By Kara Kerwin
Americans are fans of fantasy and myth — the resounding success of franchises like Twilight and Harry Potter offer strong evidence to support this claim. But when it comes to our education system, Americans must learn to distinguish fact from fiction.
This is especially true of our nation’s charter schools. Despite the fact that more than 2.5 million children are served by more than 6,500 charter schools across the country, the majority of Americans have been swayed by tall tales and misinformation about the role of charter schools in our public education system.
One of the most common misconceptions is that charter schools are privately funded institutions. A recent survey from the Center for Education Reform (CER) found that only 20 percent of Americans correctly identified charter schools as public schools. Charter schools are, in fact, independent public schools that are held accountable for student results.
Another myth asserts that charter schools take money and resources away from the public school system. This could not be further from the truth. Like district public schools, they are funded according to enrollment and receive funding from the district and the state according to the number of students attending. In fact, charter schools actually do more with less, receiving 36 percent less revenue, on average, than traditional public schools.
When a student’s family relocates and moves from one public school system to another, the public school system itself does not lose any money. The same can be said of a student moving from a conventional public school to a charter school. When a child leaves for a charter school, the money follows that child. This benefits the public school system by instilling a sense of accountability into the system regarding its services to the student and parents and its fiscal obligations.
Additionally, research shows that charter schools have a positive impact, or “ripple effect,” on neighboring public schools. A Harvard University study found that in Arizona, public schools neighboring charter schools scored increases in math achievement of more than three times that of schools with no charter schools in their communities. As the focus continues to shift from the needs of the system to the needs of children and parents, our children are better served.
Critics are quick to claim that because charter schools operate independently, they have lower teaching standards and less accountability than conventional public schools. This is pure fantasy. Charter schools design and deliver programs tailored to educational excellence and community needs. Because they are schools of choice, charter schools are held to the highest level of accountability — consumer demand. If they fail to deliver, they are closed.
Another common myth is that charter schools “cream” more advantaged students from traditional public schools. The reality, however, is that a majority of charter school students are non-white, or minority students. Only 45 percent of charter students are white, while 52.5 percent of public school students are white. Additionally, 61 percent of charter schools serve a student population where more than 60 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Seventy-three percent of Americans support the concept of charter schools. The short story is that charter schools work, and are an asset to a public education system that is slow to embrace innovation despite an ever-changing and increasingly global world. As the nation marks the achievements of the charter school movement during National Charter Schools Week, it is important for parents, teachers, students and all of those involved with charter schools to share their successes so all Americans can learn more about institutions committed to accountability and choice in education, and for lawmakers to take note so they can improve charter school laws, and, in turn, improve public education, in their state.
Kara Kerwin is president of The Center for Education Reform, a K-12 education policy and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
Posted May 8, 2014