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Charter Schools Suffer from Ill-Prepared Teachers, Unequal Funding: Hechinger Institute Provides Forum for New Research

In April, TC's Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media hosted a forum for new research in Los Angeles. According to a new study, a ballooning number of charter schools rely heavily on uncredentialed teachers, fail to acquire federal funds to aid low-achieving or learning-disabled children, and display the same finance disparities that beset regular public schools.

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

The study draws on a new national survey of charter schools and was led by scholars at the University of California and Stanford University. The analysis found that federal programs for low-income students help fewer than 5 percent of all charter school 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 found that many charter school students are exposed to less qualified teachers and weaker instructional supports than if they had remained in regular public schools."

More than 2,600 charter schools have sprouted since 1991, serving just fewer than 700,000 students in 36 states and Washington, D.C. Each operates on public funding but has won independence from their local school board and most government rules.

The U.S. Census Bureau conducted this first-ever survey of charter school teachers and principals for Educational Statistics. Raw data were given to research groups last fall.

DISPARITIES AMONG CHARTER SCHOOLS

The investigation reveals that black children attending charter schools are more isolated racially than are those attending regular public schools. In charter schools that serve the most African-American students, enrollments are 80 percent black on average. In comparable regular public schools, students are more integrated with just 54 percent black.

"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 is 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 predominately black charter schools lack teaching credentials. Almost two-thirds of their students come from poor families, yet only 6 percent received federal instructional aid to which most are entitled.

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

Researchers also found that charter schools run by private firms rely heavily on less experienced and uncredentialed teachers, who make up 55 percent of their staff, compared to charters run by local parents or educators, where 45 percent of the teaching staff is 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 14:1, 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, often split between support for centralized school accountability regimes versus market reforms, like charter schools and vouchers. President Bush has asked Congress to approve $753 million next year in new funding to expand charter schools and school voucher experiments.

Given recent scandals, some states are clamping down on charter schools.

The new report asks whether policy makers will hold charter schools to the same standards against which regular schools must now perform, especially in raising teacher quality. "Without serious attention to equity," said Fuller, "this hopeful experiment may deepen the very inequalities that charter school advocates claimed they would ameliorate."

 

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