What Even is a Charter School: A Primer on School Choice

Education is something that many of us take for granted–especially for someone like me who shops online for PhD programs the way others shop for clothes. Because education is a solely domestic policy that does not garner all that much attention, much of the discourse around it is left undefined and unexplored, particularly for the average American.

I’m studying urban education, and one of the most common questions I hear all revolve around the astoundingly vague topic of “school choice.” This post will be a general explanation of the components of school choice as well as the debate on all sides of the issue.

The term and concept of “school choice” was born following the publication of an essay titled “The Role of Government in Education.” Written in 1955 by conservative economist Milton Friedman, the essay criticized the United States’ education system primarily for its cost and regulations. From that moment, “school choice” began worming its way into not only conservative economic platforms but into the American mainstream.

The rhetoric around school choice is unbelievably confusing, and I can only assume that it is a contributing factor in the mistrust Americans have in education as a field. It seems too obvious. Who doesn’t want to exercise agency regarding how we and our children are educated? This is an oversimplification. In reality, the term is representative of an entire spectrum of positions that fundamentally call into question the structure, integrity, and equality of K-12 education.

Possibly the foremost and most confusing figure in the school choice debate is the charter school. Charter schools are funded by taxpayer money and are subject to most of the same regulations as public schools. Charter schools do not charge tuition, so students attend them for free. Despite their public funding, charter schools are not directly operated by the area’s board or department of education. Charter schools are operated by private organizations, and these can be nonprofit or for-profit entities. These groups approach the regulatory agency in their area with a charter–or statement–of both need and purpose.

These charters specify the new school’s mission as well as what sets it apart from traditional schools. This distinction can be one of ideology, methodology, or academic discipline. They must also explain how these needs are underserved by traditional school districts.

Charter schools may operate as long as they are approved by their state’s Department of Education. Approval is subject to the school’s compliance with the charter’s mandate and the state’s testing guidelines. Charter schools are free to deviate from other state education regulation and standardized curricula.

While roughly eighty-percent of American students are educated in public schools, five percent attend charter schools. Charter schools educate roughly three million students at 6,900 schools in forty-three states and the District of Columbia. Charter schools do not charge admission and fill vacancies in enrollment through a lottery system.

Magnet schools are often confused for charter schools, but they are entirely public. Magnet schools are specialized by subject area. These are typically high schools intent on better preparing students for college coursework in specialized fields. Famous STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) magnet schools in New York City include Stuyvesant High School and Bronx Science. These schools rely on rigorous admissions standards that can include grades, test scores, interviews, essays, and extracurricular activities–much like university admissions.

Magnet schools are free for students to attend, and they are bound to all curricular, testing, and other Department of Education regulations. These schools have the ability to draw students from across zoned district lines. All specialized instruction is implemented alongside regulated course loads.

Magnet schools and charter schools are only two pieces of the school choice puzzle. Just as it’s elbowed its way into all aspects of our lives, so too has the Internet found its way into the education debate. Virtual schools have proliferated in recent years. These schools are as diverse in operation as physical schools and offer students the chance to learn remotely using computers. These schools can be used independently as a student’s primary school or in conjunction with a physical school.

Private schools are not publically funded. Private schools are funded by tuition fees charged to students’ families. These tuition fees can rival college tuition rates. Since they do not receive public money, private schools are not bound by federal education regulations on admissions or curricula. Many are also exempt from state testing mandates, although many are required to comply to maintain competitive accreditation. A significant portion of private schools are operated by religious organizations. Roughly 10 percent of American students attend private schools.

For the 1.8 million students not served by public, private, charter, or virtual schools, homeschooling is presented as an alternative in many school choice platforms. About three percent of American children are homeschooled. The vast majority of homeschooled students are white and live above the poverty line. Many religious minorities choose to homeschool their children.

Alongside literal school choice, many choice platforms include economic policies. These policies are primarily intended to help families afford private school tuition.

The first type of financial product available for school choice are scholarships. Scholarships are offered by private schools, private organizations, or individuals. Their primary purpose is to subsidize the cost of private school educations for those who would not normally be able to afford them. Many proponents of school choice advocate for incentives for those who provide or donate to scholarship funds. These incentives typically come in the form of a tax breaks for both the individual and organization. These tax incentives have already been implemented in twenty-one credit programs in seventeen states.

Scholarships are not the same as “vouchers,” a term that is thrown around a lot in discussions of school choice. Vouchers operate in much of the same way for the student–it subsidizes expenses accrued from tuition and related private school costs. Where scholarships draw from private funders to provide subsidies, vouchers are funded by taxpayer money. Vouchers remain controversial for their subsidizing even religious school tuitions. Private schools are exempt from non-discrimination laws in admissions policies and some view public funding of these schools as condoning the behavior. Despite that, twenty-five voucher programs currently operate in fifteen states.¬† The future of voucher programs are uncertain. One such program was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran of Columbia v. Comer (2017).

Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) operate much like health savings accounts, holiday savings accounts, and other similar financial products. These accounts are subsidized with higher-than-average interest rates. There are many rules regarding how ESA funds can be spent, restricting funds to only particular education-related expenses. The most expansive ESA program is in the state of Nevada. The amount of money allotted per student is calculated and made available to parents if they choose to remove the student from public school to fund alternative education.

Still with me? Like I said, there are a lot of moving parts in the school choice debate. However, it is not enough just to understand the component parts of school choice; various politicians and political parties support very different visions of school choice. To shed some light on this diversity, I’ll begin with a little history.

As I mentioned earlier, the term and concept of school choice was coined in the mid-1950s by an influential conservative economist. Historically, private schools have been founded by religious orders to educate students in religion alongside traditional curriculum. This has become a persistent conundrum–a thorn in the side of policymakers, especially when it comes to publicly funding these programs. It took the recent case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer to quell inflamed discussions around separation of church and state. Private schools that are not religious in nature are also complicated–they do not receive federal funding, but they are also not bound by many of the protections law provides both public school children and educators. Public schools cannot turn away any student regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomic status, as private schools are free to. Private schools also typically bar teachers from forming unions.

During the 1990s, Bill Clinton championed charter schools as a liberal and non-discriminatory alternative to problematic private schools. Charters allow for more rigorous instruction without the discriminatory worries of pay-for-play school tuition. Charters fill their open seats with lotteries, which at least seem more fair. Since the 1990s, charter schools have come under fire by those on the left for being anti-union and establishing less-than-fair labor practices. Charter schools also often redirect public funds from the neediest of school districts, which makes them more controversial.

It is in this capacity that the school choice debate cannot be framed in simplistic Democrat vs. Republican rhetoric. Diversity of opinions exist on both sides. It is far more productive to classify the sides in this debate as pro-choice and anti-choice, even if those terms are already loaded with unrelated significance.

The pro-school choice platform is itself diverse. The various positions under this umbrella can typically be divided into two broad camps: free-market and pro-regulation. A free market school choice platforms propose running schools like businesses. Free market school choice favors privatization in all forms. This platform advocates for the removal of barriers that “force” students to attend zoned schools, as well as those that marry the interests of public schools and teachers unions. In short, this platform advocates giving parents total control over what, how, and where their children are educated. By extension, these policies place the burden of quality of education solely on parents.

Pro-choicers who advocate for more regulation seek the most efficient, effective, and widespread positive outcomes in education. The economy has undergone a fundamental shift over the past thirty or so years in which manufacturing jobs have disappeared and been replaced with either low-wage service industry jobs or highly-skilled jobs in the technology sector. Many have felt American schools were unprepared for these shifting foci and that students should be given every opportunity to succeed both for their personal development and for the maintenance of a skilled American workforce in a competitive global economy. These platforms favor charter schools and tax credits for scholarship donations.

Those who oppose school choice have become much maligned in these tense policy debates, but don’t judge them too harshly. Anti-choice advocates believe that repairing and reinforcing the existing public education infrastructure. Public schools, despite structural problems individual districts or states may face, are the fairest and least discriminatory form of education policy. Private schools are allowed to discriminate in any way they choose. Private and charter schools lack strict oversight that the public school system has. Fundamentally, anti-choice advocates believe that education should not be run like business and that education is essential for its own sake.

Influential politicians on both sides of the aisle represent the various platforms of the school choice debate. President Trump’s new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a free-market pro-choicer from the same lineage as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Like many of the platform’s supporters, DeVos and Reagan are Republicans, but the platform has many Libertarian supporters as well. Centrists on both sides, including the Bush family, the Clintons, Arnold Swarzenegger, and Barack Obama are typically members of the pro-regulation, pro-choice camp. These individuals are more favorable toward charter schools than private schools.

Personally, I typically oppose school choice platforms because I do believe that a unified effort to improve public schools will lead to the greatest rise in student outcomes. Focusing all of our collective energy to improving a single, existing system rather multiple, complex systems is more efficient.

These are the basics of school choice. If you have any questions or anything you’d like to discuss, please leave them in the comments below!







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