Charter Schools? Lessons Learned About Choice and Accountability. Corwin Press, 2002.

Wells, Amy et al.  "Charter School Reform and the Shifting Meaning of Educational Equity: Greater Voice and Greater Inequality?"  In J. Petrovich and A. Wells (eds.) Bringing Equity Back: Research for a New Era in American Educational Policy, Teachers College Press, 2005.

This paper was written for Professor Travers' Education 151:  Educational Policy.  Rebecca Benjamin is a junior Math major and Education minor.  She'd like to teach math in an urban public school or research and advocate in educational policy.

[1] Holme refers to all the parents she talked to as "High Status."  She uses this term to mean affluent and white parents—parents who had the resources to either move or send their children to a private school if they did not like their neighborhood public school.