Charter Schools Are the Justin Bieber of Education Reform - a Fad Gone Too Far

By Gill, Sam | The Christian Science Monitor, February 18, 2011 | Go to article overview

Charter Schools Are the Justin Bieber of Education Reform - a Fad Gone Too Far


Gill, Sam, The Christian Science Monitor


Among all the programs that face cuts in President Obama's new budget, education is a clear winner. Charter school funding, however, suffers a slight decrease. And this may be a good thing. Charter schools have become another silver-bullet 'idea fad' racing through education reform.

President Obama released his 2012 budget proposal earlier this week to a fanfare of predictable criticism from the right and a few cries from the left. In a budget that saw cuts to many cherished programs, one of the big winners was education - with an 11 percent boost in total funding. Within education spending, however, the popular charter school movement wound up as a slight loser - with proposed funding reduced to $372 million after a pledge of $490 million in last year's budget.

While some charter school advocates may wring their hands over the slight reduction in proposed funding, the rest of us should be asking whether charter schools have been adequately scrutinized as part of a "tough choices" budget.

Smoke and mirrors in Obama's budget? Five examples of creative accounting.

That's because investing over half a billion dollars on charter schools in a two-year span suggests that policymakers are overly susceptible to ideas that seem cool rather than ideas that we know are sound. The unfortunate reality is that charter schools are the latest example of "silver bullet" solutions that burst onto the scene each generation, promising a swift end to endemic problems in education before ultimately coming up short.

If we want charter schools to work, we must be careful to resist the "idea faddism" that so often turns tomorrow's innovation into yesterday's failed idea. This means avoiding the urge to go all-in with federal funds during what should be a period of continued experimentation.

US love affair with charter schools

The recent American love affair with charter schools is well documented. In 1991, Minnesota passed groundbreaking legislation to create the first charter school in the nation, with the first opening its door a year later. Now there are more than 5,000 charter schools nationwide.

Public support for these schools is also widespread, with vocal champions from both sides of the aisle. While few issues have unified the last three presidents, charter schools is one of them. President Clinton set a target of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2000 in his 1997 State of the Union address, and President Bush sought $200 million in federal funds to support them.

Obama has outdone them both. Not only has he included hundreds of millions in charter school carrots through his budget proposals, but he has also wielded a big charter school stick through the Race to the Top Program. A state's willingness to foster charter schools was considered a critical reform element in its bid for a share in the original $4 billion Race to the Top program. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made clear at the time, "States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund."

Charter schools have found an abundance of advocates outside of government as well. School reform superstar and former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has been an outspoken champion of charter schools as part of her acclaimed school reform agenda. …

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