The Education of America: Start a Charter, Get a Check

Wednesday, July 11, 2007 at 08:33 PM

Unless you really follow the field of education religiously, you probably missed last month's proud announcement that the federal Education Department had awarded over a quarter of a billion dollars to ten states to "help create new charter schools and increase the school choices that parents have to provide to their children."

Even in D.C. $284 million is a lot of money. And that's just one Education Department grant under its Public Charter Schools Program. Who knows how much had already been awarded, how much will be awarded in the near future?

For the curious, here are the amounts given to specific states:











Those questions made me curious about what the states can use all that money for. After all, that kind of money could undoubtedly buy a large load of new equipment and pay for a lot of classroom help.

According to the description of the Public Charter Schools Program on the ED web site:


An eligible applicant that receives a grant or subgrant may use the funds only for post-award planning and design of the education program of a charter school. It may carry out such activities as the refinement of the desired education results, the refinement of the methods for measuring progress toward achieving those results, and the initial implementation of the charter school. Implementation may include informing the community about the charter school and acquiring necessary equipment, materials, and supplies. Other eligible operational costs that cannot be met by state and local sources also may be covered. A state may reserve up to 10 percent of its allocation to support eligible charter schools for dissemination activities.

You can use the federal funds to acquire the equipment, materials, supplies, and "other operational costs" that state & local governments cannot meet? And to publicize the school to the community as well? Doesn't that pretty much cover the entire cost of start-up? And if the state is willing to pay the entire start-up cost of a given charter school, exactly where is the risk to the people who start it up?

I don't know if this would cover even the salaries of the principals in the start-up, but it sounds like it might. So if you've got an in with the right state or local official, you can start a charter and get a check, a check potentially large enough that simply starting the school is lucrative. If it fails, who cares? The paying gig was nice while it lasted, and you probably made several good contacts that will come in handy for your future moneymaking endeavors.

This potential misuse seems even more likely to me given the fact that, according to the ED press release announcing the grants:

In awarding grants, the Department must give preference to states that provide chartering agencies that are not a local education agency, such as a state chartering board, that have demonstrated progress in increasing the number of high-quality charter schools that are held accountable for reaching clear and measurable objectives, and that give public charter schools a high degree of autonomy over their budgets and expenditures.
There is also reason to doubt that charter schools, even with several built-in advantages, aren't all that effective. For example, the National Education Association (NEA) web site's discussion of charter schools states that:
Beginning with two charter schools in Minnesota in 1991, there were almost 3,000 charter schools by 2004, operating in 37 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and enrolling approximately 750,000 students. However, more than one-third of those schools had been in operation for three years or less, while more than 400 other charter schools had gone out of business between 1991 and 2004.

...Because charter schools vary as widely as traditional public schools, their academic achievement also varies widely. It is difficult -- not to mention scientifically invalid -- to make blanket comparisons of charter schools to traditional public schools. However, because charter schools promise to improve student achievement as a condition of relief from some of the rules and regulations that apply to traditional public schools, it is appropriate to evaluate their effectiveness.

In 2004, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) released an analysis of charter school performance on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as "The Nation's Report Card." The report found that charter school students, on average, score lower than students in traditional public schools. While there was no measurable difference between charter school students and students in traditional public schools in the same racial/ethnic subgroup, charter school students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored lower than their peers in traditional public schools, and charter school students in central cities scored lower than their peers in math in 4th grade.

...Charter schools that were part of the local school district had significantly higher scores than charter schools that served as their own district.

...Accountability is also lacking in oversight for federal charter school programs. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released in January 2005, the U.S. Department of Education has little data to ensure that charter schools receive the federal funds that have been allocated to them in a timely manner, or to evaluate the performance of those schools. GAO recommended that the U.S. Department of Education collect basic data from recipients of federal charter school funds, such as the number of charter schools actually opened with program funds. GAO also advised that the Department include a look at the effect of states' oversight approaches in its evaluation of charter schools.

Keep in mind that charter schools, depending on the enabling laws enacted by the state, may well be exempt from salary and general labor rules applicable to public school districts, and by definition aren't subject to a lot of educational & curriculum requirements that apply to public schools. And a large majority of states now have laws allowing charter schools--I think more than 40.

This all seems like an awful lot of money being handed out--probably to people I wouldn't trust--under rules that I don't trust, to accomplish purposes of which I remain skeptical. Am I being overly paranoid, or is the entire field of charter schools just waiting for a major scandal or twelve?


I can understand your skepticism. According to your reading, the government is paying people to create schools. So what if it fails?

Let me add to that. In all of the states I'm familiar with (which is quite a few), you don't even have to first establish there is a demand for the school. If you follow the rules, you get your school. And the checks start flowing.

But I can assure you, no one in their right mind would do this as a way of making an easy buck. Starting a charter school is a brutally difficult task. You say all you need is an "in" with a state or local official. I don't know any state that has chartering decisions issued by one person. Most of the time you've got to go through an incredibly intense process -- often facing open hostility from the local school district (you're stealing "their" students), and occasionally from the unions.

I'm a charter school founder. Because of the difficulty of the process, I actually went broke opening a charter school. This was compounded by the fact that once open, I served on its governing council. Guess what? In my state you have to make a choice. You can either run the school as a volunteer, or get a salary. You can't do both.

So, why did I start a charter school? I live in a remote mountain community. The high school kids in my community rode the bus every day at least 90 miles on a roundtrip through a dangerous canyon. The year before we applied for a charter, a student from my town was killed while carpooling to the school. But because the school was the center of the economy of its host town, there was no support for putting a high school on our side of the canyon. The only answer was a charter school.

So, my wife and I had a choice. We could start a charter school (a brand new option in 1990), or we could move. We decided to start a charter school. With about a dozen others, we eventually overcame the objections of the local school board and opened a charter school.

We decided to open a great school. We succeeded. The high school we opened, Moreno Valley High School in Angel Fire, New Mexico, is the top-ranked New Mexico school on Newsweek's list of the Best High Schools in the U.S. No other high school in New Mexico is in Newsweek's top 250.

It is a great high school because it is a charter school. In our charter -- our contract with the district -- we said we would create a great school. We put our name to that promise.

You say charter schools are due for a scandal or twelve. I can point you to two dozen scandals, and that's off the top of my head. In each case, however, something radical was done. Most often that included shutting down the school.

But here is the difference. I can name for you hundreds of scandals that have affected traditional public schools. I can point you to entire districts in this nation where the graduation rate is 40 percent or less.

What happens at these traditional public schools? Not much. Mostly they just keep on keeping on.

Charter schools sign a contract. They say what they're going to do, and how they're going to do it. If they don't do it, they're shut down. See the difference?

Charter schools are also market driven. If there's no market for their product -- if parents and students don't want to attend a given charter school -- they don't have to! Parents and students are free to choose. What is it you don't like about that?

Two more quick points: you cite old, long-rejected evidence produced by NEA to suggest charter schools aren't outperforming traditional public schools. Do a Google search. Note too that the report was created by the NEA, the single most destructive force in American education. Of course they don't like charter schools. At charter schools the teachers (very few of which are unionized) are held accountable for their performance. That fact alone has led many great teachers to abandon the old system, where excellence is immaterial, for charter schools.

Should I repeat myself? Charter schools must live up to their contractual agreement, or they are shut down!

And yes, you can pay a principal out of federal funding. You can pay him or her for three months of work prior to the opening of the school. On average, that moment occurs after about 18 months of intense labor. If you want to work for 21 months and get three months pay, help yourself. Hell, I worked 21 months and got nothing for it, except a great school for my daughter.

I am glad you were able to start a school that serves your community's purpose, but I strongly suspect that your situation (remote area, extensive travel required to reach traditional school, etc) is not at all typical for charter school founders.

My post was not intended to be a condemnation of every single charter school ever created; it was prompted by the large amounts of money flowing in to the field from fed tax dollars, along with a suspicion that the charter movement (for lack of a better word) is often motivated by a hostility to the very idea of public schools.

In any case, as to your specific comments:

"Charter schools sign a contract. They say what they're going to do, and how they're going to do it. If they don't do it, they're shut down."

That's a good theory, but it doesn't seem to work like that in practice. The 2004 report to the Education Department on charter schools (linked far below; sorry but comments can have only a limited number of links) specifically notes that:

Charter schools rarely face formal sanctions (revocation or nonrenewal). Furthermore, authorizing bodies impose sanctions on charter schools because of problems related to compliance with regulations and school finances rather than student performance. Authorizers have difficulty closing schools that are having problems.

Other sources have found the same thing.

You also say that "Charter schools are also market driven. If there's no market for their product -- if parents and students don't want to attend a given charter school -- they don't have to! Parents and students are free to choose. What is it you don't like about that?"

It isn't that which bothers me, except to the extent that I view it as part of an attack on the concept of public schools. I am, however, concerned that many parents will choose to send their kids to charter schools based on misinformation and a skewed idea of how good they are.

Finally, you say "Two more quick points: you cite old, long-rejected evidence produced by NEA to suggest charter schools aren't outperforming traditional public schools. Do a Google search."

If you have what you think is good evidence of charter school superiority, or performance generally, cite it--why ask me to do a Google search to see if I can find what you already know?

In any case, I had done several Google searches before writing & posting my piece. I did not rely on just the NEA research (though I don't find that group as useless as you do). The following is a sampling of material on the general question of charter school effectiveness and characteristics:

1. From the introduction to The Charter School Dust-Up, Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement, by Martin Carnoy, Rebecca Jacobsen, Lawrence Mishel, and Richard Rothstein (Economic Policy Institute, 2005):

Our aim in this book is to synthesize as comprehensively as possible all available evidence on the average effectiveness of charter schools relative to regular public schools. We conclude in Chapter 5 that, based on 19 studies, conducted in 11 states and the District of Columbia, there is no evidence that, on average, charter schools out-perform regular public schools. In fact, there is evidence that the average impact of charter schools is negative. This evidence of a negative effect comes particularly from those studies that use the strongest methodologies to discover causal effects, although the evidence of a negative effect is somewhat localized to specific states.


We speculate that, while deregulation helps some educators devise good schools, it also enables others to devise bad and even corruptly managed schools. For example, while some charter schools can use freedom from normal certification requirements to hire unusually talented and dedicated teachers, other charter schools use this freedom to hire teachers who may be less qualified than teachers in regular public schools. We conclude that the evidence about average charter school performance is consistent with this wide range in the effects of deregulation. That charter schools are not substantially more effective, on average, than other public schools calls into question the view that bureaucracy and union contracts are major impediments to school improvement. It seems, based on the evidence, that deregulation and deunionization do not yield any bonanzas of learning, on average. If bonanzas are realized in some places, they are apparently offset by catastrophes in others.


A second argument is that charter schools are more accountable than regular public schools for their outcomes. This theory takes two forms. Some advocates of charter schools argue that, unlike regular public schools, charter schools will be closed by public authorities if their academic performance is inadequate. We show that evidence about actual charter school accountability processes does not support this assertion. Other advocates of charter schools argue that parental choice (the freedom of parents to choose better charter schools and to remove their children from low-performing ones) provides strong accountability. We suggest that to the extent charter schools rely on this mechanism of accountability, it should not be surprising that their average academic performance does not surpass that of regular public schools, for two reasons. First, parents may choose charter schools for other than academic reasons. Second, given how complex it is to assess academic performance (leading even experts to dispute the effectiveness of charter schools so vigorously), it is not surprising that parents would not always be able to discern a charter school that was more academically effective.


The co-authors of this book are not opponents, zealous or otherwise, of charter schools; among ourselves, we have a variety of ways in which we balance the costs and benefits of charter schools. The message of this book is not that charter schools have "failed," but only that there is no reason to be surprised that their average performance apparently falls below that of regular public schools. We believe that a more reasoned discussion of education policy can proceed from this recognition.

2. The Executive Summary of the 2006 report California's Charter Schools: How Are They Performing? finds a mixed bag. Charters slightly outperformed noncharters at some grade levels, but were slightly outperformed by noncharters at other grade levels. That report also notes that "Comparing performance by charter type shows that those most like mainstream public schools performed best: higher percentages of conversions met their growth targets compared to startups and classroom-based charters were more likely to meet their targets than those not classroom-based."

3. According to a Rand Corporation monograph titled Charter School Operations and Performance, Evidence from California:

We compared the year-to-year changes in API for charter and conventional public schools while accounting for changes in the characteristics of students attending each school. We found no statistically significant difference in test scores between charter and conventional public schools. However, the aggregation of a composite score at the school level masks variations in important characteristics within schools and distorts linkages between student characteristics and student outcomes.

To estimate the charter school effect more precisely (i.e., to provide more precise controls for the variation of student characteristics within a school), we used student-level data provided by the state of California for all students attending both conventional and charter schools for 199798 through 200102. The data include a student's math and reading test scores, ethnicity, English Learner status, eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches, and parental education.

The data link a student's test score with demographic information and allow a more precise assessment of how these factors affect school-level outcomes. The individual-level data, however, do not provide a student-level identifier to track year-to-year changes in a student's test scores, which reduces the ability to control for unobservable differences among individual students.

Using these data, our analysis suggests that charter schools generally have comparable or slightly lower test scores than do conventional public schools. Achievement, however, varies by type of charter school. Conversion schools that deliver their instruction in classrooms had mixed results, with some scoring the same, higher, or lower than conventional public schools. Start-up schools using classroom instruction had slightly higher test scores in everything but elementary math, where the scores are slightly lower. Conversion or start-up schools that deliver at least a portion of their instruction outside the classroom, also referred to as nonclassroombased schools, had lower test scores across the board. However, it should be noted that students in nonclassroom-based schools may differ in unique ways from students in conventional public schools that are not captured by our control variables. For instance, if students in nonclassroom-based schools have been pulled out of conventional public schools because of problems they have in traditional settings, then conventional public school students who do not have these problems do not make a good comparison group.

Although the above analysis has the advantage of providing more precise controls for student characteristics, it does not allow for an examination of individual gains, nor does it provide the ability to track students as they move from conventional public schools to charter schools and vice versa. Our third approach examined achievement effects by analyzing longitudinally linked student-level data collected at the district level. By tracking students over time, the analysis adjusts for unmeasured student factors that may affect student performance. This analysis assessed the performance of charter students relative to that of conventional public school students. Because we had limited time and budget and because charter schools are spread over hundreds of school districts across the state, we collected data from six districts (Chula Vista Elementary, Fresno Unified, Los Angeles Unified, Napa Valley Unified, San Diego City Unified, and West Covina Unified)2 with a prominent share of charter students. The data were pooled across these districts to perform our analysis.

As with the first and second approaches, the third controls for student characteristics. However, unlike the first two approaches, the third approach has a mechanism to control for unmeasured student factors that affect student performance. Thus, it provides the best estimate of a collective charter school effect. Our analysis does not allow an examination of the different types of charter schools in each district because not every district has each type of charter school.

Charter school students tended to do slightly worse than comparable students in math in both elementary and secondary conventional public schools. In reading, secondary charter school students scored slightly higher than comparable students in conventional public schools, and charter status had no statistically significant effect on elementary reading scores. Even the statistically significant difference in achievement by charter status was less than 1 percentile point, however, so the main finding of the analysis is that charters are keeping pace with conventional public schools.

Summarizing across the three methods, we generally found comparable scores for charter schools relative to conventional schools. Only when charter schools were broken down by charter type did significant differences appear. Most strikingly, we found that nonclassroom based charter schools performed significantly lower than conventional public schools, and classroom-based conversion schools and start-up schools performed slightly higher than conventional public schools in elementary reading, and start-up schools performed better than conventional public schools in secondary reading and math. Again, we highlight that our analysis may not capture the uniqueness of these students and may bias our results.

The study did report that charter schools generally operate with less revenue per pupil than traditional scores, so that achieving similar results may mean that the charters are, overall, more efficient. It alsoo may not mean that; there are several advantages of charter schools which may explain that, not the least of which is their relatively small size.

Also from the same source:

Our analysis of chartering authority surveys shows that of the three types of chartering authorities (school districts, county boards of education, and state board of education) most charter schools are authorized by school districts, and most districts have authorized only one school. However, to be chartered, schools must first submit petitions to chartering authorities. Of the petitions submitted, few are formally denied, and once authorized, only a handful of charters have been revoked or schools closed.

4. From the report Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program: Final Report, which was prepared in 2004 for the U.S. Department of Education:

PCSP money [the fed money] is the most prevalent source of start-up funding available to charter schools. Nearly two-thirds have received federal PCSP funds during their start-up phase. Charter schools primarily use PCSP funds to purchase technology and curricular and instructional materials, as well as to fund professional development activities.

Charter schools are more likely to serve minority and low-income students than traditional public schools but less likely to serve students in special education.

Charter schools, by design, have greater autonomy over their curriculums, budgets, educational philosophies, and teaching staff than do traditional public schools. Because some state charter school laws allow schools flexibility in hiring practices, charter schools as an overall group are less likely than traditional public schools to employ teachers meeting state certification standards.

In five case study states, charter schools are less likely to meet state performance standards than traditional public schools. It is impossible to know from this study whether that is because of the performance of the schools, the prior achievement of the students, or some other factor. The study design does not allow us to determine whether or not traditional public schools are more effective than charter schools.

Charter schools rarely face formal sanctions (revocation or nonrenewal). Furthermore, authorizing bodies impose sanctions on charter schools because of problems related to compliance with regulations and school finances rather than student performance. Authorizers have difficulty closing schools that are having problems.

During the time period examined by this study, little difference exists between the accountability requirements for charter schools and traditional public schools.

5. A newspaper report dated this week reviews the evidence as to the state of Indiana and is titled "Charter school progress unclear."

That article demonstrates that charter proponents, generally those involved in schools of that type, find reason for optimism, while outside citics, many obviously associated with traditional schools, find...less optimism.

Finally, I remain concerned that fly-by-night types with good political contacts could, and I emphasize could, use the practically automatic funding of charter schools as a way to bilk th system for considerable dollars. While the start-up process was torture for you, it may not be torture for the kind of slick operator I have in mind. Imagine for a moment starting a charter or two, and using the start-up funds to pay inflated salaries and/or to purchase plant & equipment at inflated prices from entities owned or controlled by a charter founder.

I'm not against innovation. I'm against willy nilly plunges into uncharted waters, using fed tax dollars as a life raft, with too little oversight and too much temptation to abandon the concept of public schools that serve everyone.

Thanks for the thoughtful response. A few quick points:

Charter schools are public schools. They are open to everyone. No charter school can have a test for entry or standards that are over and above those of traditional public schools. That's why charter school demographics are almost exactly those of neighboring schools -- racially and economically.

They are not an attack on public schools. They are an attempt to provide an improved model. Charter schools are public schools with specific goals. They must meet those, or suffer the consequences.

Are they shut down? In New Mexico four have been closed for incompetence. That's seven percent of the charter schools. Is that enough? I frankly don't know. But I do know how that compares with the record for shutting down traditional public schools. There are more than 500 of those. None has ever been shut down for failing their kids, though many do.

Charter schools are also part of a larger effort to provide parents with more choice. The traditional public education system is perhaps the largest remaining monopoly in the United States. When my daughter was about to enter the first grade, we called the school adjacent to our backyard, asking for a tour. They said we couldn't take a tour, and further, that we shouldn't assume our daughter would attend school there. Indeed, there was a 75% chance she would be bused each day to a different school.

Most charter schools aren't created to fill a niche like our school in Angel Fire. As you note, we put a school in a remote community to serve the kids who live there. Most charter schools are created where there are existing public schools. But instead of more cookie-cutter schools, there are core knowledge schools, performing arts charter schools, math and science schools, etc. They are created for those parents and students who believe they can be better served by finding an academic program that best suits their interests and capabilities.

The traditional public system is the perfect example of one size fits all: we're going to give you one school, and it's up to you to fit in. If you don't fit in, it's your fault.

Are charter schools an attack on the system? No, but they are specifically intended to be competition. They are supposed to push their brethren to better succeed. They're still new, but they're doing just that.

One more point: I have met a great many people who believe the system is more important than the children in it. You might do well to think about your own view on that issue.

Let me give you an example: school choice has been called the last great civil rights effort in the U.S. I absolutely concur. The most vociferous advocates of charter schools are the African-American and Latino parents who cannot afford a private school, and are thus at the mercy of the traditional public school district.

What choice does a poor single Black mom in Washington, DC have? She knows the sons and daughters of the political elite are all in private schools, while her children attend one of the district's failing public schools. She has no choice. The law says she must send her children to school. Because she has no money -- no means of escape -- they must go to the failing school designated by the district. Because she works, homeschooling is out. She also surely knows that most of the teachers at her children's school also send their own kids to private school.

With two dozen or so charter schools now open in DC, she has a choice. She can choose for her children a charter school. No tuition. No fees. But perhaps an academic program that will work better for her kids. At least she isn't powerless to influence this most important aspect of her children's upbringing. That's why there are tens of thousands of kids across America on the waiting lists for charter schools.

I trust this mom to make the right choice. Do you? Or do you believe the district's "experts" know better what's right for her kids?

Is there the possibility of abuse? You betcha. I've seen it happen. But it's no more common than in traditional public schools. Because they're run by human beings, charter schools are subject to the same issues that affect all human institutions. But I like charter schools because they have a very small, very specific constituency -- the parents and the students. That's not a new idea -- it's an old one. And it's clear from the popularity of charter schools that it's an idea whose time has come -- again.

Thanks again for this lively forum.

The right-wing, anti-public school, anti-union, anti-diversity, anti-multicultural crowd used the 1984 education potboiler, A Nation At Risk, as a wedge to begin to pry resources out of the public schools, anticipating Norquist's plan to shrink the Govt to the size you could drown it in a bathtub, perhaps. They were abetted by a US Department of Education which Raygun had already said he wanted to abolish. Charter schools advocates such asa Bill Bennet and Chucker Finn, playing on the rhetoric of choice (a trump to fairness and equality) were envisioned and created as the receptacles for the immediately forthcoming gushers of federal cash, and were and are used overwhelmingly to perpetuate situations of class advantage subsidized by public taxes.
Oh, and yeah: Angel Fire?
It's the ultimate white-flight suburb of Dallas.

Sorry, but I don't know quite how to respond. This isn't a reasoned argument but an angry screed. You're repeating the argument that long ago caused me to begin reconsidering my own liberal leanings. The argument goes like this: If you disagree with me, you aren't just wrong. You're evil. Case closed.

You've explained Angel Fire, at least to your satisfaction. Now explain Espanola, where the flight of children from the traditional public schools is overwhelming the capacity of the charter schools to take them in -- and where the population is 95 percent impoverished Hispanics. You say charter schools overwhelmingly perpetuate situations of class advantage subsidized by public taxes. Please cite evidence, because everything I've read indicates the opposite -- that charter school demographics are virtually indistinguishable from traditional public schools. The charge of cherry picking by charter schools has been repeatedly made -- but no one has come up with any proof because it isn't true. In New Mexico most of the charter school students are Hispanic or Native American. A huge percentage are from impoverished communities.

In fact I very often see traditional public schools "recommending" to their more difficult students that they might find a local charter school a better fit. And very often the troubled students take that advice. Good for them. Maybe the charter school is a better fit.

Most importantly, I notice that you fail to address the most important question: why should parents be denied the choice of school their children will attend, and the type of educational program they will participate in?

I'll give you another specific example: the pueblos of New Mexico -- the reservations of the numerous individual tribes -- are enthusiastically creating their own charter schools. Please explain why these parents should not be allowed to do so.