OP-ED: The problem with charter schools

Jeff Bryant
Tribune News Service
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Parents frustrated with how their children’s public schools have responded to the COVID-19 crisis — whether they opted for in-person instruction, remote learning, or a blend of both — may see charter schools, with their mostly free tuition and flexibility in reopening, as an attractive alternative.

But a new report from the Network for Public Education reveals that sending students to charter schools comes with a considerable downside: The schools may not stay open for very long.

The report crunched nearly two decades of data and discovered that more than one in four charter schools closed after just five years. That’s less than the number of years it takes for a typical kindergartner to complete elementary school.

More:City district orders Thackston to surrender charter, close in June

After 10 years, 40% of charter schools were shuttered; after 15 years, that rate rose to about 50%.

And the number of students impacted by charter school closures is considerable. According to the report, from 1999 to 2017, more than 867,000 students were displaced when their charter school closed. That figure is likely closer to 1 million students, if data from charter school closures between 1995 and 1998, as well as 2017 to 2019, were added to the analysis.

Students booted from a charter school that fails face a broad range of negative consequences. As studies have shown, students whose education is disrupted are more likely to experience lower engagement, poorer grades and higher dropout rates. Learning outcomes for younger students, in particular, are often deeply affected when they’re forced to switch schools.

Charter school closures, the Network for Public Education report highlights, are especially disruptive when they occur midyear, which is frequently the case. Also, the newer the charter school, the riskier it can be, as 36% of charter school closures studied by the group occurred within the first two years after opening (and 23% occurred during their third and fourth years).

Parents who live in Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida and Michigan should be especially wary. At the 10-year mark, charter school failure rates in Wisconsin were at 55%; in Arizona, 48%; in Florida, 42%; and in Michigan, 41%. Three of those states — Wisconsin, Arizona and Florida — are joined by Ohio at the top of charter closures at the five-year mark.

Families living in low-income communities of color are the most at risk of getting jilted by their charter schools. The Network for Public Education report found, for example, that charter school closures in three of the poorest cities in America — Detroit, Tucson and Milwaukee — were higher in neighborhoods where the poverty rate was above 30% of households, and significantly lower in more affluent areas.

Because of the risks posed by charter schools, and the current financial constraints caused by the pandemic, it is a mistake for federal, state and local governments to continue to funnel public money into a system that has so clearly failed.

— Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by the Tribune News Service.