Charter vs. Magnet Schools
by Richard Kahlenberg
For many years, educators and policymakers who wanted better opportunities for low-income and minority students stuck in bad schools backed an innovative alternative: magnet schools, with specialized themes (such as the arts) or pedagogical approaches (such as Montessori) that would draw children of different economic and racial groups to come and learn together. A wide body of research found that low-income and minority students learn more in these magnet schools than in segregated high poverty schools.
In more recent years, conservatives, allied with some liberals, have backed a different alternative – charter schools, which generally do not actively seek racial or economic integration, and whose chief distinguishing feature from regular public schools is usually the absence of union representation for teachers. The line, taken up by people such as RiShawn Biddle in a piece in yesterday’s National Review Online, is that charter schools are eclipsing magnet schools because minority parents believe “quality of education is more important than integration.” What matters, Biddle and others suggest, are the “quality of teaching,” and “rigor of instruction,” not “the racial makeup” of a school.
But research has long found that the quality of teaching and rigor of instruction are directly connected to segregation, particularly socioeconomic segregation. High poverty schools tend to get the worst teachers. In schools with concentrated poverty teachers are less likely to be fully licensed, to be teaching in their field of expertise, to have high teacher test scores, to have extensive teaching experience, and to have considerable formal education. And the “rigor of instruction” is usually low in high poverty schools, which are plagued by low expectations. One national study found that the grade of “C” in a middle-class school is the equivalent of the grade of “A” in a high poverty school.
Charter school advocates think they can bypass these problems because of the non-unionized structure typically found in charter schools. Biddle writes that “union contracts and state laws...often allow the most talented teachers to flee poor, mostly minority classrooms.” Eliminate union representation of teachers and great educators will be united with low income and minority students, the theory goes.
But unions don’t “allow” teachers to flee high poverty schools; human freedom does. Teachers want to work in schools where they can focus on teaching history or English rather than classroom management; where they feel safe; and where they are supported by parents. Packing kids who face the biggest disadvantages into high poverty schools rarely produces the kind of environment teachers seek. A study by Eric Hanushek, John Kain and Steven Rivkin found that nonminority female teachers (who make up the bulk of American educators) on average would require a salary premium of between 25 and 43 percent to stay teaching in typical urban schools.
There is little evidence that charters have done a better job of attracting and retaining high quality teachers than regular public schools. Indeed, teachers in the mostly non-unionized charter sector burnout at much higher rates. One recent study found that the chances a teacher will leave the profession are 132 percent higher in charter schools than in traditional public schools. While charter school advocates frequently point to high-flying high poverty charter school chains, like KIPP, for attracting strong teachers and producing high test scores, most charter schools do no better than regular public schools. According to a landmark study by the generally pro-charter Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, only 17% of charter schools outperform regular public schools in math gains, while 37% do worse and 46% do about the same.
Biddle quotes Harvard professor Charles Ogletree, a charter school supporter, as suggesting that integration provided a “false promise.” But the charter school co-founded by Professor Ogletree, the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has delivered little on its promise to students. Founded to provide opportunities in “math, science and technology to minority children,” the school was placed on probation by the state in February 2009 for failing to make adequate yearly progress. In the Spring of 2009, only 33% of Banneker’s students were proficient or advanced in math. Cambridge’s regular public schools, all of which have special magnet themes and strive for socioeconomic balance, performed considerably better. And Cambridge’s public high school, which draws upon these magnets, has truly remarkable graduation rates for all groups of students. In 2008, Cambridge graduated 88.8 percent of its low-income students in four years, compared with 64.8 percent of low-income students statewide and 59.1 percent of low income students in Boston. Cambridge’s black and Hispanic students also far surpassed blacks and Hispanics in Boston and statewide in graduation rates, while whites in Cambridge graduated at the same level as whites statewide and far ahead of whites in Boston.
Charter schools are politically popular because they offer something parents whose children are stuck in high poverty schools desperately want: an alternative. But if the charter school movement wants to have a real impact, charters need to look more like magnet schools, where teachers are able to elect union representation and are less likely to burn out; and where affirmative efforts are made to bring together children from all types of backgrounds, avoiding the grave educational difficulties associated with concentrated school poverty. This formulation is far closer to the vision of legendary teacher union leader Albert Shanker, who first proposed the creation of charter schools in 1988. It should surprise no one that separate charter schools for rich and poor are no more successful than any of the earlier efforts to make segregated schools truly equal.