Bellwether “Briefing Book”: By 2035, Charter Schools will Educate 20-40% of all American Public School Students

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Bellwether has just issued a “briefing book” called “The State of the Charter School Movement” which “reviews the current state of play of the charter school movement, recent accomplishments, and opportunities and challenges going forward.”

Here are a few highlights:

  • “The charter movement has made significant progress in the past five years,” with current enrollment of 2.9 million students and a 6% annual growth rate.
  • “New research shows that charters are improving student achievement: on the aggregate,” primarily in major cities (like Newark) with “historically underserved student subgroups.”
  • Challenges include “lack of access to facilities,” “political opposition,” and “ineffective authorizing.”
  • More than 1,100 charter schools have closed in the last five years, an example of healthy oversight.  (See today’s Philadelphia Inquirer for a Philly-specific example.) Demand from families is such that “over the past six years, nearly 10% of charter schools each year were new.”
  • High-performing charter school operators are clustered in 15 cities (including Newark).
  • “Charter schools serve higher percentages of low-income, black, and Latino students than traditional district schools.”
  • “Despite charter sector growth, more than 1 million children are on charter waitlists nationally.”
  • The most impressive student outcomes are from urban charters. In these schools, students who benefit most are black students and English language learners.
  • “If current trends continue, charter schools will educate 20- 40 percent of all U.S. public school students by 2035.”

The report also delves into  charter schools’ proportionately smaller enrollment of children with disabilities.  Nationally, 11.2% of students enrolled in traditional district schools are identified as eligible for special education services, but only 8.2% of students enrolled in charters have disabilities.

This discrepancy, according to Bellwether, has less to do with charters’ unwillingness to serve special needs kids and more to do with the fact that charters have fewer resources, parents of kids with disabilities tend to be “risk-averse” (trust me on this; us special needs parents have all the risk we can handle), some charters may counsel out kids with disabilities, and districts may over-identify kids.

A few thoughts:

As charter school demand continues to grow (currently there are one million children on charter school waiting lists) and new charters open,  teacher labor union opposition may decrease. The writing’s on the wall: why fight a losing battle? Screeds like this one from Newark Teachers Union – ““NO to more charter schools – YES TO TRADITIONAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS! “ — paint union leaders as anachronistic and narcissistic, more concerned with market share and less concerned with student well-being. Smart leaders will recognize this reality and urge constituents to accept charter schools as part of the landscape of public school systems.

Charter schools are particularly popular with black parents. In Newark, for example, charter schools will enroll 50% of Newark’s black students. There’s a natural link between this trend and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Enrollment of children with disabilities in charter schools lags and charter school operators need to improve access through appropriate programing and accommodations. There also may be a missed opportunity here. Children with moderate to severe disabilities are often served in out-of-district placements, a common practice in New Jersey.  Why not create charter schools specifically for children with disabilities? There are a few out there – the NYC Autism Charter School comes to mind – but they’re rare birds.

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1 Comment

  • Laura, September 25, 2015 @ 1:04 pm Reply

    Great commentary on special ed and charter schools!

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