How Charter Schools Empower Inner-City Children to Escape Failing Public Schools

COMMENTARY Education

How Charter Schools Empower Inner-City Children to Escape Failing Public Schools

May 20th, 2019 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Jude Schwalbach

Research Assistant, Center for Education Policy

Jude is a research assistant in education policy at The Heritage Foundation.
For many low-income families who live in America’s inner cities, a feeling of helplessness is entrenched by high crime rates, gang activity, & cycles of intergenerational poverty. Sasi Ponchaisang / EyeEm / Getty Images

Butler College Prep, a top-rated charter school on the South Side of Chicago, provides an atmosphere that reflects and engages the local community. 

The founder and principal, Christopher Goins, built his school community by intentionally hiring teachers from Historically Black Colleges so students would have relatable role models.

“If [students] don’t love the school and enjoy learning, then they are not going to learn. And it goes back to what research states,” Goins, noting the importance of a tailor-made education, told Ebony magazine. “Those of us who grew up black know that we respond to a supportive family-like environment, a place that understands who we are and appreciates who we are.” 

Butler College Prep is just one example of successful public charter schools that operate with less funding and greater autonomy. 

Instead of being trapped by their ZIP codes, the advent of charter schools meant that low-income parents were no longer compelled by the government to send their children to assigned district schools. Parents could vote with their feet for the first time.

For many low-income families who live in America’s inner cities, a feeling of helplessness is entrenched by high crime rates, gang activity, and cycles of intergenerational poverty. So, families are eager for the chance to choose their children’s schools.

Safety, innovative curricula, and unique missions give public charter schools the opportunity to impact specific communities and tailor their programs to them. In fact, charter schools impact student achievement most among low-income and academically struggling students.

For example, CBS News reported on a 2013 study that found that “black students gained the equivalent of 14 days of learning by attending charter schools, but that black students living in poverty saw even greater benefits, the equivalent of 29 days in reading and 36 days in math.”

But charter schools do more than just increase academic gains, they create environments where children feel safer and receive character and values instruction—two of the top three priorities for parents.

For instance, New York charter schools are safer than their district school counterparts. As Max Eden from the Manhattan Institute observed, “While every charter school is different, and the advantage is not universal, the conclusion is unmistakable: From a parent’s perspective, a charter school is frequently the safest option in the neighborhood.”

Another advantage of charter schools is their autonomy, which allows them to innovate in the classroom and to create a specialized environment.

For instance, Democracy Prep Charter School, which aims to increase civic participation among low-income and minority students, is a prime example of how charter schools instill values in students. 

Researchers found that students enrolled at Democracy Prep were more likely to register to vote and to vote in the 2016 election.

Opponents of charter schools, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., argue that charter schools drain funds from district public schools and prevent integration. In their minds, charter schools need greater regulations to protect taxpayer dollars.

Higher regulations, however, can have adverse, unintended consequences. 

Jonathan Butcher, senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, discovered public school districts rife with waste and fraud. 

“There are districts with excess administrative spending, vacant buildings supported by taxpayer resources, fraud, and theft … . State lawmakers should require school districts to clean up the books … ,” he wrote.

Similarly, the California Policy Center discovered wasteful spending in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which provided pay bumps totaling $519 million annually to teachers who took classes directly related to any subject taught in the school district. 

Or take the billions wasted on bumps to teacher salaries due to master’s of arts degrees. As Harvard economist Thomas Kane commented, “Paying teachers on the basis of master’s degrees is equivalent to paying them based on hair color.”

The real drain on school district budgets comes from poor internal management and waste—not from quality charter-school alternatives for families. Due to their near-monopoly, district schools lack the market pressures that should incentivize them to respond to student needs.

Charter schools in Wisconsin, on the other hand, achieved better outcomes than district schools, according to a new study by Corey DeAngelis of the Reason Foundation. 

He found that “private and independent charter schools tend to be more cost-effective than district-run public schools in the state overall and for the vast majority of individual cities.”

Similarly, charter schools in Oakland, California, and in Los Angeles achieved nearly equal outcomes while only operating at a fraction of the cost (63% and 73%, respectively). 

Additionally, a 2017 meta-analysis of the literature on charter schools’ effect on integration found neutral to positive effect overall. 

On the whole, charter schools break up the geographic district school monopoly. But most importantly, parents—not big government—choose the school that best fits their children’s needs. Charter schools empower parents and give many children from low-income families opportunities that they could not otherwise afford to attend.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal