Why America Still Can’t Agree on Charter Schools After 30 Years

From canceling student loans to banning books, education policy in the United States can become controversial.

A controversial educational policy that dates back to the 1990s is the charter school.

A charter school is a publicly funded school that is created by a private group. The group creates a contract with the state and local government, which spells out specific liability requirements. The government has the ability to close the school if it does not meet these standards. Additionally, these schools are exempt from certain state laws and regulations that traditional public schools must follow, but they are expected to meet educational standards.

“We have more autonomy to be able to have a more flexible budget and just make different academic decisions,” said Natalie Wiltshire, director of public school operations for KIPP Philadelphia.

KIPP, which stands for “Knowledge Is Power Program”, is the largest charter management organization in the United States, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Nearly 3,000 students attend KIPP schools in Philadelphia. Admission is determined by a lottery system, with 97% of students identifying as black or African American and 76% qualifying for a free or reduced price lunch.

“KIPP has changed my life tremendously,” said Daniel Harris, a former KIPP student who is now a teacher at KIPP West Philadelphia Elementary Academy. “My family had a lower income, but I know that’s not what [my teachers] saw me as. They saw me as someone who cared about his education, cared about his future, and wanted the best for himself and the people around him. That’s what KIPP was.”

At the organizational level, however, critics say charter schools hurt the broader public school district, due to funding and transparency issues.

“I am opposed to publicly funded, privately operated charter schools,” said Joseph Roy, superintendent of schools for the Bethlehem School District in Pennsylvania. “Don’t tell me you’re a public school if you’re not governed by the public.”

When a child leaves a district-operated public school, taxpayer dollars follow that student to the charter school. Opponents of charter schools say that even if the student leaves school, it does not reduce the costs of traditional public school.

“What ends up happening is there’s a downward spiral because as the money goes out with the kids, the services that the district can provide become less and less,” said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group that is openly against charter schools. “So more parents are going to charter schools. And that puts some districts in critical places where they’re really not able to serve the kids they have.”

“Right now we’re running parallel school systems and at some point that’s going to break,” Burris said.

Watch the video above to find out why charter schools are still so controversial.

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