The Policy Proposition: putting charter schools to the test

by Alexander Chang (’23) | February 14th, 2022

Artwork by Mia Patil (’22)

Charter schools have come a long way since City Academy, the first publicly funded, privately run institution in the United States, opened its doors in 1992. Just three decades later, more than 7500 charter schools across the country provide instruction for nearly three and a half million students. While the charter school system may seem like the right path forward in principle, numerous concerns have arisen regarding the program’s true effectiveness in practice. 

From Orange County, California to Greenville, South Carolina, charter schools have closed in droves. Florida, for instance, has seen 119 of its charter schools shut their doors since 2008—fourteen of which did not even finish their first year of instruction. In most of these cases, the driving force behind closures was not a lack of funding but mismanagement by local governments and school administrations. 

For instance, Ivy Academy, a Florida charter school, was repeatedly relocated by school officials, causing students to go on daily field trips simply because they lacked enough classrooms to provide instruction. Thankfully, cases like this are minimal, and most charters provide a level of education on par with that of public and private schools. However, these situations do raise questions about the efficacy of government oversight. 

In most states, the application process to open a charter school is suspiciously easy. In fact, Ivy Academy’s application to Florida’s Board of Education was a word for word copy of Franklin Academy’s, another Florida charter school; yet Ivy Academy still received the approval to begin instruction. The simple approval process also gives way to fraud and embezzlement. In Ohio, state auditors found that Ohio charter schools were four times more likely to misspend taxpayer dollars compared to any other taxpayer-funded entity. 

While charter schools are legally required to be non-profit organizations, they are allowed to hire educational management companies (EMOs) who can legally make a profit. In fact, some charter schools give ninety-five percent of their state and federal dollars to these exact EMOs. 

The lax oversight of these institutions can best be explained by weak state and federal laws. In most states, the people who run their charter schools can utilize legal loopholes to also oversee them through their own non-profits. A charter school in Dayton, Ohio, for instance, reported a class size of 450 students, but only thirty students actually attended the school on any given day, costing taxpayers nearly 1.2 million dollars. 

These issues are exponentially worse for online charter schools, which claim to provide the same level of education as in-person schools. Students enrolled in online charter schools can expect to fall close to 180 days behind their public and private school peers in math and seventy-two days behind in reading per year. 

All these concerns regarding the oversight of charter schools don’t mean that charter schools should not be present in the American education system. Charter schools provide opportunities for students across the country, but in order for charters to reach their full potential, the system must be strengthened and protected from those with problematic intentions. 

Most of the resistance against charter school reform comes from a desire to foster competition, but if a majority of charter schools remain either profit-driven or rife with bad practice, their students will not be receiving the quality education at all. 

State legislatures are slowly correcting their charter school programs. California’s Assembly Bill 1316 made strides in mandating certain student-teacher ratios, exponentially increasing the state’s ability to audit online charters. Florida’s Representative Kath Castor’s recent amendment also targeted the involvement of for-profit entities in charter school involvement through increasing the regulatory power of the state’s inspector general. More state reforms are arriving, albeit slowly, but until profit can be separated from public education funds, it will be left to regulators to ensure that our charter schools can continue to provide our future generations with the education they deserve. 

Categories: Column, Opinions

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