Charter Schools: With More Freedom Comes More Accountability
Many educators and students recognize the need for unique, individualized learning within their schools. However, for larger organizations such as the public school system, providing individual schools with a high level of independence isn’t always feasible.
To ensure students get all the resources they need and are making adequate progress from year to year, public school systems depend on a uniform curriculum and standard assessments. Unfortunately, this approach doesn't always translate into success for every student.
Enter charter schools, a publicly funded and independently run alternative education option. While charter schools are still public schools and receive funds based on the number of students enrolled, they run independently from the rest of the school district. Although charters have greater flexibility in their curriculum and education philosophy compared to traditional public schools, they also hold greater responsibility to prove that their education methods are effective.
Benefits of charter schools
For some educators and families, freedom from the regulations that govern traditional public schools is a primary benefit of charter schools. Since charters are not required to follow the same curriculum, schedule, or educational philosophy as the rest of the district, teachers have more latitude to follow the needs of their students. This flexibility is attractive to educators and students who recognize the need for individualized pacing, accommodating diverse learning styles, and incorporating student interests.
Charters also have the flexibility to choose their own unique school mission. According to the National Charter School Resource Center, individual state laws can allow for a variety of charter applicants. For example, groups of parents or more formal charter management organizations may apply to their state governing authority to start a charter school. This means that charters are often founded with the goal of fulfilling a particular educational philosophy. For example, a group of parents who prefer student-led learning might apply to begin a Montessori charter school, while a business community that values forward-thinking engineering and technological skills might apply to create a charter school that focuses on science and technology.
The opportunity to create publicly funded schools with individually guided missions is seen as the major benefit for students and educators who support charter schools. However, these additional freedoms come with additional responsibilities.
Responsibilities of charter schools
Since charter schools are publicly funded, they cannot choose which students will attend, and the admissions process must remain open and unbiased. According to the National Educational Association, students may apply for admission to a charter, but admission is not necessarily guaranteed. If the demand exceeds the school’s capacity, students from the applicant pool are selected to attend by lottery. Using the application process and a lottery to handle overflow is intended to keep student selection unbiased, although a review of state charter laws reveals that some states allow schools to give preference to the children of faculty members or students in special interest groups.
While it is appropriate for a publicly funded school to have unbiased admissions, this can create unforeseen challenges for students and educators alike. Since charters are founded with a specific focus and educational philosophy, they may not be the best fit for every student. For example, a charter school with a focus on the arts would be best for students and teachers who thrive in a creative, project-based environment. However, for some students, the decision to attend may be driven by factors unrelated to a passion for the arts. Those living in struggling or low-achieving school districts may apply simply to have another option, regardless of whether they are aligned with the school’s philosophies or not. A student body that isn’t engaged in the charter’s specific mission could make it more difficult for both the charter and the students to meet their goals.
Additionally, a charter’s freedom from the regulations that guide traditional public schools also limits the support it is able to receive. For traditional public schools, failure to meet adequate yearly progress may result in receiving additional resources, more qualified teachers, and even a change in leadership. Although having to make these changes may be less than ideal, the school will remain open and additional support will be given to its students. For example, the principal of the Emily G. Weatherbee School in Lawrence, Massachusetts noted that in 2015 her students benefitted from extracurricular and enrichment programs that were once unavailable in area schools—that is, until the consistent failure to meet adequate yearly progress requirements caused the state to take over the district's schools in 2011. Students throughout the district also achieved higher language arts and math assessment scores. While there were differences in how Lawrence schools operated, they were kept open and received support as they worked toward success.
In contrast, because charters create their own philosophies and educational goals, they are solely responsible for ensuring that their students are making progress. If a charter fails to help students meet educational goals, it is much more likely that the school will shut down rather than receive an improvement plan. According to a 2011 Education Week State Ed Watch report, about 15 percent of charter schools shut down due to financial problems, mismanagement, academic problems, or other issues.
For students and educators considering moving to a charter school, this decision should be guided by both the benefits and responsibilities associated with this alternative education approach. Broadly speaking, charter schools have the potential to offer a more focused and individualized education path within the public school system, but it is important to recognize that this goes hand in hand with increased accountability.
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