April 11, 2003

Charter Schools Suffer From Ill Prepared Teachers, Unequal Funding Reform Experiment May Reinforce Achievement Gaps, New Study Finds

  The nation’s ballooning number of charter schools rely heavily on uncredentialed teachers, fail to acquire federal monies intended to aid low-achieving or disabled children, and display the same finance disparities that beset regular public schools, according to an unprecedented study to be released today (April 8, 2003).

Forty-eight percent of teachers in the average charter school lack a teaching certificate, compared to 9 percent in the typical public school. Charter schools display Spartan staff mixes, where the average teacher instructs more than 20 percent more students each day than teachers in regular schools.

The study, drawing on a national survey of charter school educators, was led by scholars at the University of California and Stanford University. The analysis found that fewer than 5 percent of all charter students are helped by federal programs for low-income students, even though 43 percent of the children qualify for assistance. 

“Charter schools now offer hope for hundreds of thousands of families, many dissatisfied with mediocre or unsafe local schools,” said Berkeley professor of education and public policy Bruce Fuller, who directed the study. “Ironically, we discovered that many charter students are exposed to less qualified teachers and weaker instructional support than if they had remained in regular public schools.”

More than 2,600 charters schools have sprouted since 1991, serving just under 700,000 students in 36 states and Washington, D.C. Each operates on public funding but independent of their local school board and most government rules.

The Berkeley-Stanford team briefed reporters at a seminar in Los Angeles (April 4-6) hosted by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Teachers College, Columbia University, which offers pro-fessional development for journalists. The Institute was not involved in the study. 

This first-ever survey of charter school teachers and principals was conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census for the National Center for Educational Statistics. Raw data were given to research groups last fall. 

Disparities among Charter Schools - Across States

  The investigation reveals that black children attending charter schools are more isolated racially than those attending regular public schools In charter schools serving the most African American students, enrollments are 80 percent black on average. In comparable public schools, students are more integrated with just 54 percent, black. This disparity in racial isolation was not observed for Latino charter students.

“Some black educators are attracted to the charter school mechanism, aiming to reinforce their communities and ethnic identity,” said study co-author, Marytza Gawlik. “What’s worrisome, however, is that predominately black charter schools suffer from acutely low resources, compared to other charter schools.”

Just under 60 percent of teachers in predominantely black charter schools lack a teaching credential. Almost two-thirds of their students come from poor families, yet only 6 percent receive federal instructional aid to which most are entitled.

Why charter school principals fail to draw down federal funds for low-performing children remains a mystery. Earlier research, however, points to limited management capacity within charter schools and tight-fisted school boards as two possible reasons. 

Researchers found that charter schools run by private firms rely heavily on less experienced, uncredentialed teachers, who make up 55 percent of their staff, compared to charters run by local parents or educators, where 45 percent of teachers are uncredentialed. One-third of privately managed charter schools reported offering an innovative or special purpose instructional program, compared to 48 percent of locally managed charters. 

Teacher quality and instructional resources vary dramatically across states. In California, the ratio of children per full-time teacher is twice the level observed among charters in North Carolina (30: 1 versus 14: I, respectively). Florida charter schools identify 22 percent of all students as having some kind of learning disability, compared to just 8 percent of all charter students in Michigan. Fully 80 percent of all charter teachers are uncredentialed in the District of Columbia, compared to 32 percent in California. 

Policy Context

These findings will likely fuel debate among political leaders who split between support for centralized school accountability regimes versus market reforms, like charter schools. President Bush has asked Congress to approve $753 million next year in new funding to expand charter schools and voucher experiments. Given recent scandals, some states are clamping down on charter schools.

The new report asks whether the Bush Administration will hold charter schools to the same standards which regular schools must now meet, especially new teacher credential requirements. “Without serious attention to equity,” said Fuller, “this hopeful experiment may deepen the very inequalities that charter advocates claim they are meliorating.”

This survey of charter school educators was conducted during the 1999-2000 school year. Fully 86 percent of all known charter schools participated, yielding a sample of 870 schools (weighted sample equals 1,010 schools), along with 2,847 participating teachers. The study has undergone peer review from independent scholars. A portion of the findings will appear in a book this summer, published by Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Prof. Fuller, director of the study, is author of Inside Charter Schools: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization (Harvard, 2000), and codirector of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an institute based at Stanford and the University of California.

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