Backlash: Are These End Times for Charter Schools?

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Melanie Stetson Freeman / Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

First- and second-graders play violas at Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Mass.

Is it the best of times or end times for public charter schools? Four thousand charter-school leaders, teachers, advocates and policymakers will gather in Atlanta this month at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools' annual conference. The gathering of upstarts is larger than what many long-standing traditional-education groups can muster, but in states and cities across the country, charter schools are facing increased political pressure and scrutiny. In Georgia, the state's supreme court just ruled that the arrangements for charter schools are unconstitutional. Welcome to town!

Charter schools, the first of which was created in 1992, are public schools that are open to all students but run independently of local school districts. There are now more than 5,000 of them educating more than a million students. Charter schools range in quality from among the best public schools in the country to among the worst. That variance is proving to be a political Achilles' heel for charter schools, fueling a serious backlash.

In New York City, the NAACP joined the teachers' union in a lawsuit that would have the effect of curbing charter-school growth. That sparked a protest by families in Harlem, and the NAACP was roundly criticized for its stance, which apparently owes more to politics than kids.

In Rhode Island, Cranston Mayor Alan Fung wants to bring the highly successful charter organization Achievement First to his city but has run into a buzz saw of opposition from teachers' unions and officials.

Meanwhile, in Ohio — a state that has had a troubled charter-school sector since legislation enabling it was passed in 1997 — Republicans are trying to weaken oversight and accountability, preferring to leave those issues to the marketplace. It's a surprising strategy, because most analysts agree that shoddy oversight is in large part to blame for the mixed record of charter schools in that state. Many Ohio charter-school advocates are fighting the proposed changes, but they are facing an uphill battle.

Some of this brouhaha is understandable. In many ways, charter schools are the most visible aspect of today's education-reform movement — and have therefore become a convenient target. The call for accountability is still more bark than bite, but when a lot of students in a community choose charter schools, the threat to traditional public schools is real, in funding and often in jobs. That gets attention. It's also hard to find any industry that embraces competition, so some of the debate is the natural byproduct of change in public education. But it has become hard to find a measured conversation about charters — and that's what is worrisome, because the issues are complicated and nuanced.

I've had a front-row seat to the charter movement's growth. I was a founding board member for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and a trustee of a charter school for seven years, and I led a research project into charter-school quality from 2000-05, when quality was still a nascent issue. In 2003 Sara Mead and I convened a national summit on charter-school quality in Charlottesville, Va. As a state board of education member in Virginia, I watched established interests strangle charter schools at every opportunity by seizing on the worst ones as representative of the whole. And my organization, Bellwether Education, counts some charter schools among its clients.

Now, watching the current controversies, two lessons stand out.

First, with 5,000 charter schools ranging from the traditional to ones that are online, the term itself is increasingly meaningless. After all, what does a network of schools like Achievement First really have in common with the mostly low-performing online schools run by White Hat Management in Ohio (the force behind the proposed deregulation there)?

Second, the public can't be expected to parse the distinctions, so the quality issue has more potency than many charter advocates seem to realize. The education marketplace is not an economic one, with the best ideas winning out. Rather, it's a political marketplace, with the loudest or most organized voices usually carrying the day and the most compelling examples winning the public debate. So one spectacular charter screwup counts for more than 100 quiet successes, and the good and great schools can't overcome the headwind created by the laggards.

Most people in the charter movement thought that some of these issues would be more settled by 2011 — especially the importance of opening new schools and giving parents more choices as well as the need to better police quality. That things are instead so unsettled and fragile should occasion at least as much soul searching as celebration.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.

Kim Keehan, general counsel of the NAACP, responds: Andrew J. Rotherham's "Backlash: Are These End Times for Charter Schools?" mischaracterizes the NAACP's position on charter schools.

New York City's co-located schools, where public and charter school students share space, have such blatant disparities in resources that it has become a modern day reincarnation of separate and unequal. In some, traditional public school students have less library time and older textbooks while their charter school peers have laptops, smartboards, and new textbooks. In one school, parents reported that teachers were holding public school classes in the hallways while charter school children undertake their coursework in new classrooms. Understandably parents on both sides are frustrated and angry, this is not the fault of the parents or the students, whether in traditional public schools or charter schools. In the end it is unfair to all students. As MSNBC commentator Karen Finney noted in her column, "we should consider the message it sends to the child who looks down the hall to an educational oasis she can see but not touch. "

The NAACP is working toward a fair resolution for all students.

Two previous lawsuits against the New York Board of Education were won by the NAACP. Consistent with New York law, city schools were required to properly engage and notify parents before closing neighborhood schools and to develop, fund, and implement plans for low-performing schools. The New York Court's order was not followed while disparities continued despite our efforts to work with the board to resolve these issues. As a last resort, the current lawsuit was filed.

The NAACP supports parent choice and all efforts to improve educational opportunity for children. We are not trying to close charter schools. Our goal is that every child will have the opportunity to attend the school of their choice this fall in a manner that is fair and equitable to all students.