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Nelson Smith is president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Charter schools have been around since 1992, but this is a breakthrough year.

They’ve attracted fans from John Legend to Newt Gingrich;  they’ve become a cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative and they’ve even made it into pop culture, with charters featured on “Law and Order,”  “60 Minutes,” the Showtime series “Weeds,’’ and three major documentaries, along with the novels of  George Pelecanos.

Although general understanding of charters remains fuzzy – only about 40 percent of voters know that charters are actually “public schools” – policymakers in both parties are seeing them as an agent for broader reform of the U.S. education system.  States can gain a chunk of Race to the Top points for lifting “caps” that limit charter growth; providing facilities for them; and assuring sound oversight. Yet, with the Round Two application deadline looming, there’s pushback from school boards, unions and reporters at every stop along education historian Diane Ravitch’s book tour.

This might be a good time to confront some of the misinformation clouding the debate, and to provide some perspective on why charters have assumed so major a role in our education reform discourse.

ARE CHARTERS TOO SMALL TO MATTER?

Charters account for less than three percent of the student population nationwide. But they’re a significant part of the public-education delivery system in a growing number of cities, educating 57 percent of students in New Orleans, 38 percent in D.C., and 32 percent in Detroit.  In 14 major cities, charter school students account for more than 20 percent of public school enrollment; in 72 communities they’re more than 10 percent.

But charters are having an impact way beyond their direct customers. School chiefs like New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Washington D.C.’s Michelle Rhee say the best charters are proof that schools in the toughest neighborhoods can produce high achieving students and great results.

Charters are also spinning off innovations like Hunter College’s “Teacher U” program, a teacher-prep initiative fashioned around the demanding standards of three high-performing charter networks (Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, and KIPP).  And charter entrepreneurs are mixing teaching and technology in new ways that serve student learning needs while restraining system costs.

ISN’T THE PERFORMANCE OF CHARTERS UNEVEN?

Well, sure. We’ve never claimed that every charter school will be superior to every other public school. Of our 5,000 current charters, about 700 are in their first two years of operation and still getting their sea legs. Many others cater specifically to dropouts and kids with behavioral problems. Others enroll students who enter two or three years below grade-level. So any snapshot of test scores will always look “mixed.”

But a review of more than 140 studies shows that charter students do better the longer they stay and that charters help close the achievement gap.

The Rand Corp finds that in Chicago and Florida, charter students have a significantly better chance of finishing high school in four years and going to college. And according to a review of the best designed charter schools, charter schools produce positive effects far outpacing other interventions such as class-size reduction.

Yet these positive achievements are often obscured by a single 2009 report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University,  in a study that provides critics a dismal shorthand about charter performance. This study shows that only 17 percent of charter students perform better on state tests than non-charter public schools; while 46 percent do about the same and 37 percent do worse.

Readers can find an exhaustive deconstruction of the study here.

In my opinion, the study’s most troubling flaw is one acknowledged right in the report: “More than half of the records in this analysis capture the first year of charter school experience….”

In other words, the bulk of this study’s charter-school test results come from the weakest year for test performance.  This a critical nuance routinely overlooked in media coverage.

We know that performance varies among charters, as it does among all schools. There are exceptional charters getting astonishing results. There’s a big group in the middle doing their best against remarkable odds (see funding section below). And there are chronic low performers that should be shut down immediately.

The charter school movement isworking hard to get the resources needed to replicate the best chartersat a faster pace, and make them available to the hundreds of thousands of families on charter waiting lists nationwide. We’re also pushing for tougher action on the laggards.  It’s a mark of the movement’s growing seriousness that large charter authorizers (accounting for about 60% of all charter students) closed down about 15 percent of the schools that came up for renewal in 2008-9.

DO CHARTER SCHOOLS TAKE MONEY FROM THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS?

Charter schools are public schools – which should make this question moot – but somehow that answer never seems to calm school board presidents.

When kids transfer to charters, school districts claim they can’t absorb the loss of student funding because of “sunk costs” such as long-term teacher contracts, capital investments, and buses. School-district budgets traditionally operate according to their own rules, which defy the known laws of supply and demand.  In what other sector could you argue that costs cannot be reduced even after 15 or 25 percent of customers had stopped buying your product?

But are charters actually taking that money after all?  Not according to a new study by Ball State University, which shows that charter students receive significantly less than kids in traditional public schools — 19.2 percent on average, and more than 27 percent in cities where most charters are located. In the aggregate, it’s a $2.2 billion annual deficit. So when a child leaves for a charter school, the “drain” really works the other way. It’s the district that holds onto money — $608 per-pupil in Houston, $2087 in Dallas, $4483 in Atlanta.

Scale, performance, and funding are just three hot charter topics; there are many more. As charters grow, the stakes get higher, and so does the volume, and so do the number of stories tilted toward allegations of charter school wrongdoing. So if you find yourself a little dazed and confused by some of the debates, and a little overstuffed by competing data, I recommend a visit to an actual public charter school.

There’s nothing like seeing the faces of kids who are actually enjoying their education.

Nelson Smith is president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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Nelson Smith is president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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