The Charter School Question

You’ve probably seen the ads on TV already—the one with the kids’ faces and the big depressing stats about education in Kentucky. The advertisement is sponsored by Kentuckians Advocating Reform in Education (KARE), the chairman of which is Hal Heiner. Remember that guy? He ran for mayor against Greg Fischer in 2010. And now he’s back on the stump, only this time it’s not for city hall, it’s for charter schools.

So what exactly is a charter school? Well, there are a lot of permutations, but at its core, a charter school is a school with open enrollment, that is allowed to operate outside of many state and federal education regulations and guidelines. Ideally there is no screening process for entry, as opposed to the magnet school program. “If there’s a slot available in the school—they [the students] are in,” said Heiner.

And how is it paid for? Once a student becomes enrolled in a charter school, a percentage of the funds (65% in Indiana) that would have been spent on that child in a traditional public school is diverted to the charter school. Private benefactors provide additional funding.

Kentucky is one of 8 states in which charter schools are not legal. But advocates like Heiner say that making charter schools an option for Kentucky’s kids will create alternative choices for students who are now locked into low-performing traditional public schools. Heiner cites programs like Indiana’s, which has produced a charter school called Tindley. Tindley School opened in 2004 in an Indianapolis neighborhood where the average graduation rate was 24 percent. Heiner says that today the students at Tindley have “a nearly 100 percent success rate of kids going on to college and graduation.”

Heiner says the differences in education at Tindley include longer school days with remedial attention and medical attention for kids who are missing it. Most importantly, Tindley is changing the context for the students by creating an intense focus on success, especially on going to college. In fact, according to Heiner, one of Tindley’s mottos is “college or die.” Just imagine 500 kids chanting that at your high school assembly.

But opponents of charter schools aren’t so convinced by Tindley’s success. Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) argues that there exists “considerable evidence” that students in charter schools perform no better, and often worse than those in traditional public schools.

McKim also worries about funding being diverted from traditional public schools at a time when some public schools “cannot even afford text books.” Transparency is another an issue for the JCTA president. Since charter schools can operate outside of some state and federal regulations, there is an increased risk of scandal without some of the oversights that these regulations provide, McKim says.

McKim also says that while charter schools say they take everyone, regardless of past achievement, “cherry picking” does occur. Charter schools may discourage the enrollment of children with disabilities by asking parents of students with disabilities to sign a waiver stating that the school is not equipped to provide special services for their child. These parents will, of course, choose not to send their child to the charter school. McKim also argues that further filtration of students happens when charter school administrations decide that based on a certain student’s performance, the school “is just not working out for him or her.” These kids can potentially be forced out.

McKim cited several more issues, including a high concentration in charter schools of minority students, potentially creating a culture that looks a lot like segregation. He also is wary of for-profit charter schools run by corporate interests. But most importantly, according to McKim, a history of success is just not there.

As much as it hurts my lefty, public education-loving soul to say it, charter schools really do sound like they should work. In theory, putting schools in competition for students (and funds) seems like it should raise the bar on education and allow more choices for kids stuck in low-performing schools. But the stats show it’s a lot more complicated than that.