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The 8 biggest misconceptions about charter schools

By   /   January 26, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 4 of 8 in the series National School Choice Week

The school choice debate is a fierce one in Pennsylvania. From Erie to Philadelphia, parents searching for better educational opportunities for their kids regularly square off against anti-choice groups that vilify them for seeking alternatives to failing district schools.

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CHOICE WORDS: The school choice debate is often marked by rhetoric and false claims by charter school opponents.

The arguments against charter schools are passionate, but they are often wrong. The result is these false claims can confuse and misinform parents and divide communities.

Here are the eight most popular myths and misconceptions charter school opponents use in their effort to limit school choice and smear charter school advocates.

  1. 1. Charters are not public schools.

Yes, they are. “According to legislation, the governor, both parties in the Senate and House of Representatives, and the Commonwealth and Supreme Courts of Pennsylvania, charter schools are public schools,” Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools says. “Any statement to the contrary is in conflict with state law and the stated positions and decisions of all those legislative and legal institutions.”

2. Charter schools aren’t held to the same standards as public schools.

“Actually, they are held to higher standards than traditional public schools,” says Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, an education advocacy group committed to improving schools. “Like traditional public schools, they must take state standardized tests, but unlike traditional public schools, they are reviewed every five years and can be shut down if they aren’t performing.”

3. Charter schools aren’t accountable to anybody.

They are accountable to their individual district, the state and parents of enrolled students. District and charter schools are subject to the same academic performance and financial stewardship criteria and oversight as every district school. Charters actually have more oversight because they are subject to the terms and conditions of their charter agreements with their individual districts or the state Department of Education.

“They are more accountable since parents can remove their children from a public charter school if they are not satisfied with the educational programs and services,” said Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

4. Charter schools are for-profit money machines.

Contrary to claims that public schools are sold off to charter school operators, every charter school in Pennsylvania must be a non-profit organization. “There simply are no for-profit charter schools in Pennsylvania,” Fayfich said.

5. Charter schools are a financial drain on school districts.

It’s actually cheaper to educate a student in a charter school than a traditional district school. “Charter students receive an estimated 80 cents for every dollar a school district receives” for students in traditional public schools, Cetel says.

“Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools can’t levy taxes, receive limited facility funding, and have difficulty accessing the bond market to borrow funds,” he says.

One-third of Philadelphia’s $3 billion public school budget pays for charter schools, but one-third of the district attends those schools. If those students were enrolled in traditional district schools, it would cost more to educate them than in charters.

“There are some fixed costs that public schools maintain when a student leaves to attend a charter school,” Cetel said. “But if students are fleeing district schools to attend charters, it isn’t the charters’ fault that districts aren’t right-sizing to lower their costs or improving their schools to win back students.”

Related: Study finds charter schools outperform traditional district models. 

6. School choice is a partisan issue supported only by conservative Republicans.

School choice is backed on both sides of the aisle. “President Obama is a staunch charter school supporter,” Cetel said. “The voucher fight in Pennsylvania was led by Democratic State Senator Anthony Williams. Pennsylvania’s tax credit programs that provide scholarships for low-income students to attend non-public schools, usually pass the General Assembly with overwhelming majorities.”  

7. Charter schools don’t serve students with disabilities.

Incorrect. Charter schools must comply with federal law and accommodate students with special needs. “That’s why the percent of students with disabilities is comparable between charters and district schools,” Cetel said.  

8. Charter schools pick and choose students to pad academic performance.

Not true. Charter enrollment is based on a lottery. “Charter schools can’t look at academic or behavior records,” Cetel said. “The real ‘creaming’ in public education happens in traditional public schools, where magnet schools exclude students with lower test scores and affluent districts exclude families who can’t afford to live in the catchment.”

Part of 8 in the series National School Choice Week


Evan was formerly a Pennsylvania-based education reporter for Watchdog.org.