“Restaurant” & “Charter School” Are Vague Descriptors

“Charter School” is a vague descriptive term, akin to “Restaurant,”  in that neither term tells you very much. One of them, however, is dangerously vague.

“Restaurant” is vague but not dangerous.  The word tells you only that the establishment serves food of some kind, but nothing else. It might offer great cuisine–or greasy slop.  It might be a fast-food joint or a 3-Star Michelin legend with a 6-month waiting list for a reservation.   And, if you do go there for a meal, that’s the extent of your obligation.  If it’s bad, you can get up from the table and leave….

So, now imagine you are standing outside a building sporting a sign reading “Charter School.”   All you can discern from the term is that it’s one of about 7,000 publicly funded but privately managed charter schools.   And the possibilities of what that charter school might be are dizzying.  Here are just some of them:

  1. It might be part of a national chain of schools or a stand-alone “Mom and Pop” school;
  2. It might have been authorized locally or set up by a distant authority (which may not be keeping its eye on things);
  3. It might have a Board of Directors made up of local parents and other residents, or it could be controlled from afar by a Board with no local representation whatsoever;
  4. It might have an admissions test, even though it is supposedly a public school, or it might be open to all comers;
  5. It might be financially transparent, or it could refuse to reveal how it’s spending the public money that it receives–which means its leader could be making more than $500,000 a year, even if his or her school has only a few hundred students;
  6. It might have a Draconian–and unpublished–discipline code that, unbeknownst to the public, systematically excludes students with special needs and/or children of color, or its code could be published for all to see; and
  7. It could be what’s called a ‘conversion charter,’ a school that is closely connected to its home school district, or it could be fighting its own district for resources.
  8. You won’t see a sign for a ‘Virtual Charter School,’ where education is conducted on line.  According to Education Week,  a study of 163 “virtual” high schools revealed that many fail to graduate even 50% of their students.  From the article: “Online charter schools, which are run mostly by for-profit companies, have long struggled with poor academic outcomes—from test scores, to academic growth, to graduation rates, to attendance rates. The most high-profile study, done by economists at Stanford University in 2015, found that students attending an online charter school made so little progress in math over the course of a year that it was as if they hadn’t attended school at all.”   In 2016 Education Week published “Rewarding Failure,” an exhaustive study of the ‘Cyber Charter School industry, and its findings remain shocking.

Now let’s follow the money, because our hypothetical “charter school” might have been established as a not-for-profit school or set up to make money.  As it happens, that supposed distinction is now one without a difference, because an awful lot of so-called non-profit charter schools are systematically looting their state treasuries in ways that are perfectly legal, thanks to state laws that were deliberately written to allow the ripoffs.   In “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” I focused on North Carolina.   But here’s information about Arizona.  PennsylvaniaFloridaMichigan. California.  California againTennesseeNew Mexico.  (I could go on and on, but you get the point: the Charter School Industry is rife with scandal.)

If you are on Twitter, just follow #anotherdayanothercharterscandal, for a drumbeat of verified bad news.   Here’s one from earlier today.  And another.

The Network for Public Education, which is vigorously and vigilantly anti-charter, recently summarized the situation in a report entitled “Asleep at the Wheel.”

The most prominent pro-charter school organization, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, generally ignores any and all bad news, preferring instead to serve as a cheerleader.  It has its own “Hall of Fame” and “Champions for Charters,” for example, and it offers a template for local charter schools so they can fill in the blanks to boast about themselves.  These smart marketing techniques are, I suppose, designed to keep the public from knowing the truth about the chaos that is Charter World.

Could our hypothetical “charter school” be doing great work?  Well, sure, but the evidence suggests that most charter schools do not outperform their traditional counterparts. 

Many of the Democratic hopefuls are weighing in on education generally and charter schools specifically.  Peter Greene, a keen observer, has created a clever way to evaluate what they are saying.  Echoing a standardized test scoring system, the candidates can be deemed to be ‘below basic,’ ‘basic,’ ‘proficient,’ or ‘advanced.’ Here’s part of what it takes to receive an ‘advanced‘ score: The candidate recognizes that “The modern charter school movement is understood as part of a larger wave of privatization that threatens to replace government by the people with ownership by the rich and powerful. Advanced candidates recognize that the teaching profession is suffering not just from low pay, but from shrinking autonomy and a lack of support for public institutions. They recognize that high stakes standardized testing is driving schools in unproductive and toxic directions.”  

I began by saying that ‘Charter School’ is a dangerously vague term.  Unlike restaurants you can walk away from, many parents make extraordinary sacrifices to enroll their children in charter schools–without knowing enough about the school they are committing to.  It’s not so easy to walk away, but that charter school might be one of the awful ones described above.

If you’ve read this far, you know that I am concerned about charter schools, an effort that began with the best of intentions more than 30 years ago.  I served as moderator of the seminal meeting near the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, back in 1988.  From that meeting came the draft legislation that Minnesota passed in 1990 and the first charter school in Saint Paul in 1992.  The visionaries hoped that all school districts would establish charter schools as learning laboratories, but that has just not happened.

Is there hope?  There might be, because some of the independent public charter schools are banding together in a new organization, The Coalition of Community Charter Schools, which is designed to give a voice to the 3,000-plus independent (‘Mom and Pop) charter schools.  This organization seeks to return to the original vision of charter schools. To that end, it has created a comprehensive Statement of Principles that it expects all members to adopt and adhere to.  The Principles, the equivalent of the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, include financial transparency, no admissions test, local control, multiple measures of accomplishment, collaboration, a commitment to diversity, and respect for teachers.

How many independent charter schools will be willing to commit to these principles is an open question.  I’m hoping that at least half will join.   If very few are willing to be open, then the charter movement is in deeper trouble than I feared

Frankly, I think this is the last best hope for charter schools, but I am not neutral on this.  I helped a little bit with the planning for the new organization and have moderated two of their early gatherings.

To sum up, the term “Charter School” tells us almost nothing, which is why I suggest that no one even consider enrolling a child in a charter school unless they have access to its disciplinary code; its graduation, promotion, and retention rate; the diversity of its students and teaching staff; the measures of accomplishment it uses; and the salaries of its leadership.  All that information is the equivalent of a restaurant menu, and just as you read a menu before ordering, so too should you learn this information before entrusting your child to that supposedly wonderful “Charter School.”

Your comments welcome at themerrowreport.com, and thanks….

19 thoughts on ““Restaurant” & “Charter School” Are Vague Descriptors

  1. John here are a few questions for you: You write “no one even consider enrolling a child in a charter school unless they have access to its disciplinary code; its graduation, promotion, and retention rate; the diversity of its students and teaching staff; the measures of accomplishment it uses; and the salaries of its leadership.”

    Wouldn’t you suggest that people ask the same questions before enrolling youngsters in any school?

    Why not add to the list, how does the school help students understand “how are they smart”? What are their special gifts and talents? How does the school help young people develop those gifts and talents?
    What does the school do to encourage families to participate/become involved in the school?
    How does the school help young people learn to make a positive difference in the world?
    What do students and families say are the strengths and shortcomings of a school?


    • I agree that prospective parents should also ask those questions AND that all this information should be readily available about all schools, including of course traditional public schools.

      A central point: a charter school is a thing, an entity…and not an approach to schooling or a specific pedagogy. It’s an instrument and, as such, shouldn’t be elevated to the status of savior…


      • John, do you recall the discussions with Ted Kolderie and others about chartering – a freedom & opportunity – not a guarantee? As you’ve noted, there are not guarantees that people will make good use of the opportunities that chartering provides. But the freedom that chartering provides offers new options for educators as well as families and students.

        There’s no single strategy that will “save” American education. Chartering can help. But agreed, families should make no assumptions about the quality of a school, whether it’s a district or chartered public school.


  2. What is problematic about charter schools is that public schools are being replaced by private management; and then the public school system tradition of a system of common schools is ended.

    Common school has been in the past free, universal and mostly non-sectarian. It is the universal element of the common school, serving the common good that is not compatible with the privately managed charter school.

    A structure of a system of common schools, upholding across its universe the pursuit of the democratic ideal of common good, is incompatible when the publicly funded school is a privately managed charter school.

    The private charter school operator decides on its purpose, a purpose that may or may not be the common good. But the purpose of privately managed charter school is decided, not by representatives of the public, but by the private operator.

    Even if an individual private operator is committed to operating in the public interest, the private nature of the charter school corporate enterprise means newcomers can and have taken over the corporate enterprise and redefined the private commitment to the public good as a new commitment to monetary gain. The public cannot not control the purpose of a privately managed charter school. That is not a good thing.

    Gulen follower’s of religious leader Gulen governing over 150 privately managed charter schools in 26 states is an example of diminished power of the public when the public is not completely in charge of its public school institution.

    The charter school experiment began with progressive ideas but the good intention did not result in a policy that was an improvement over the common school pillars of state school systems that had to be free, universal and non-sectarian and students taught by teachers trained in the democratic ideals of the common school.


    • Colin Green’s Myth of the Common School provides information that some might find valuable
      * From the beginning of Horace Mann’s work, many wealthy families sent their children to private schools
      * Horace Mann sold common schools in part to the wealthy a way to get low income students to accept capitalism

      As for “common schools” – well before chartering – suburban schools developed – as an escape for families wealthy enough to move out of the city. Their “choice” has been hugely subsidized via tax codes.

      For many people of color, the curriculum in district schools has ignored, neglected or mis-presented their histories. That’s one of many reasons, despite well funded efforts to block chartering the beginning, millions of people of color have selected charters. Which is NOT to say all chartered public schools are great

      One other thing – charters must teach to the same standards as district public schools.


      • Encyclopedia.com
        Common School Movement
        Encyclopedia of Education
        COPYRIGHT 2002 The Gale Group Inc.

        “The ubiquity of ‘common’ schools in the United States belies both the long effort to establish a system of publicly supported elementary and secondary schools and the many controversies that have attended public schools before and since their creation. The belief that public, or free, schools and pauper schools were synonymous terms, and that such schools were only for children of the poor, long hampered the acceptance of the idea that publicly supported schools could and should exist for all children, regardless of social class, gender, religion, ethnicity, or country of origin. Moreover, the European and colonial insistence that responsible parents need concern themselves only with the education of their own children through the avenues of the family, church, or the voluntary efforts of like-minded citizens only slowly gave way to the conviction that publicly supported common schools might serve all children equally, and in so doing advance the moral, social, and economic interests so vital to the nation.

        The common school movement took hold in the 1830s, and by the time of the Civil War organized systems of common schools had become commonplace throughout most of northern and midwestern states. Expansion of common school systems into the southern and far-western states progressed at a slower rate, but by the opening years of the twentieth century publicly supported systems of common schools had become a cornerstone of the American way of life. However, the emergence of a system of public schools across the nation was neither an inevitable nor an uncontested movement. Moreover, its survival into the future may prove to be as problematic as was its development in the past.”

        Born during 1940s World War II, I attended public school in San Francisco and then South San Francisco. I was aware of Catholic schools but knew little of private schools. I assumed it would always be the norm that most would enroll for elementary and secondary education in public schools.

        But, “unbiquity of common schools” may not last with capitalism’s privatization of public schools with the growth of privately managed charter schools. My hope is that in time taxpayers will come to understand two tax supported education systems instead of one is intolerably wasteful and one of the two systems will fade away.

        I pray that the survivor will be the government common school with its purpose to be for the common good and therefore inclusive.

        The public school operates under regulation of the state, county, and local school board. Public schools are highly regulated by state government regulations called the education code. And, on top of those regulations are the regulation of the governing school board.

        The privately managed charter funded by the government has a purpose that is privately decided by the charter operator(s) and operates under limited government oversight.

        The competition between public school districts and privately managed charter schools for enrollment means charter school privately managed schools grow mostly at the expense of the nearby public school district. The choice of enrolling in privately managed charter school is not without consequence as such a decision drains resources from the nearby school district.

        “School Choice” privatization of public education is the illusion of power of choice but enrollment in privately managed charter school means diminishing of parent’s rights. For courts have held charter schools being privately managed are not agency of the government and as a private contractor parents have less legal standing in a court of law than a public school parent. School Choice is destroying the common school and its dream of public education equity. Charters in the name of choice 65 years after Brown v Board has increased segregation.


  3. Merrow has done his research. Over the past 3 decades, I have also watched, visited, researched and lamented about the significant freedoms taken with public funds (that, incidentally would land a public school administrator in jail) with little or no recourse built into the systems. One state that I reviewed recently has roughly 700 elementary schools. When the state analyzed which schools failed to meet the state standard for student growth in reading in K-3, 85% of the schools/districts on that list were charter schools. In my review of student learning in charter schools across several states, only the charter schools that require an admissions test and do not serve students with disabilities (two options that public schools do not have) showed higher student achievement than the public schools. I appreciate the thorough work that Merrow has done to bring the results to light. It is the part of the story that just isn’t being told frequently. Charter schools do know that they are not producing student learning results at the same rate as public schools, they just don’t mention that in their advertising.


  4. As director of the organization that John calls “last best hope for charter schools” I can attest to the conundrum of upholding the principles and democratic ideals that were part of the original movement for chartered schools at this divisive moment in time. On one side, charter school critics call for a moratorium and “progressive” state legislators introduce poison pill bills that threaten funding and undermine our schools. Meanwhile, mainstream charter school advocates pressure us to “speak with one voice” in the debate over charter schools, even though that voice does not represent who we are pedagogically or politically. There is no middle ground in the brave, new Trump-DeVos world.

    The truth is that the majority of charter schools are community-based, self-managed and doing a terrific job of providing different models of teaching and learning from those found in traditional district schools. That truth has become a casualty in the war over public schooling.


    • The truth is that America’s segregated public schools have become more segregated with privatizing by privately managed charter schools. The lifting up “choice” is a fake myth.

      The truth is that in practice enrollment “choice” is decided by private managers of the charter school and after school begins so begins a weeding out of those that don’t fit in the view of the private manager of the charter school.

      65 years since the Brown v. Board of Education public school boards across the nation have used enrollment “choice” as the vehicle for maintaining public school segregation. Public school enrollment segregation is reflected of the nation’s segregation housing. Government suburban and urban track home financing that excluded non-whites and isolated government financed track-homes by economic class. My white family moved from our urban city to our government financed track-home in our lower working class track that excluded non-whites. Our lower-working class government track home was only a “choice” for white folks.

      And, inflated value of housing over the years has meant that non-whites who didn’t get to participate in that means of family wealth growth were left behind as the post-World War II gap between white and non-white family wealth consequently grew and grew.

      Choice” was the concept that evolved for pushing back successfully against Brown v. Board decision that separate is not equal in public education. And, public school enrollment “choice” policy remains the justification for not implementing Supreme Court required policies for integrating enrollment of public schools.

      Privatization of public schools by privately managed publicly funded charter schools features at its heart the concept of “choice”. No matter that choice charter schools are more segregated than traditionally segregated public schools.


      • Jim, are you in favor of eliminating virtually all white suburbs that are found in many places around the US? Are you in favor of prosecuting some African Amercan families who have tried to enroll their children in these “public” schools where the price of admission is the ability to buy a very expensive home?
        Are you troubled by elite magnet schools that screen out many students who apply?

        Do you see a massive difference between being assigned to an inferior school because of your race, and being allowed to select among various schools>

        A civil rights hero in Minnesota – who was forced to attend an inferior school in Indiana because of his, race, and late became the state Commissioner of Human Rights. He and I discussed this in Minnesota’s largest daily newspaper:


        We wrote, in part, “Some critics don’t seem to understand the huge difference between forcing people, because of their race, to attend a school, and giving new options to people, especially those from low-income families and families of color.

        Our decades in public education — and for one of us, being the first African-American elected to the St. Paul City Council and serving as Minnesota’s human rights commissioner — lead us to praise either district or charter public schools that are serving students well.


      • Joe Nathan: Government created white segregated suburbia with government policies financing national highways and housing. However, it was not only whites that funded those government policies that resulted in the segregation of our Nation’s public schools. Non-white folks paid their taxes too and those folks should be demanding a refund from the Government by their family whereby the inflation from yesterday is taken into consideration for any Government pay out.

        Often overlooked is not just the Government’s racist housing policy, but the technology impact of the mass produced track-homes. As I stated previously, I moved to suburbia with my white family. But, my family naturally bought a home in a track we could afford with our Government loan. Building of Government financed urban to suburban highways and Government financed track-homes resulted in suburbia track-home segregation across the Nation by Government policy. And, of course segregation not just by race, but segregation also by class. This meant education in isolation from other classes.

        Government highway and housing policies created the problem and government policies are therefore responsible for desegregating housing and our segregated schools.

        Privatization by privately managed charter schools has not improved desegregation but made by government state charter laws, the segregation problem was made worse.

        The Supreme Court has blocked efforts to use race to desegregate public schools. But, it has not blocked (yet) effort to desegregate by funding housing loans by class.

        The major effort to segregate our Nation by race and class started with Federal housing policy after World War II. A major effort to desegregate would start with Government housing policies.

        But, Brown v. Board of Education II, in 1955 charged local government with the responsibility for desegregating public schools.

        My City of Oakland, California has a policy of “open enrollment” whereby in the name of equity anybody could apply for any school where there are seats available. Yet, while whites are about 10% of the Oakland Unified School District and despite “open enrollment policy” whites are located in just a few schools that are integrated, However, the percentage of non-whites in these schools on free and reduced lunch roll (Federal measure of poverty), is way below the over 70% free and reduced lunch students in all of Oakland’s other non-white schools.

        In other words, with a policy on the books of “choice”, the reality is that Oakland Unified School District schools are segregated by race and class. Parents with money purchase super expensive housing expecting to send their children to the local public school surrounded with high expensive homes.

        It is only when the Oakland School Board denies parents “choice” and assigns students to schools by their economic status that the desegregation of Oakland Unified School District will begin.

        For white families that can afford it, if a family doesn’t get its middle school and high schools placement, its choice is then a private school.

        There needs to be established by the Oakland School Board an effectively desegregate policy. And, the Board should pass a policy of reporting to the Federal Department of Education Office on Civil Rights the enormous number of Board authorized charter schools that are racially segregated. Additionally, the Board should no longer renew segregated charter schools.


  5. Jim – what millions of people of color are doing is insisting on selecting the public schools they think make sense for their youngsters.. Thanks for clarifying – You want Oakland to ASSIGN students to schools.

    Of course, wealthy people who can afford to live in virtually all white, affluent suburbs can avoid Oakland. (As wealthy, predominantly white families have been doing for decades all over the country). When low income people of color want to select the schools that make sense for their kids, you, like George Wallace stand i their way. You want to block them.

    Incidentally, civil rights hero Kenneth Clark, who contributed the research that led to Brown v. Board, was so fed up with school boards by 1968 that he urged creation of new public schools, OUTSIDE the control of local boards. (Sound familiar?)

    Harvard Ed Review, Winter, 1968

    Kenneth Clark wrote, in part:

    “Alternatives—realistic, aggressive, and viable competitors—to the present public
    school systems must be found. The development of such competitive public school
    systems will be attacked by the defenders of the present system as attempts to
    weaken the present system and thereby weaken, if not destroy, public education.
    This type of expected self-serving argument can be briefly and accurately disposed
    of by asserting and demonstrating that truly effective competition strengthens
    rather than weakens that which deserves to survive.”


    • Joe Nathan: The social science scholar Kenneth Clark frustration with unwillingness of school boards to implement integration with “all deliberate speed” would understandably speculate for a better public education system. Twenty plus years of privately managed charter schools demonstrated failed experiment in private management alternative.

      The Brown decision declared the system of legal segregation unconstitutional. But the Court ordered only that the states end segregation with “all deliberate speed.” This vagueness about how to enforce the ruling gave segregationists the opportunity to organize resistance. And, local government found alternative of “choice” to distract from local governments responsibility to provide regulations that desegregated housing and public school enrollment.


  6. John accurately explains that the term “charter school” guarantees nothing about the quality of the school. It’s something like the term “magazine” or “newspaper” that tells you nothing about the quality of the publication.

    Both “magazines” and newspapers” come from freedom of speech and the press.

    The same is true of “chartering” – the extension of freedom to create new public school options. The idea of chartering, similar to all great freedoms in this country – is about the opportunity to try to
    a. Do something new and potentially better, so long as
    b. You’re willing to be responsible for results an
    c. You accept some limits on what you are doing (in other words, you don’t have total freedom)

    Dr. Brock says many schools created via chartering are not as based (apparently) on test scores as district schools. Many of us have suggested the value of learning from the most effective schools whether district or charter, – using multiple measures, NOT just test scores.

    Seems to me that key to this discussion is to understand chartering – the freedom, consistent with other freedoms.


    • Joe Nathan: One of the main points the Merrow Report made about the words “restaurant” and “charter” is in the case of both words the buyer should beware as both words don’t tell you anything about the quality of what is being served.

      Following the Report calling for buyer be ware the Report mentions that when selecting from the thousands of charter schools there are at least 8 negatives the Report lists that someone looking at a charter school would probably want to avoid.

      The Report also generalizes regarding comparative quality of public schools and charters as: “… but the evidence suggests that most charter schools do not outperform their traditional counterparts.”

      Joe Nathan defends the idea of charter schools as providing freedom to innovate. The Report also mentions saving charter school concept by returning to its origins as source providing the freedom to innovate.

      “…some of the independent public charter schools are banding together in a new organization, The Coalition of Community Charter Schools, which is designed to give a voice to the 3,000-plus independent (‘Mom and Pop) charter schools. This organization seeks to return to the original vision of charter schools. To that end, it has created a comprehensive Statement of Principles that it expects all members to adopt and adhere to. The Principles, the equivalent of the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, include financial transparency, no admissions test, local control, multiple measures of accomplishment, collaboration, a commitment to diversity, and respect for teachers.”

      My view is that saving charter concept is a bad idea. I believe charters are bad public policy because taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay the inflated cost of competition between public schools and privately managed charter schools. And, a zero sum competition is financially wasteful and destructive to the lives of students and there families.

      Freedom to privatize public schools is bad public policy Mr. Nathan.


  7. Chartering is a lot like freedom of the press, which John Merrow & other journalists have used to help make America better. Does every journalist use this freedom responsibly? Of course not. But is American better off because journalists have the freedom to research & write? Absolutely.

    In the same way, American families, students & educator are better off because chartering provide new opportunities. As John constantly note, some people mis-use the freedom chartering provides.

    But just as American benefits from freedom of the press, it benefits from giving educators opportunities to create new, potentially more effective options. And American families also gain from having new options And yes, these new options do provide a challenge to the existing system – which has succeeded with some, and failed far too many.


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