Talk K-12 education for more than five minutes, and inevitably, the conversation turns to charter schools - those publicly funded, privately administered institutions that now educate more than 2 million American children. Parents wonder if they are better than the neighborhood public school. Politicians tout them as a silver-bullet solution to the education crisis. Education technology companies promote them for their profit potential. Opponents of organized labor like the Walton family embrace them for their ability to crush teachers unions.
But amid all the buzz, the single most important question is being ignored: Are charter schools living up to their original mission as experimental schools pioneering better education outcomes and reducing segregation? That was the vision of the late American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker when he proposed charters a quarter-century ago - and according to new data, it looks like those objectives are not being realized.
In recent years, major studies suggest that, on the whole, charter schools are producing worse educational achievement results than traditional public schools. For example, a landmark study from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes discovered that while 17 percent of charter schools "provide superior education opportunities for their students," a whopping "37 percent deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools." Likewise, the National Center for Education Statistics found that charter school students performed significantly worse on academic assessments than their peers in traditional public schools.
These numbers might be a bit less alarming if charters were at least making sure to "not be school(s) where all the advantaged kids or all the white kids or any other group is segregated," as Shanker envisioned. According to a new report from the National Education Policy Center, however, charters "tend to be more racially segregated than traditional public schools" - and in lots of places, they seem to be openly hostile to children who are poor, who are from minority communities or who have special education needs.
A smattering of headlines from across the country tells that story. "Nashville Charter Schools Blasted Over Racial Imbalance," blared a recent headline in The Tennessean. "Charter Schools Face Discrimination Complaints," read The Chronicle of Philanthropy. "Colorado Charter Schools Enroll Fewer With Needs," screamed The Denver Post. "Charter Schools Enrolling Low Number of Poor Students," reported The Miami Herald. The list goes on and on.
Some apologists might claim that for all their faults, charter schools are the solution to our education challenges because they are saving school districts money during tough economic times. But in many places, that's not even close to true. Indeed, as evidence from Ohio to New Mexico to Tennessee to Florida to Pennsylvania suggests, charter schools are often more expensive than their counterparts, meaning taxpayers are paying a premium to underwrite a segregated system now producing worse academic results than traditional public schools.
Does this all mean that charter schools are inherently bad? Of course not - there are some terrific charter schools out there. However, the data do suggest that charter schools are not a systemic answer to America's education crisis. In many cases, in fact, they make the crisis worse, not only exacerbating inherent inequalities, but also distracting attention from the real ills plaguing the education system - ills rooted in economic inequality and anemic school budgets.
Such challenges aren't sexy, simple or politically convenient - but they are the true problems at the heart of our education system. No matter how many charter schools pop up, and no matter how often education "reform" activists pretend they are a cure-all, those problems will continue harming kids unless they are addressed.
David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.