Opinion: Assessing impact of charter schools

A national, yet controversial, charter school movement intended to promote school choice and school reform has made its way rather quietly to Kansas. Currently, 11 charter schools operate within Kansas’ 286 public school districts.

Begun as a way to encourage innovation in public schools, which teach 90 percent of the nation’s students, charters are present in 43 states.

Because charters are public but operate outside traditional education policies, they entice debate in other states, draw the attention of politicians and may well become a topic of discussion in Kansas’ next legislative session.

Will more opportunities for families to choose their students’ school help or hinder Kansas’ education system and state budget? The impact of charters is unclear.

Some policy experts see charters as freeing schools from the constraints of ingrained education bureaucracies and union contracts, so that students will achieve at higher levels and education costs will be reduced.

Other experts believe charters promote privatization of schools, cost more and can lead to a breakdown in public education.

In 1991 Minnesota sponsored the first charter law, which produced early success in high poverty, urban schools where 50 percent of charters still are found, but in Kansas all charter schools are located in rural or suburban areas. Wichita, for example, has no charters; however, the district supports magnet schools such as Buckner Performing Arts.

Charters are organized by community members and generally focus on specific content like the arts or an educational philosophy such as a Montessori school or new teaching methods. Charters may negotiate exceptions to public school rules, for example, requiring parents to participate in school activities.

In Kansas currently, charters are public schools approved by the school district in which they are located, follow the same accreditation policies as the school district, are not for profit and must be open to all students. They are part of the district and managed by the local school board.

Each charter’s funding comes from resources allocated to the school district within which the charter is located. In general, if a student in the host district moves to a charter, the state per-pupil funds move with the student, including any additional funds assigned to an English language learner or special education student. Currently, no earmarked state funding is provided to charters.

Charter critics point to the funding mechanism that pulls money out of the established school district potentially leaving the district with inadequate funds to provide its customary services.

In other states a charter industry exists with management of multiple charters contracted to corporate entities that can stretch across state lines and generate profits not reinvested in the charters. Critics also note that charters may negotiate fewer teacher licensure requirements and/or offer salaries lower than state averages.

An effective charter oversight system requires considerable investment in time and personnel. Kansas charters are well run, but charters nationally have grappled with ethical issues, mismanagement and fraud.

Charter benefits notwithstanding, problems presented by experimenting with lots more charters could override any proposed tax saving to Kansans.

Kansans need to decide whether many more charters will enhance or fragment the education system. Regarding charters, Kansans need to plan carefully.

— Sharon Hartin Iorio is professor and dean emerita of Wichita State University College of Education.

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