The problem with charter schools

There is a war being waged against public schools. There are people actively seeking to make them fail or at least look as if they are failing. This is a strong statement that I substantiate in my book The Achievement Gap in U.S. Education: Canaries in the Mine published back in 2005.

Long ago, greedy people realized that there was a huge amount of money that was being spent on public education and that if they could siphon off even a small percentage of that, they would still become very wealthy. In my book I argue that rather than noting that public schools are a mixed bag when it comes to quality and focusing on how to improve the poorly performing ones, the people with this agenda have relentlessly focused on negative news about the public school system and by creating assessment schemes that make most schools look bad, parents have been made nervous about the quality of their local public schools and thus become targets for alternatives, such as private, parochial, and charter schools.

Ohio could be a poster child for how charter school operators get special treatment from the state government and then end up defrauding the system and Ohio governor John Kasich was not quizzed nearly enough on the scandal that unfolded in Ohio under his watch.

At the epicenter is David Hansen, Kasich’s former charter school chief, who resigned last summer after acknowledging that he didn’t include the grades of online charter schools in ratings of their oversight agencies. The online schools are generally low-performing and have ties to GOP donors, which led critics to pounce. And Hansen is married to Beth Hansen, who is Kasich’s campaign manager for his bid to be the next president.

Before quitting, Hansen submitted a $71 million grant application to the federal Education Department that included the now disputed calculations and, according to the Columbus Dispatch, described the state’s oversight of charter schools in glowing terms. After the state was awarded the grant, several Ohio congressional Democrats including Sen. Sherrod Brown questioned why, given the charter system’s “record of misusing funds and abusing the public’s trust.” The federal government has since frozen the grant money while completes a review, and the state took the embarrassing step in January of updating its application figures to say that instead of having nine charter schools that are poor performing, 57 are in that condition.

The state superintendent of schools Richard Ross, appointed by Kasich, came under fire for the way that charter schools were allowed to violate state law and retired.

Ross has come under fire on several fronts this year, most notably his department’s handling of charter schools. His mother also died this summer around the time when criticism was heaviest.

The Ohio Department of Education violated state law by leaving out the F grades of online schools – some of which were founded by large Republican donors – from key charter school evaluations. These evaluations of charter oversight agencies were the centerpiece of Kasich and the state’s efforts to improve the quality of a $1 billion charter school industry in the state that’s ridiculed nationwide, even by charter school supporters.

John Oliver tackles the problems with these charter schools (there are now about 6,700 of them nationwide) and how so many of them are a scam. Yes, there are a few exceptions that provide good educations to children but that does not detract from the fact that many children’s lives are being ruined by greedy profiteers getting rich by taking taxpayer money and providing poor or non-existent education.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Is the USA deliberately trying to destroy its educational system? That is what it looks like to someone who lives in Canada.

    Charter schools, insane amounts of standardized tests that don’t seem to do any for the children, well other than make them vomit from tension and waste vast amounts of time with test prep that takes away from real teaching and learning, and VAM that seems to be about as invalid a measuring system for teacher performance that an evil genius could possibly devise.

    Then there are the attacks on teachers’ unions, what appears to be fairly low teachers’ pay by Canadian standards and general abuse of teachers by many politicans, with some of the the more rabid Republican governors leading the mob, and the funding cuts, often drastic, to public universities.

    I enjoyed the John Oliver video. While I knew that charter schools had a lot of problems I had not realized there were that many crooks and incompetents (and incompetent crooks) running the charter schools.

    The concept of charter schools seems insane to begin with. Some things work well in a free market environment but it seems that education and prisons are not among them.

    As George Bernard Shaw put it in a different context:

    That any sane nation, having observed that you could provide for the supply of bread by giving bakers a pecuniary interest in baking for you, should go on to give a surgeon a pecuniary interest in cutting off your leg, is enough to make one despair of political humanity.

    Then applying VAM in the public system was total madness. Teacher performance probably accounts for 10–15% of the variance in student behaviour at most.

    And as I understand it most or all of the standardized tests used in the USA have no published data on reliability or validity. This seems close to criminal. This means there is no quality control at all on the testing companys’ products.

    BTW I am a great believer in limited amounts of standardized testing when used appropriately. It appears that the tests used in the USA violate just about any ethical and even sane testing principle.

  2. says

    The problem with schools is that parents are allowed to manipulate where their kids go, which means they can push down their notions of race and class to the next generation.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    It both puzzles and disturbs me that Bill Gates has bought (put big money) into the school privatization movement.

    He doesn’t, unlike most of the other zillionaires involved, have investments in it, or a general case of rampant free-marketitis.

    Why, Bill?

  4. jrkrideau says

    @3 Pierce R. Butler
    Why, Bill?

    My guess is that he firmly believe in the free market competition model so it’s ideological. He genuinely wants to improve the quality of education in the USA and firmly believes that competition is the way to go.

    In his industry the free market competition model has worked quite well, from, at least, the 1960’s. It is just that he’s applying the model where it really does not make a lot of sense. If you only have a hammer every problem looks like a nail.

  5. rgmani says

    Let me start out with a few disclaimers. I have no dog in this fight. I have no connection whatsoever with any charter school or organization and my kids have never attended any charter school, nor is it likely that they ever will. My kids have attended both traditional public schools as well as private schools and we have, for the most part, been pretty happy with all of them. I tend to vote Democrat pretty much all the time and I am generally very sympathetic to Teachers Unions.

    Having said all of that, I feel that you are being somewhat unfair to charters. The phrase “Yes, there are a few exceptions” would seem to imply that most charters are pretty bad and there are a few good ones. That is quite far from the truth. The most comprehensive study of charter schools has been done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. This is an independent organization that is not affiliated in any way with the charter school movement. They have not been wholly complimentary about charter schools either. In fact, their 2009 national charter school study was somewhat negative about charter schools and was quoted ad nauseam by charter opponents. The next national study, published in 2013 showed charter schools making significant improvements and, all of a sudden, charter opponents stopped mentioning CREDO.

    You can see all of CREDO’s reports at To summarize, their latest report indicates that on average, charter school students about as well as traditional public school students but those that have been in the school several years do somewhat better than traditional public school students. However, that does not tell us the whole story. There are huge variations from state to state. For example, Ohio’s charters tend to be pretty crappy when compared to equivalent public schools but New York’s charters tend to be pretty good. Urban charters tend to outperform equivalent public schools but suburban and rural charters tend to be not quite as good.

    In the end, charter performance seems to boil down to the quality of oversight. States with tough charter laws and strong oversight end up with good charters and states with weak charter laws end up with terrible charters. Ohio has terrible charter laws and tons of loopholes through which schools can almost completely avoid any kind of oversight -- hence the low quality of their charters. John Oliver illustrated this pretty effectively. What he did not do justice to was to states where charters are, on the whole, working.

    On the whole, I see charters as a flawed experiment but one that is, in the end, worth persisting with. For me, it boils down to the ability to choose where my kids go to school. In the school district where I live, I even had the ability to choose among several (non-charter) public schools. On top of that, my income gives me the ability to put my kids in private school, should I so choose. I strongly feel that everyone, regardless of income, should have the ability to choose where their kids go to school. The correct approach, therefore, is not to end the charter school experiment but to use the successful states as a model and improve authorization and oversight procedures in those states where they are lacking.

    -- RM

  6. flex says

    @ rgmani,

    Not having steered children through their schools, I could also say that I have no dog in this fight. However, there are a number of things which bother me about the for-profit charter schools in my state.

    First, there is a significant lack of transparency. With some exceptions, largely dealing with the students, records from a public school are available for review by anyone. The for-profit charter schools are run like businesses; meaning waste, fraud, and abuse of funds are not discoverable. Since these schools are funded by public money, the distribution of these public monies should also be public.

    Second, public schools have additional costs which charter schools can avoid. Most charter schools in this area do not have busing. This results in a serious negative externality, the incredible traffic jams as parents drop their children off at school as well as when they pick them up at the end of the school day. The cost of transportation is no longer borne by the school (or the district), but by the parents. This is one of the main ways charters can make a profit, and a large profit.

    Third, many charter schools in my area do not offer any extra-curricular activities. Maybe you feel that no school should offer sports teams or theater groups. But, the charter schools often have no school bands or orchestras. No student led activities like debate clubs or gaming groups. Once the school day is over, the school closes. Public schools generally allow, even if they do not offer, activities which build community feeling. And, of course, this saves them money as well.

    Then there are topics like teacher’s pay and benefits, classroom size and teacher/student ratios. The quality of the educational resources can vary widely, and the course-plans are not generally public knowledge.

    I am not a fan of for-profit charter schools. The lack of transparency with public money is probably my biggest complaint. I suspect that if the general public knew exactly how much profit was being made by the owners of these companies, and realized that vast majority of the for-profit charter schools are paid from their tax money, there would be a pretty big stink.

  7. rgmani says


    Most charter schools are non-profit. As best as I can tell, the percentage of for-profit charters is between 10 and 20 percent. Of course, a lot of non-profit charters find ways of making money for their operators. For example, if the charter operator also owns a housekeeping company, it is perfectly legal for the operator to route all of the cleaning/maintenance contracts to that housekeeping company. This is the sort of thing that good charter laws and good oversight can help ameliorate.

    Regarding the additional expenses of regular public schools -- that is very true. However, please bear in mind that most charters get a smaller amount of money per student from the government than traditional public schools. That kinda evens things out.

    When it comes to extracurriculars, charters are all over the map. Some have quite a few, some don’t. The way I see it, enrolling a kid in a charter school is a matter of choice. No one is forcing you to send your kids to a charter. If extracurricular activities are important to you or your kid, don’t choose a charter that does not offer any.

    I do not pretend that charters are perfect -- that is why I called them a flawed experiment. However, they can be of great benefit to people who otherwise, would not have any choice of which school to send their kids to. Imagine you live in a hopelessly dysfunctional school district and then a new KIPP charter opens up in your area (KIPP is one of the most highly regarded charter operators). Getting your kid into that school could be genuinely life changing for him or her.

    I’m not trying to say that charters are the most wonderful things in the world. My irritation stems from the fact that any discussion on charters gets hopelessly polarized. One side depicts charters as the tools of unscrupulous capitalists to make money off the backs of students, undermine teachers etc etc. The other side thinks of them as some sort of panacea which will fix all of the nation’s education woes. It might be oldest cliche in the world, but in this case, the truth does lie somewhere in-between.

    -- RM

  8. jrkrideau says

    @5 rgmani
    ,Yes, there are a few exceptions” would seem to imply that most charters are pretty bad

    Perhaps not most but there appears to be a lot of them.

    As a Canadian I have even less invested in the US educational system than you or flex do. I just watch in bemused amazement.

    @6 flex summarizes many of the problems with the for-profits, and as John Oliver points out there is the problem of hiring a management company for a non-profit may well allow skimming off profits.

    There is also the problems of cherry-picking students or purging low-performance or difficult--to--deal--with students that has been reported in some charters. IIRC, this has been reported as a common problem in NYC with some charter school organizations. It is easier to show good results if you don’t have to take “every” student as I understand public schools must do.

    If this book excerpt is to be believed, I’d suggest that the KIPP Charter Schools should probably be accused of child abuse rather than good pedagogy.

    It also appears that the lack of decent labour laws or the lack of enforcement of said labour laws seems to indicate employee exploitation.

    I would agree with you that lack of oversight is a major problem. I get the impression that the administrative structures and legal framework for successfully operating charters does not exist in most or all US states.

    I cannot see any real impediment that would prohibit a non-profit charter working , or even a for-profit if there were strict limits on level of profit allowed as I believe exists in the regulated utilities industry if the correct legislation and administrative structures exist.

    I have read that something similar to non-profit charters seem to work in France but I suspect France has the administrative structures and legislation in place to handle many of the problems we are seeing in the USA.

    I have only skimmed the introduction to the 2015 CREDO report but I did notice that it only covered Texas schools, both public and charter. Perhaps Texas has better oversight or something. I don’t know all that much about the US educational system but I doubt that it generalized to all US states.

    Come to think of it, given what appears to be a wacko Texas Board of Education, it may be that even a poor charter beats the public system

  9. flex says

    the percentage of for-profit charters is between 10 and 20 percent.

    I don’t know the overall percentages, but I do know that the 4 charter schools which opened in this area of SE Michigan in the past 10 years are all for-profit. There is company out of Illinois which is running them. They do not select children, they are a first-come, first-serve charter school and all their profits are made by getting the state per/pupil money given to charter schools. The state funding, on a per/pupil level is less for charter schools than for public schools, but there is enough money in it to make it a profitable business. They build a pre-fabricated building, they do not offer any extra-curricular activities, and the teachers are poorly paid (I don’t know exact numbers, but I’ve heard in the range of $15/hour). For the one built in our township, we made them pay for road improvements to help the traffic flow (about $400,000) and they didn’t blink an eye. That tells me there is a lot of profit in them.

    There was a non-profit charter school, and a pretty good one, in the area. It closed about six years ago because the religious non-profit couldn’t afford to keep it open. It was a like a normal grade school, with a gym, extra-curricular activities, and fairly-paid teachers.

    I’m not saying charter schools are necessarily terrible. There are a couple in the region which appear to do well, and have been around for 30+ years. But the recent up-tick in for-profit charter schools strikes me as a means to bleed the public purse without providing the services expected in teaching our children.

  10. rgmani says


    One point about KIPP. The website that you linked to has been consistently anti education reform and anti charter and it is fitting that they would showcase a book that heavily criticizes KIPP. If you read “Work Hard, Be Nice” by Jay Matthews of the Washington Post you will see KIPP feted as the greatest thing that happened to children since forever. But then, Matthews has been consistently pro charter and pro education reform. For what it’s worth, KIPP makes a lot of data about its student outcomes and attrition rates public. You can check them out on the KIPP website and draw your own conclusions.

    I’m not sure where the truth lies. I’m not even sure that there is any such thing as “the truth” in a matter as complex as this. Schools that follow the KIPP model insist on strict discipline, a longer school day and year and have high expectations of both teachers as some ell as students. This works for some and not for others -- and that is not a bad thing. Forcing a kid into a single public school, imposes a one-size-fits-all approach on kids and parents. Such a model does not work for most things, least of all for education. Having an option such as a charter or a magnet school available gives kids and parents a choice. That option may not work for everyone but it can make a difference for some.

    Of course, it is necessary to maintain the quality of charters. That is where charter authorization laws and oversight come in. Ohio is notoriously bad in this respect. Some states such as New York are pretty good. I think the long term solution is to have high standards for authorization and oversight rather than limiting or eliminating charter schools.

    Regarding CREDO -- I think the national report comes out every 4 years. The first one was in 2009, followed by one in 2013. If they stick to that schedule, the next one should come out in 2017. They do release state reports more frequently. As you mentioned, the last state report was Texas in 2015. There were reports on Ohio and California in 2014.

    -- RM

  11. jrkrideau says

    I may or may not get the time to read one of the national CREDO reports but thanks for pointing out that the national reports are every four years. I just quickly grabbed the latest and did not notice anything state versus national reports

    I also just had a look at the Amazon site for Work Hard. Be Nice. and noticed this in the burb (the KIPP day is nine and a half hours); . If this is for grade school students I think I’m back entertaining the child abuse hypothesis.

    There is good evidence, dating from as far back as WWI that a 9.5 hour working day is suboptimal even for adults. Eight hours (with break) seems about the most one really wants over the long term. In fact that seems to be what the US FAA says:
    Current FAA regulations for domestic flights generally limit pilots to eight hours of flight time during a 24-hour period.

    Nine and a half hours of school for a 9 year old sounds like crazy unless there is a lot of down time for naps and play. Still KIPP could be providing a sheltered space, security and decent meals in which case onewould expect some good results.

    the completion of homework has to be sacrosanct (KIPP teachers are available by telephone day and night). Well, it may not be exploitation but it’s sounding like it unless KIPP pays a lot of overtime. And I have to wonder about the pressure this puts on the pupils/students.

    Quite honestly if this is from a book praising KIPP …!

  12. rgmani says


    I wouldn’t go so far as to call it child abuse but yes, it is pretty tough and it is not for every kid (or teacher, for that matter). However, they get very good results, their attrition rate is reasonably good and KIPP alumni and parents tend to be, for the most part, very positive about their experience there.

    I don’t want to turn this into a defense of KIPP. I have pretty much the same concerns as you about how much extra work you should be allowed to assign students or teachers. However, when you are getting kids who are years behind grade level (remember that KIPP started off as a set of middle schools), the extra work might be the only way of bringing kids up to grade-level in 3-4 years. Perhaps it is due to this that KIPP is now trying to open elementary as well as high schools with the ultimate goal of providing a full K-12 option for students in the areas they serve.

    -- RM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *