Debating Charter Schools: Why I Like Charter Schools


EDITOR’S NOTE: Although Paul Hewitt and Robert Maranto are fellow faculty members in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas with office doors 25 feet apart, their views on the merits of charter schools could not be more disparate. Hewitt, a former superintendent in Northern California, teaches in the educational leadership program; Maranto holds a chair in leadership in the department of education reform.

War talk by men who have been in a war is always interesting; whereas moon talk by a poet who has not been in the moon is likely to be dull.” — Mark Twain, from Life on the Mississippi

Charter schools elicit opinions from three kinds of people: those who love charter schools, those who hate charter schools and those who have actually been inside a charter school.

For the lovers, often people whose children are having a horrible time in traditional public schools, the choice is easy. Charters are different, so they must be better.

Charter haters expend even less cognitive effort. In my experience, few charter haters have ever set foot inside a charter school. Traditional public schools work for us, and often we work for them, so we hate the competitors with the same enmity that New York Yankees fans feel for the Red Sox. I hate to say it, but much of school politics concerns cash contracts and team loyalties, not kids.


Some haters focus on failing charters, while ignoring the many studies indicating that charters running more than two years produce slightly greater academic gains and far more teacher and parent satisfaction. (For research summaries, see my co-edited A

Maranto boardBased on his fieldwork in charter schools, Robert Maranto sees them as a better option than traditional public schools for educating disadvantaged students.

Guide to Charter Schools: Research and Practical Advice for Educators, available at www.rowmaneducation.com.) Others state, without evidence, that successful charters must be cheating in some way.

On several occasions I have offered to take charter opponents to visit charter schools. Each time I have been rebuffed. This reminds me of my late uncle who hated African Americans — yet never actually had met any!

Suffering Kids
I’ve now done fieldwork in more than 50 charter schools in eight states, as well as more than 20 traditional public schools in four states, and I’ve read much of the literature. From this I know that charters will not replace traditional public schools. Where charters are allowed to flourish, as in Arizona with its 10 percent charter market share, they mainly help kids who need help and harm traditional public schools that need to be shaken up.

On the latter point, in a 2009 quantitative analysis published in the Journal of School Choice, Scott Milliman and I show the best predictor of where charters pop up is ineffective school district leadership. Charters grow where school administrators treat parents and teachers like “tall children.” Some superintendents are great, and most are OK, but at least a few who I’ve observed have the ethics and tactics of Joseph Stalin. Such leaders can survive for decades, so long as they serve the powerful. Non-influential parents know if they complain, their kids will suffer. For them, charters offer a way out. After enough parents and teachers leave, the school board may terminate the superintendent, and Perestroika begins.

But that’s in bad schools. What about good schools, like those run by my friend Paul Hewitt during his years as a superintendent? A basic fact that school reformers like me need to admit is that traditional public schools actually do a pretty good job serving traditional kids. Unfortunately, traditional public schools too often bore or bully gifted kids. As a mother in Pennsylvania told me, her daughter “was picked on for being smart. … Teachers and administrators say they crack down on bullying, but when the popular kids are bullying, they just think it is funny.” Moving her child to a charter school, she said, was “the greatest thing we have ever done.”

I’ve talked to more than a few kids over the years who thought they would have joined the ranks of teen suicide victims had they not left for charters. Those cases fit with research published by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (www.crpe.org).

Of course, traditional public schools already have anti-bullying programs. Those programs work well for those they employ and for politicians who want to say they are doing something about the problem. Unfortunately, I know of no evidence they work for kids, especially those whose parents lack clout.

Unresponsive Leaders
And then there are the at-risk kids. The simple fact is that traditional public schools do an awful job teaching the disadvantaged. I know school administrators who say privately, “You just can’t teach those kids.” Yet a few charter schools, such as KIPP, Harmony and Dove Science Academy, have not given up and collectively show you can prepare most disadvantaged kids for college.

As the methodologically sophisticated 2010 Mathematica Policy Research evaluation “Student Characteristics and Achievement in 22 KIPP Middle Schools” (www.mathematica-mpr.com) shows KIPP does not weed out low performers. It turns them into middle and high performers. I’ve done hours of fieldwork at high-poverty charters with high achievement and can say with some authority that traditional public schools can copy most of the playbook, if they want to.

The fact is most parents are not fools. If a regular public school serves their kids, they will stay. But if a traditional public school fails their kids, who gains when we make them stay? Don’t tell me with a straight face it’s all for the children.

Robert Maranto holds the the 21st-century chair in leadership in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. E-mail: rmaranto@uark.edu