Editorial: Charter schools aren’t a big joke

The Detroit News

The charter school movement is going through a rough patch. As these alternative public schools expand nationwide, educating more than 2.5 million students, the criticism surrounding them is also growing. Some of the negative attention is deserved. But much of it is overblown.

Charter schools have flourished because in some jurisdictions, traditional public schools aren’t living up to their mission. Yet oddly, charters are often blamed for creating the problems in American public education.

For instance, the NAACP called for a moratorium on privately-run charters at its convention this summer, saying that charters have led to “increased segregation” and that “weak oversight of charter schools puts students and communities at risk of harm ... and further erodes local control of public education.” In addition, the group claims that charters “mirror predatory lending practices” that led to the mortgage crisis.

Apparently, the NAACP doesn’t think families deserve to have choices regarding where they send their children to school and should be trapped in failing neighborhood schools.

A report last year from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, a leading analyst of charter schools, looked closely at the performance of urban charter schools and found that many of these schools are doing good work. Detroit was one of the urban areas included in the study, and was upheld as an example of positive charter performance.

The report states: “Across the 41 regions, more than twice as many urban regions show their charter schools outpacing their district school counterparts than regions where charter school results lag behind them.”

Despite such results, John Oliver, the comedian who hosts the HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” joined the anti-charter fray recently when he ranted against charter schools for more than 15 minutes. Oliver pointed out a few valid shortfalls, but the one-sided segment might as well have been written by the teachers unions.

School choice is no laughing matter. Many of the students who attend charter schools come from poor and minority households. This is certainly true in Michigan, which has about 300 charter schools. The largest concentration of students attending charters is in Detroit.

Detroit Public Schools has failed students for decades. Since the 1990s, charters started offering parents an alternative, and families flocked to them. More than half the city’s children now attend charters.

Not all charters are doing a good job, and the ones that aren’t should be closed. More than 100 charters have closed in Michigan, and many for academic reasons. As of yet, no traditional public school has closed for that reason.

Charters in Detroit also are criticized for opening and closing at will, destabilizing neighborhoods. The numbers don’t support that, however. This fall, only seven charters are opening in the state, including just one new school in Detroit.

There is room for improvement. News last week that University YES Academy in Detroit is closing its high school just two weeks before the start of school is not how charters should be acting. The 300 students affected are now scrambling to find a new school.

But overall, the charter sector is making a real contribution. And parents should be given some credit for taking the initiative to choose the best school for their child.