What Should Parents Know About Charter Schools?

Paul Hill, a professor at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, talks about the benefits and potential drawbacks of charter schools.

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TONY COX, host:

The success KIPP has had in increasing student performance may have many parents rushing to sign their kids up for some of the programs. But what else should they know before deciding if charter schools are right for their children?

To find out the pros and cons of charter schools I talked to Paul Hill, a professor at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. I asked Professor Hill how many American kids attend charter schools and how many of those are African-American.

Professor PAUL HILL: (Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, University of Washington): There are about 3,400 charter schools that are serving about a million students, and the proportion of African-American students attending charter schools are a little higher than the proportion of African-American students nationwide, something around 30 percent. But in the big cities charter schools disproportionately serve African-Americans and Hispanics and low-income students.

COX: Now there have been a lot of studies of charter schools and there has obviously been some controversy over whether or not they are successful. But there appear to be about five areas that they are graded upon, and I'd like for you to talk about those briefly.

First, we have variety. We have autonomy. They're innovative. But accountability and achievement, these are the two targets of critics of charter schools - that there's insufficient accountability and achievement that is not necessarily indicative of them being better than public schools. Can you speak to those two?

Prof. HILL: Sure. First on accountability, the whole idea of a charter is that it has an agreement with the local public school district or some other agency that can operate in a different way, creating an option for students who've been in public schools as long as it performs.

And that's been difficult in part because a lot of school districts didn't really want a charter school and didn't want to pay attention to them. So in a lot a cases there have been charter schools that were started and didn't work out very well, but nobody closed them.

And that's a concern for critics of charter schools but also for people who believe they're a good option - that everybody thinks that charter schools need to be held accountable for performance.

COX: And what about achievement?

Prof. HILL: There's a lot of dispute about the national picture on charter school achievement. And nationwide it's hard to see that charter schools on the average do a lot better or a lot worse than public schools, but the national figures hide a lot important local variation.

If you're a parent in a school in an inner city, charter schools can be a very important option. And in fact the performance of charter schools dealing with the most disadvantaged students is good, somewhat better than public schools in their areas.

But charter schools in other places do very many different things. In Colorado, charter schools are generally for the advantaged in the suburbs. In other states, charter schools are very under-funded and they don't get going very well. So the real question for a parent is not about charter schools nationwide but charter schools where I am.

COX: That raises a question in my mind with regard to who is affected most by this. Because you talked about the situation in Colorado and the fact that it's a suburban phenomenon. But generally speaking, the case is, isn't it, that most charter schools are located in areas that are serving lower income children of color?

Prof. HILL: Yes, a majority are. And especially in the urban states in California, in Michigan, Texas, New York, charter schools are disproportionately serving the poor. And what they're trying to do is to create options for students who've been in public schools and haven't done well.

And that's what they are actually offering is new alternatives. And I can't tell you that they work every time. If I were a parent I'd want to look closely at the school that I am considering. But charter schools that can tell parents what they intend to do, can show they've worked with other children, have really good plans for helping kids who have different levels of achievement come up at the same time and learn well, those are promising.

And what's happening nationwide is that more and more low-income and minority parents are getting an option to charter schools and thinking about them. And generally parents in big cities, where they have bad options in the public school system, can find something good in charter schools.

COX: What about the cost? Because the taxpayers are footing the bill for charter schools even though they are autonomous in some senses from the public school system, and yet the bill is being paid by people who may or may not have enough say over how these schools are run.

Prof. HILL: Well, charter schools are public schools, and the money that the states provide to educate children go to the charter schools of children transferred there. Basically, there is money that used to be in the hands of the public school system that now goes to charter schools. But it's not more money, it's the same, and in some cases actually less.

So it isn't that the public is paying more for charter schools. In fact, sometimes they're paying less. But it is true that public school districts have less money to spend if children go to charter schools.

COX: Final thing: What is the impact of charter schools on those other public schools that children of color and others who are low income are left to attend?

Prof. HILL: We just put out a study called No Longer the Only Game in Town showing that school districts that have a lot of children moving to charter schools do have a financial problem initially when they have children leave, but that it's up to them to cope with them.

And what districts can do, first of all, is to make their own schools more attractive so they lose fewer students to charter schools. But secondly to find ways to cut fixed costs, to eliminate schools that need to be closed, to cut transportation costs. And in cities that don't just complain about charter schools and say they're killing us, we have to stop them, but instead what the districts say, we can do something about this, let's compete with them, the students and parents benefit.

COX: Paul Hill is a research professor in the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. He also directs the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Prof. Hill, thank you very much.

Prof. HILL: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Coming up, the war on the war on terror. The president says he's ready to fight back after a Senate committee approves its own version of an anti-terrorism bill. We'll discuss this and other topics on our Roundtable next.

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