Written by: Kacy Martin
Primary Source: Green & Write, November 27, 2015
Charter School Concentration: Demand in Urban Areas
The University of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski recently added her voice to the ongoing conversation around charter schools in America’s urban areas. Rather than comment on the more salient charter controversies around oversight concerns, authorizer policies, or competition with neighborhood schools, Dynarski addressed a less-examined topic: the contrast in achievement between urban and suburban charters. Surprisingly, urban charters succeed at a higher rate than their suburban counterparts.
Photo Credit: Richard Lemarchand
Charter schools are much more highly concentrated in urban areas. This is due to many factors, including the availability of infrastructure for charter expansion; the preference of philanthropists to bankroll new charters in metropolitan areas; and the existence of higher levels of demand for charters in urban centers. The latter of these, higher levels of demand in urban areas, can be partly attributed to politics and parental preferences. Rural and suburban republicans tend to support charter schools on ideological grounds. However, these same politicians may not actively campaign for charter authorizers in their own communities. Also, the suburbs are more likely to be populated by middle-class families who are largely happy with the neighborhood schools they have. There is little need for charters. By contrast, in urban areas with struggling neighborhood schools, parents are more likely to demand an alternative. Additionally, many urban parents like the idea of discipline-heavy school cultures and smaller school environments – two things charters can cater to.
The Charter Achievement Gap
Not only are there far more charter schools in urban areas, but urban charters seem to be outperforming their suburban counterparts. This finding requires some nuance, however. Measuring the effectiveness of any school is a methodological challenge. Charter schools often suffer from selection bias. That is, charters are filled with students whose parents are engaged and motivated enough to actively enroll their child in the school. This could result in misleading data and the illusion that a charter school is extraordinarily effective when in fact it owes its success to its ability to attract a more motivated and advantaged clientele. Because there are more options in urban districts as compared to suburban ones, higher performing children may be attending charters at a higher rate.
Still, charters are places where educators can try out new methods, experiment with curriculum, hire and fire teachers with less bureaucratic red tape, and extend the school day when preferable. For these reasons, some urban charter schools exceed neighborhood schools in student achievement and are more attractive to parents. Critics note, however, that charters may push out difficult students after the initial enrollment lottery, thereby avoiding the appearance that they choose students inequitably. Also, in many areas, oversight is weak, and poorly performing charters are allowed to expand.
Viable Options for the Urban Underserved?
The average suburban family is more likely to be satisfied with the educational options available to them. Neighborhood schools are perceived more positively, and when charters perform poorly, students can go elsewhere. In urban areas, the context of choice is more challenging. The charter experiment has given some opportunities to minority, low-income students who are unhappy with their neighborhood schools. For the individual student, the availability of a high-performing charter school is often a make-or-break variable in their future academic success.
Urban charters have their drawbacks, however, and they create a dilemma that suburban schools need not face. Charter schools unfairly compete with neighborhood schools, weaken bargaining power for unions, and drain dollars away from local schools, making it even more difficult to meet the needs of their students. Their establishment undermines efforts to improve neighborhood schools. While involved and informed parents can choose charters over their default public school, there are many students whose parents don’t have the time or capacity to shop for the school that might best fit their student’s needs. The question then is an age-old one in the school choice debate: Should policymakers value the individual student’s potential opportunities over the collective interest of a larger community?
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