On the Development of Charter Schools: Changing the Paradigm and the Purpose of Schooling?

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While Kahlenberg and Potter argue in their book, A Smarter Charter, that public charter schools should be aligned with the foundational promise of public schooling to promote a common American identity, social mobility and social cohesion, they also underscore that charter schools were, in fact, conceptualized by Albert Shanker to depart from the paradigm of traditional public schools. Although both types of institutions are considered to be “public” for receiving public funds, several factors complicate the comparison between public charter schools and traditional public schools. As frequently noted, choosing to apply to and to attend a charter school implies different levels of student and parental motivation (61). Studies with rigorous research designs that examine charter school outcomes often control for this selection bias (e.g., Bifulco et al., 2009). Yet, what many studies fail to account for are differences in missions. Charter schools were intended to be “educational laboratories” that allow for teacher innovation and experimentation (1). To ensure this flexibility, charter missions outline different goals than traditional public schools (e.g., close the achievement gap or target certain demographics rather than promote social cohesion) (51, 56). Therefore, perhaps it is unfair to use the same original intent of education in the U.S. to evaluate the school demographics of both public charter schools and traditional public schools.

One of the most controversial departures from both Shanker’s original vision of charter schools and the mission of schooling in the U.S. is the often racially, ethnically and/or socioeconomically hyper-segregated student bodies of public charters. While for many this structure appears to be a regression towards the unconstitutional “separate but equal” policy, there is a pivotal difference: parental and student choice. Families actively choose to be part of a charter school. Still, choice is often constrained by housing, neighborhood opportunity, income, etc.

 Kahlenberg and Potter provide a persuasive parental anecdote and several empirically backed arguments outlining why integration is unequivocally beneficial to student outcomes. Some of the highlighted reasons include that racial and socioeconomic integration increases academic achievement, it facilitates interaction and collaboration with diverse groups, and it influences positive behaviors. Thus, the question becomes, why don’t public charter schools prioritize integration? Several reasons are provided that illustrate the forces of economics and location in the design of charter schools. Firstly, educating high concentrations of at-risk students is considered to be economically efficient (47). Secondly, the location of many charter schools either in inner cities or in suburbs attracts either predominantly low-income minority families or affluent White families. The solutions offered include strategically changing the location of public charters or developing charters like inter-district magnet schools by abolishing the constraint of attendance zones and municipal boundaries (48-49). In either case, to truly ensure integration, charter schools should make this goal explicit by writing it into charters in order to be held accountable to it. Otherwise, expecting that charter schools will follow in the public school tradition of seeking to promote diversity and social cohesion will remain an unproductive way to evaluate charter schools.

Questions to authors:

1) In your research process, did you come across parent anecdotes indicating a preference for charter schools due to their high concentrations of a particular racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group? If so, why did you decide not to include them in your book?

2) Do you think that charter schools have alternative definitions of concepts such as “social mobility” and “diversity” than how they are operationally defined in your book? For example, could closing the achievement gap for some be seen as an instrumental way to attain social mobility?

3) At the end of chapter 4, you make a persuasive and substantiated argument that the success of the KIPP model shows that it is not that “poverty doesn’t matter” but rather that peer influence, resources and dedicated teachers can be the catalyst in education. In what ways do you think charter schools such as KIPP that mainly serve low-income minority students could emphasize this message as opposed to the often polarizing and discipline-associated “no excuses” message? Is this a marketing/branding issue or a school culture issue? Additionally, how can success stories like those of KIPP be prevented from fueling arguments in favor of segregation in education?