The Polluted Dialogue around Charter Schools: How Misinformation is Informing the Debate

Our democracy is sick.

In our world today, people can choose to live in their own bubbles, have the ability to shelter themselves from opposing perspectives, can find their own “alternative facts” to support whatever opinion they choose, and brush aside information that challenges their beliefs as “fake news.” Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this increasing polarization of our world. Caught in the crosshairs is what is often considered to be a bipartisan issue: charter schools and school choice.

A PACE/USC Rossier Poll was conducted in both 2014 and 2017 to explore Californians’ beliefs about education and schools. In a recently released article about the results, they found some interesting changes in public knowledge about charter schools. From the poll in 2014 to the one done in 2017, there was a 20% decrease in the number of respondents who selected “Don’t Know” or “Unsure” on the three questions about charter schools, which shows an increasing level of public confidence in what they think they know about school choice (White, 2018).

The troubling news is that the public was increasingly confident and incorrect at the same time. They expressed less uncertainty about the survey’s charter schools questions which asked if charter schools charge tuition, can be selective over which students they admit or reject, and how charter schools perform compared to traditional public schools (TPSs) on standardized tests. Before discussing the results, it’s important to note that 1) charter schools do not charge tuition because they are public schools, 2) as public schools, charter schools are open to all students and admit by lottery when the number of applicants is greater than the number of seats (meaning student grades, test scores, special needs, race, socio-economic status, and behavioral records have no impact on admission) and 3) the question of “whether charter school or TPS students perform better, the same or worse on standardized tests is not a question with a definitive answer” with mixed results in research (White, 2018). However, it’s important to note that this third point is contested, especially for performance of certain students in specific contexts. As the University of Michigan’s Professor of Public Policy, Education, and Economics Sue Dynarski pointed out in a New York Times article, there is a “consistent pattern” emerging from recent research that indicates that students in urban charter schools, “where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor, and nonwhite,” are doing better in improving student achievement than TPSs (Dynarski, 2015). But for the purpose of this survey, the researchers concluded that the best answer was that performance between TPSs and charters was about the same.

In the poll, they found that “the percent of voters that believed that California charter schools can charge tuition was 10 percentage points higher in 2017 (31%) than in 2014 (21%)” and a 5% increase in misconceptions about charter schools’ ability to be selective when choosing students from waiting lists, jumping to 25% in 2017 from 20% in 2014 (White, 2018). They also found growing beliefs “that students who attend charter schools perform about the same or worse than students in TPSs,” a widely debated issue, when they compared responses “between 2014 (the same, 23%; worse, 4%) and 2017 (the same, 28%; worse, 8%)” (White, 2018). While the majority of Californians still believe that charter schools have greater impact on student achievement, there is clearly a growth in beliefs that charters are no better or even worse than TPSs in this regard. Growing opposition to charter schools were also found in the Ednext Poll on School Reform which saw a 12% decrease in public support for charter schools (West, Henderson, Peterson, and Barrows, 2018).

So, what is the source of this misinformation and declining support? I believe that it in part has to do with President Donald Trump’s support of charter schools and his selection of the controversial school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. While DeVos has served as a convenient adversary for education groups and figures to set their sights on school choice, I have a hunch that the drop in charter schools’ popular support goes beyond this simplistic explanation. After all, that could explain why public support has declined but does not explain why the public’s beliefs about charters are becoming more factually untrue.

Because charter schools serve a very small percentage of students in public schools today, it’s likely that people’s opinions are not formed from personal experience. Information moves quickly (and often recklessly) through social media and the topic of charter schools and school choice seems to be a popular subject of education-oriented organizations, scholars, and online influencers. My jaw often drops as I scroll through Twitter feeds and see attacks on charter schools from influential individuals and groups that are propagating the misconceptions measured in the PACE/USC Rossier poll. Most common seems to be incorrect (or at least overgeneralized) statements about charter schools being for-profit when less than 13% are (National Alliance for Charter Schools, 2017), or about “cherry-picking” of the best students, which a study of 8 states’ charter systems found “no systematic evidence to support the fear that charter schools are skimming off the highest-achieving students” (Zimmer et. al, 2009, p. xii). It’s often ignored that skimming or creaming the best students has been allowed to happen for years in TPSs with little outrage (Osborne, 2016) and continues to be an issue in places like Chicago (Perez Jr., 2018). The influence of social media on public opinion around education reform and policy is unknown, but it certainly could be a powerful medium for informing or misinforming the public discourse on these critical issues.

Are there problems with charter schools? Absolutely! Are they perfect? Absolutely not! I’m not trying to promote either side on this issue, but instead express a concern over the basic level of understanding of these issues which is needed to even start to engage in discussing such a controversial and important topic. What I’m trying to encourage is that we continue to talk about public schooling  in a way that is both informed and well-intentioned. We should be having honest conversations about what is working for students, families, and communities, but that will be impossible if the conversation is filled with misconceptions and half-truths.

After all, the health and sustenance of a democracy is based on having an informed and active citizenry, isn’t it?

Resources

Dynarski, S. (November 20, 2015). Urban charter schools often succeed. Suburban ones often don’t. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/upshot/a-suburban-urban-divide-in-charter-school-success-rates.html

National Alliance for Charter Schools (2017, November). Facts about charters. Retrieved from http://www.publiccharters.org/get-the-facts/public-charter-schools/faqs/

Osborne, D. (2016, August 25). The charter school pot and kettle. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2016-08-25/public-schools-cherry-pick-just-like-charters-where-is-the-outrage

Perez Jr., J. (2018, February 21). Thousands of students improperly won seats in CPS schools, a ‘pervasive problem,’ inspector general says. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-chicago-schools-elementary-enrollment-problems-investigation-20180220-story.html

West, M. R., Henderson, M. B., Peterson, P. E., & Barrows, S. (2018). The 2017 EdNext poll on school reform. Education Next, 18(1), 32. Retrieved from http://educationnext.org/2017-ednext-poll-school-reform-public-opinion-school-choice-common-core-higher-ed/#_schoolchoice

White, R. S. (February 13, 2018). Californians gain confidence in (misinformed) understanding of charter schools.  Retrieved from https://cepeg.usc.edu/californians-gain-confidence-misinformed-understanding-charter-schools/

Zimmer, Ron & Gill, Brian & Booker, Kevin & Lavertu, Stephane & R. Sass, Tim & Witte, John. (2009). Charter Schools in Eight States: Effects on Achievement, Attainment, Integration, and Competition. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

One thought on “The Polluted Dialogue around Charter Schools: How Misinformation is Informing the Debate”

  1. These are such important points: misinformation and misunderstanding seems to rule the conversation about charters, which makes it difficult to have the critical conversations that we need to have about them, their effects on students, and their effects on public education. Thank you for spotlighting the things that are getting in the way of those conversations!

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