Charter Schools:Reform or Repackaging?
©2001 Patrick J. McAleer

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The charter school movement of the last decade is in response to popular sentiment that the American public school is failing to deliver what students (and the country as a whole) need - a world-class education that enables the student to contribute to society in a meaningful way and enables the country to compete (and win) in an increasingly competitive global economy. In the view of many pundits, the "problem" 'with public schools is that they operate in a system that is very different from the free market system of business. Because public schools do not face competition for students and revenue, they reason, there is no great incentive to change and reform poorly performing schools. Charter schools present an alternative to the parents of children in these failing public schools; unfettered by much of the red tape of the public school, these school scan use experimental pedagogical approaches, design innovative curricula, and employ "experts"from outside the ranks of the traditional teaching force, resulting (the theory goes) in an improved educational experience for a previously disenfranchised population and in competition for local public schools to measure up to (or perish).

Charters emerged as a part of the "school choice" movement espoused by conservatives since the 1980's. Initially, tuition vouchers were seen as the best way to encourage choice, but lower income families were left behind; even with a voucher for $1000 dollars in hand, these parents could not afford the high cost of private schools. An alternative was the creation of public schools that operated like private schools. Teachers would be free to try new methods and offer innovative curricula without the red tape of the central office getting in the way, and any child who wanted to enroll could do so, free of charge. Best of all, these schools would be responsive to parents in a way that few public schools seemed to be. Charter schools,both because they are local and tuition free, have become the poor man's voucher.

Charter schools are defined as public schools that operate independently of district boards of education under a charter granted by the state government (NJ Department of Education, 2001). They are touted as "exciting and innovative initiatives ... custom designed by local citizens - to fulfill a specific, often unique, and always locally driven educational mission (PA Department of education, 2000)." According to a recent study of charter schools by the U.S. Department of education (2001), they "have more freedom '(i.e. in the use of public funds, fewer state and local mandates to abide), but "bear more burdens than conventional public schools" - they "continue to exist only if they perform"'. The accountability of charter schools is the most appealing aspect to many lawmakers - by living up to the terms of their charter, these schools demonstrate "bang for your buck" in a way that traditional public schools rarely have had to. Charter schools also, in many cases, adopt curricula with a focus on a particular discipline or cultural slant; parents and other supporters of these schools point to the need for such curricula for particular groups of students, and how public schools have not (and possibly can not) addressed this need.

A new wrinkle - one that has strong support among politicians - is the emergence of "cybercharters". These are charter schools that deliver instruction via distance learning; students access course work. through teleconferencing and the Internet. This approach has proven popular among home schoolers, and represents, in the eyes of charter school advocates, precisely the type of innovative instruction that is the hallmark of these schools. Among the supporters of cybercharters is former education secretary and conservative wag William Bennett, whose own online venture debuted in October 2001. While popular (nearly 4,000 Pennsylvania youngsters are enrolled in cyber charters), issues of oversight and accountability have yet to be ironed out by state departments of education (Trotter, 2001).

Many advocates for public education, including teachers, school board members, some legislators,and others, point to the impact that charter schools have on local public schools. Most importantly, they point to the financial drain that the existence of charter schools places on the public school system. Funding for charter schools is "siphoned" from the traditional public school -the money follows the child. Instead of fully funding the mandates impressed on public schools(IDEA comes to mind), these critics claim that lawmakers and educational outsiders (e.g. for-profit educational management organizations) add insult to injury by draining money from them to create charter schools that do not have to follow many of the same costly mandates. A strong argument exists, in their minds, as to whether charter schools should exist. The playing field is not level,and to allow poorly performing schools to wither and die at the expense of charter schools is immoral in that the casualties are the children. In their minds, the heavy costs of charter schools outweigh the benefits.

Another reason that charter schools are considered controversial is their separatist nature. In one of the case studies cited by Strike, Haller, and Soltis (1998), a school administrator mulls over two applications for charters in her district - one for a school catering to the unique needs of African American girls, the other for an academy in which curricula centers on the study of the world's faiths. While the administrator acknowledges that charter schools may serve the needs of certain populations (she is described as both African American and a spiritual person), she ponders the wisdom of further fragmentation and self-imposed segregation in public education. This debate is mirrored in the real world. In an examination of existing charter schools in Philadelphia (School District of Philadelphia, 2001), there appear to be three rationales for starting a charter school:

a) to serve an "at-risk" population whose needs are perceived to be inadequately met by conventional public schools;

b) to target specific disciplines for study, much like magnet schools; and

c) to serve students from a particular cultural group with a curriculum with that same cultural focus.

Also, because many of the charter schools are based in the inner cities and enroll a large number of minority students (one estimate puts minority enrollment at more than 85% for inner city charter schools), there is concern regarding the racial makeup of these schools. Some view the creation of charters as a right-wing movement to resegregate America's schools (Schnaiberg, 1998; Hubbard,2000).

What are parents looking for from charter schools? According to A National Study of Charter schools (U.S. Department of Education, 1998), there are four areas of dissatisfaction with public schools that drives parents to consider charter schools: concerns about the academic program-4 a poor school culture, health and safety, and accessibility for parents. Parents' and older students' reasons for selecting charter schools mirror those factors. Charter school administrators cited their academic programs, commitment to smaller class sizes and more individual attention, and a more flexible instructional approach as reasons for the popularity of many of these schools. These results are consistent with research done in Pennsylvania (Hassan, 1999); parents with children in twenty-one charter schools statewide emphasized class size, school culture, and parental involvement as critical factors in their decision to enroll their children in a charter school. Another factor that is attracting many parents to charters is the opportunity to select (or even create) schools with a particular cultural focus. Indeed, about one of every six charter schools in the city of Philadelphia articulates a focus on a particular culture in its mission statement (SDP, 2001).

A report on New `Jersey's charter schools (NJDOE, 2001) notes that parental and student demand for, satisfaction with, and involvement with charter schools are all "extremely high", citing lower class sizes,increased individual attention, and greater instructional time as reasons. A recent article in education Week (Zehr, 2001) examined the popularity of these programs. While some have come under fire for being isolated from the pluralism that defines American society, school officials express the notion that the reason for the popularity of many charters is not primarily their cultural focus, but the simple fact that they are "good schools". Whatever the reasons for choosing a charter school for one's child, it is undeniable that these schools have appeal;according to the 1998 study of charter schools, over 70% of the schools surveyed had a waiting list for applicants.

We can analyze this controversy using the techniques espoused by Clabaugh and Rozycki (1997).Central to any controversy or dispute is the question of authority. Do the disputants consider themselves members of the same community, sharing common understanding? It could be argued that in the case of charter schools, the answer may be 44no". In their most common incarnation,charter schools are the creation of educational outsiders - legislators, for-profit educational management companies, and laypeople. This is in contrast to the professional educators of the conventional public school. Perhaps there is disagreement on some core issues - the purpose of schools, the ends of education, the role of school in society, and the priority of values. It seems that in the minds of some charter school founders, for instance, that schools ought to be focusing on the specific cultures of groups in society, rather than on the common mainstream American culture. For others, they prioritize the servicing of special needs populations over the larger community.

Clabaugh and Rozycki also point out that disputants may not recognize the same authorities as their source of "facts", and if faced with evidence contrary to one's own position,they would not be open to reconciliation of their views with those of the opposition. As for charters, it would too early to say; the first studies regarding the effectiveness of charters are just now being released. Early indications are that some charter school founders seem unwilling to admit that their position may be incorrect. For example, in Pennsylvania, charter applicants who are rejected by the local educational agency can appeal their rejection to the state department of education, which has shown a willingness to overturn the LEA's. Several of Philadelphia's proposed charter schools will open next year over the objections of the school board (SDP, 2001).

The core disagreement between charter advocates and their detractors may well be the question of the purpose of schools. In a pluralistic society such as ours, there has long been dissensus on the means and ends of education. Although we an agree that education is "good" and worth supporting, a wide variety of opinions exist on what that education ought to consist, and how it ought to be delivered. Even Aristotle pondered this dilemma:

That education should be regulated by law and should be an affair of state is not to be denied ... (but) there is disagreement about the subjects ... Again, about the means, there is no agreement.

( quoted in Clabaugh and Rozycki, 1999).

Does the creation of charter schools to compete with standard public schools in a market driven system deny public schools the means to adequately reach their ends? Is the emergence of competition ethical if it means that the majority of students (served by conventional public schools) will suffer to accommodate a vocal minority served by the charters? Or is serving that underserved minority the greater good? Are the ends of education in the minds of charter proponents the same as the views of others?

A look at the mission statements of charter schools (moral vs. intellectual development vs. career preparedness) seems to offer support to the notion that their ends are different. And yet, if you were to enter a charter school classroom, you are likely to find that the means that these educators use to achieve their ends (i.e. acquisition of basic skills of literacy, computation, etc.) are fairly consistent at the basic level with those in public school classrooms. Perhaps the means are somewhat different (e.g. pedagogical approaches may differ,or some subjects may be emphasized more than others) at certain charter schools, but on the whole, curricula will not vary too much between charters and their public counterparts (after all,they are held to the same state standards, and are judged by results on the same state tests).

Can we blame parents for turning to charter schools? Throughout our nation's history, people have looked to the schools as the means to a variety of ends - as the "selector" of the next generation's elite, as the "great equalizer" socio-economically, as a mechanism for cultural assimilation, and as an instrument of social justice for the oppressed and disenfranchised. School reform through the ages has come in response to some special interests' expression of their dissatisfaction with the way schools were run. Whether it was Jacksonian Democrats who favored meritocracy over aristocracy; Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and their call for adequate public schooling for post-Civil War blacks; or business leaders and social commentators of the Eisenhower era who called for more rigorous standards in schools to win the Space Race and the Cold War - all looked to the schools to address their grievances (Perkinson, 1991).

Today's call for charter schools also comes from a variety of interest groups - from social conservatives with an agenda toward creating schools espousing "family values" and teaching "character education"; from the working poor seeking an alternative to the broken down urban public school system; from free market profiteers who promise to make schools better and make a buck doing it; and countless others with their own unique agenda.

Are charters doing a good job? Do they deliver what they promise? If so, there would be a strong argument for the existence of charter schools. A National School Boards Association report, cited in Education Week (Bowman, 2000), warns that charter schools have failed to five up to their promise, and may lose wide spread support if lawmakers fail to improve the laws that govern them. Darrel Drury, the NSBA's director of policy research notes that "there is very little evidence -across the board - to suggest that charters have been successful in raising student achievement, providing greater classroom innovation, strengthening accountability, or influencing traditional public schools." The report also suggests that charters contribute to increased segregation in schools. A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll (Bowman, 2000 (2)) found that only 49% of Americans polled favored the idea of freeing charter schools from the state regulations followed by traditional public schools. When asked to identify the biggest problem facing public education, the largest proportion (18%) of those surveyed said a lack of proper funding.

Perception is one thing, but the bottom line is this: are charter school students achieving? As of now, the answer depends on who you ask; results of recent studies are mixed. Western Michigan University has conducted research on this for two state departments of education: Michigan and Pennsylvania. In the case of the former, Michigan charter students have scored lower on state tests over last five years than students enrolled in traditional public schools have (Bowman, 2000 (3)).

Pennsylvania charters are showing faster increases in scores than public schools on state test over a two year period, but charter students are still scoring lower overall - this was attributed to the types of students who go to charter schools, not to the impact of the charter school itself (Johnston, 2001).

The New Jersey Department of Education has recently released the results of a study of its fifty-one charter schools. Again, the results are mixed. On the whole, charter school students perform as well as their public school peers on statewide assessment; in two areas - fourth grade math and eighth grade language arts - charters scored slightly higher than the local public schools (NJDOE,2001). A Study of Charter School Accountability (U.S. Department of Education, 2001), a recently released, extensive, two-year study of charter school accountability nationwide, points out that "accountability" is ill-defined in some states. Whereas many schools are accountable for measurable academic results, others are merely monitored for compliance to the few regulations and requirements that they must meet. This is particularly true in states (including Pennsylvania) where local school district offices are charged with the responsibility for oversight of local charter schools. In short, when the question has been asked about the effectiveness of charters, the jury is still out.

Is the moral imperative to provide a free, and thorough education for children (a position which argues for the existence of charter schools) in contrast to the historical reality of a system which on the whole, has adequately served most of the children in it? Strike, Haller, and Soltis (1998) discuss two competing moral principles: the principle of benefit maximization, and the principle of equal respect. The former states that a course of action should be pursued if it will result in a positive outcome for the greatest number of people involved. The latter preaches the dignity of the individual, and the right of all people to enjoy the benefits of a course of action; charter proponents fall into this camp. The reality of public education funding in the U.S. currently is this: resources are finite, and the level of financial commitment is limited. Thus, traditional public schools are now expected to share those finite resources and limited funds with another cadre of schools, at least until one or the other is market-driven out of business, or both improve as a result of the competition.

So what impact do charter schools have on the competition? Challenge and Opportunity: The impact of Charter Schools on School Districts (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) is a recent report that examines the nature of how the existence of charter schools in a district impacts the conventional public schools in that area. The authors examined 49 school districts in five states where charters were in operation. Every district reported that charters had had a negative impact on budgets because of the diversion of revenue from the conventional public schools to the charter schools. Yet, more than half of the districts reported becoming more "customer-service oriented", with increased marketing and frequency in communication with parents. District administrators admit to paying close attention to charter school enrollment and performance on standardized tests.

A majority of districts in the study reported the improvement of services and/or the creation of new programs similar to those offered by the local charter school. So, if nothing else, it's clear that charter schools are not being ignored, and may have spurred their public school neighbors to situp, take notice, and reflect on what they could do to improve themselves.

So, are charter schools really an alternative to the traditional public school - a choice that offers experimental teaching methods, unique curricula, and the promise of higher achievement? You'd be hard pressed to find radical differences in core curricula (due to state standards) and methods, and as for the promise of higher achievement, it may be too soon to tell. Or perhaps charters are the same old thing - underfunded and undersupported, just repackaged. If the latter is true, then we are taking limited resources, and spreading them even thinner; as a result, everyone suffers (the principle of equal respect? Perhaps the principle of benefit minimization instead!). Think about it - in the decade of the charter school movement, have any public schools closed their doors because they couldn't compete?


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