Report: Charter Schools Aren't So Exemplary

The charter school model performs no better than that of traditional public schools, according to a recent study released by Stanford University. Nelson Smith, who leads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, responds to the findings and explains why the model's unique structure can make the measurement of its success a tricky one.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to continue our hour-long look at charter schools. It's the launch of our summer education series. Coming up, the moms weigh in on the debate, but first we hear from the man who heads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Mr. Nelson Smith. He's here with me in our Washington studio. Thank you so much for coming.

Mr. NELSON SMITH (President, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: At the beginning of the program, we briefly touched on the Stanford University report on charter schools that was released just yesterday. I want to talk a bit more about it with you. I know you had a chance to review it. The study suggests that nationally, most charter schools are performing no better than traditional public schools, by some measures worse, and that there are widely varying results depending on where you are. What's your first take on this?

Mr. SMITH: Well, variation is something that's very familiar to us. I mean, in a sense, the study doesn't really tell us all that much new. We've always known that there are - there's a great group of charter schools in the middle, who are doing about as well as other public schools, but they're doing it on considerably less money. And they're doing it with a number of other kinds of constraints that other public schools don't face, such as lack of access to facilities and things like that.

There's also a group at the top that are just setting the world on fire. They're doing tremendous work with kids. And our aim there is to try and make sure that we are able to replicate those and do more of those. And then there's a group at the bottom that should go away, and that's part of the charter model. If you don't serve kids well, you should be closed. And so, you know, I think in a sense, it kind of affirms what we've been saying for the last several years, that we have to work harder on all three elements of that model.

MARTIN: And on your organization's Web site, you talk about the fact, which is something we also talked about earlier in the program, that the country now boasts 4,700 schools - charter schools just since 1991. Why is that, in your view? Why is - to what do you attribute this rapid growth, despite the fact that in some parts of the country, there is a lot of institutional resistance, if not hostility, to charter schools?

Mr. SMITH: Well, there's been just huge and growing and continuing demand from parents. In fact, even with that number of schools, we also have about 365,000 parents and families on waiting lists for seats in charter schools, and we can't keep up with that demand fast enough.

I think it's true that in the early years of this movement, the growth has largely been driven by dissatisfaction with existing public school options. You see charters achieving what we call market share, 20 percent or more, in a number of big cities that typically have very under-performing school systems. And so parents see this as a solution, and they've just flocked to charter schools.

We've also made the point, consistently though, that as we look ahead, we have to offer something that's better in the marketplace. We have to give a high-quality option. It's not just going to be parents fleeing dysfunctional public school systems.

MARTIN: Well, and to that point, some of the early data shows that even if the achievement for some of these schools on paper isn't better, parental satisfaction is higher. Is that enough?

Mr. SMITH: Well, that's part of it. I mean, we really do think that academic achievement should be the bottom line. And that's why we're doing a lot of work trying to help parents and others, and policy-makers, too, for that matter, understand what looks like good performance in a charter school.

But it's also true that parents are drawn to them because they are typically smaller than other public schools. They're safer, according to federal data. And what I often hear parents say is that they know my child's name in this school. The principal, the teachers all know my child.

MARTIN: Is that enough?

Mr. SMITH: There's sort of a personal relationship…

MARTIN: Is that enough, though, to justify the expense that we've already heard in some places that - for example, the previous conversation, we talked about the conversion of parochial schools into - charter schools in Washington, D.C. There's been, one could argue, a subsidy, of like $3,000 per student, to what had been paid before for a student.

Mr. SMITH: Well, the fact is that charter schools, on average, bring in about 22 percent less per pupil than other public schools. So the subsidy really works the other way, if you want to look at it in terms of…

MARTIN: And why is that?

Mr. SMITH: Well, charter schools actually, in the writing of the first set of charter laws in the '90s, a lot of funding streams were just simply put off the table. A lot of charters don't get transportation aid, don't get book subsidies from the state, things like that. The biggest single element, though, is a lack of money for facilities.

Charter schools are not part of the traditional system, therefore, they can't participate in the state capital budget, and that creates a huge dent in budgets. So that means that they have to take money out of the classroom and put it into leasing and renovation and things of that sort. There's only 13 states that provide some distinct kind of facilities aid for charter schools.

MARTIN: We told our listeners at the beginning of the program we're going to be talking about education throughout the summer. What are some of the questions you think we should engage as we proceed with these conversations? Are there additional areas in the charter school that we should discuss?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I think one of our big challenges right now - partly because of the great support from President Obama and Secretary Duncan - is how do we find out what's working really well in charter schools, and both replicate those schools that are working well, but also make those innovations available to other public school systems, too? That was one of the reasons that charter schools were created in the first place. And frankly, the systems have been resistant to that kind of exchange. So I think it ought to be a two-way street. We ought to adopt the best practices of traditional districts, and they ought to be able to be more willing to look at what we're doing right in the charter sector.

MARTIN: We've been talking about parents and their experiences with the charter school. So why don't we bring two parents in now? We've been talking with Nelson Smith. He's the President of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Why don't you stay with us, and we can talk with the moms?

Mr. SMITH: I'll be happy to.

MARTIN: Because we say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner.

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