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The Charter School Correction

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The increase in the availability and popularity of charter schools, as well as their cost and performance, have positioned them at the forefront of educational debates. The arguments about charter schools often focus on predictable themes, such as spending per pupil, student composition, and academic achievement. These topics raise pertinent issues, but fail to ask the most important question. Can an army of high-performing charter schools close the achievement gaps that exist across the United States? In short, the answer is "No."

Certainly, many individual charter schools and their networks have demonstrated impressive academic and non-academic results with populations of at-risk students. Based on their success, many charter school leaders have sought additional resources while espousing a philosophy of producing scalable and replicable models of education that eradicate achievement gaps. However, the very things that make these charter schools successful, when compared with their public school counterparts, ultimately will prevent their ability to eliminate achievement gaps.

Some successful charter schools provide disadvantaged students an educational opportunity to catch or overcome their advantaged peers. For students lucky enough to win the lottery of a successful charter school, generations of their family and friends might reap the benefits of that single charter school education. Compelling news magazine stories and documentaries instill hope that charter schools can halt the cycle of poverty. However, before providing resources to replicate and scale charter schools, educational stakeholders need to consider the response of the educational marketplace.

The strategies employed by many charter schools conceive of achievement gaps as resulting from a deficient or inefficient delivery of education to disadvantaged students. For instance, many of the most popular and successful charter schools increase the dosage of school. By extending the school day and year, charter schools close achievement gaps by providing their students with more (and sometimes better) instruction than peer students in public schools. Such tactics close achievement gaps by raising the performance of disadvantaged students while the dosage and performance of advantaged students remains static.

However, markets rarely allow the continuation of such an advantage. Once a substantial inefficiency has been identified, market participants will adopt operations that eliminate the inefficiency and advantage. Charter schools often excel by taking advantage of the inefficiencies of the educational market. This correction of longstanding inefficiencies has the potential to raise the achievement of all students, but will not eliminate the gaps between them.

Consider the scenario in which substantial charter school expansion occurred and charter students began supplanting affluent public school students in collegiate admissions. How would parents and schools of the supplanted students respond? Almost certainly, parental outcry would demand public school leaders extend their school days and years. Returning to equivalent calendars would likely reestablish achievement gaps, even with the most successful charter schools. Moreover, there is a possibility that districts with limited tax bases and resources would not be able to extend school time, potentially widening the existing achievement gaps.

To the credit of many charter school leaders, they have identified an underserved segment of the student population and designed initiatives that address those needs. By isolating these niches of students, charter schools can deliver targeted interventions. In addition, the limited number of students served by charter schools works to their advantage because their performance has not yet substantially influenced the greater population of students.

Unfortunately, the success of individual charter schools and the disadvantaged students who attend them has too often resulted in denigration rather than celebration. To be fair, leaders and proponents of charter schools also engage in too much defamation of public schools and educators. In the discourse about how to solve the achievement gap problem, American students deserve more than barbs intended to curry political favor, sell more books, or garner donor resources. This tedious banter between adversaries and advocates does not adequately capture the complexity and nuance of the existence, operation, and achievements of charter schools.

Understanding how charter schools function suggests the need for policies that enable their existence, but also demonstrates their inability to eliminate achievement gaps. The individual and collective benefits of well-educated citizens requires that educators and policymakers not ignore the success of charter schools, nor the methods that achieved those results. However, if charter school operators want to expand their networks, they need to consider the ramifications for all children, not just those lucky enough to win a lottery.