Charter Schools Statistics – Maybe Not What You Thought

Charter schools have become such a flash point in the U.S. Educational debate and a real red flag of sorts for a lot of progressive folks who see the “charter school movement” (as some supporters frame it) as forwarding a more conservative anti-union, pro-privatization agenda. I, as a progressive (I’m calling myself “left-libertarian” these days) and advocate for “many educational paths”, am drawn to charter schools as the “only game in town” when it comes to trying to (take baby steps at least to) move away from an OSFA (one size fits all) public school system.

As a parent (and not a teacher) I am sympathetic to the union issue in particular, not because I think that adult school staff should be divided into “labor versus management” but because I think teaching is a very important profession and that teachers need to create professional associations so that they are seen as such and have the appropriate clout in school governance and larger societal questions. I think most charter schools, like conventional public schools, are better served if teachers play a significant (if not the primary) role in school governance.

Though people sometimes joke, “Don’t confuse the issue with the facts!”, I did some research on any statistics I could find on charter schools, to get a better sense from the data available of the scope of the charter school “movement” or “infection” or however you might characterize it.

Statistics on the number of charter schools and student enrollment, broken down by a number of demographic factors were fairly easy to find. The U.S. Department of Education Center for Educational Statistics had a series of publications documenting public, private and home school enrollment, including “Condition of Education 2011 – Charter School Enrollment”. Here is what I found…

Overall Number of Schools & Students

As of the 2008-2009 school-year (the most recent statistics cited), there were 47.6 million students enrolled in “traditional” (that’s the term used by the Department of Education) U.S. Public schools, and an additional 1.4 million enrolled in 4601 charter schools, representing 2.9 percent of the total public school enrollment. As of 2008-2009, there were charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia. The states of Maine, Vermont, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia did not allow charters.

The trend over the past decade is definitely toward more charter schools. During the 1999-2000 school-year, there were only 339 thousand students enrolled in 1456 charter schools, representing just 0.7 percent of the total public school enrollment. That’s a fourfold increase over a nine year period!

Breakdown by Race

As of 2008-2009, the majority (55.4 percent) of the enrollment in traditional public schools was white, while 21.4 is Hispanic and 16.5 percent black. That seems pretty close to me to the racial demographics of the country as a whole.

A plurality (37.9 percent) of charter school enrollment was white, with 25.1 Hispanic and 31.0 black, making charters “majority minority” as they say these days. (Our Los Angeles Unified School District became “majority minority” a few years back.)

The high percentage of minority enrollment in charters surprised me at first, but I do recall all the news stories over the past few years, at least here in California, of the explosion of charter schools in urban black neighborhoods (offering an alternative to generally failing traditional public schools).

Charters Focus on the Urban Poor

Perhaps the biggest for-profit charter school “chain” in Los Angeles is the Green Dot organization, which according to their website…

Currently operates seventeen successful charter high schools in the highest-need areas of the city, including eight as part of the rejuvenation of Locke High School in Watts.

In fact, the Department of Education Statistics show that 55.1 percent of U.S. Charter schools are in urban locales, while 21.0 are suburban, 7.8 “town” and 16.1 rural. Contrast that with traditional public schools with 24.6 percent urban, 28.1 suburban, 14.2 “town” and 32.9 in rural areas.

Further, a full 30.1 percent of charter schools have over 75 percent of their students receiving subsidized lunches, schools often tagged as “poverty schools”. Just 18.5 percent of traditional public schools fall into this category.

One could interpret from these stats that charters could be playing a role in saving rather than destroying the public school system, offering a public school alternative to efforts to get vouchers for private schools, particularly in these at-risk urban communities.

For-Profit Charter Schools

Unfortunately, the Department of Education statistics had nothing on the breakdown of for-profit charter schools. I had to do a lot more searching on the Net before I found a paper published in the 2006 Yale Law Review titled “For-Profit and Nonprofit Charter Schools: An Agency Costs Approach”. Author John Morley breaks out charter schools run by for-profit and non-profit entities.

Morley indicates in his study that getting the proper breakdown is a bit tricky, because most of the charter schools he classifies as “for-profit” are actually set up under non-profit corporations which then contract out the running of the school to a for-profit school management company. There are very few fully for-profit schools that don’t have some sort of non-profit organization as the primary legal entity.

But based on his methodology, Morley found that in the 2004-2005 school-year 436 or 14 percent of the 3201 charter schools in the U.S. at the time were essentially for-profit. Again, he says that there is a fairly complex continuum from for-profit to non-profit, and you can read his study to see that discussion in detail.

A “Growing Edge” for Public Education

I freely confess my bias… I’m a supporter of charter schools. I think pragmatically that they are the “only game in town” in terms of the “growing edge” of our education system. All other change is slow, incremental, and happens way up the educational hierarchy, engineered by “educrats” at the state or even national level who most of the teachers, parents and students affected by their decisions will never meet. School transformation, if it is going to happen, is in the hands of those “educrats”, plus state legislators, big foundations and all the big businesses that make billions selling text books and other program material as part of the “education-industrial complex”.

The whole chartering process, though significantly flawed, at least allows the people in the trenches – teachers, parents and students – to be involved in some level of real governance and ownership in their own schools.

That all said, I must admit I am not comfortable that charters are almost all non-union and that charter school teachers don’t (or can’t) at least organize themselves into some sort of professional organization. I do applaud the occasional charter that has the teachers actually running the school or at least significantly involved in school governance. There is such a school in Detroit that I highlighted in a previous piece. I also believe that the Los Angeles teachers union is now running or at least considering running several charter schools.

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4 replies on “Charter Schools Statistics – Maybe Not What You Thought”

  1. Edit Barry says:

    Hi – I’m a mom blogging about public schools in Baltimore City. Thanks for posting this. It’s very helpful. You might find my blog interesting, too. Keep it up!

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    editbarry… Thanks for your comment and glad you found my post helpful! Your blog looks very cool. Looks like you are connected with a whole community in Baltimore.

    So are you focused on charter schools or was that just the topic “du jour” like its been for me lately?

    Talk about outside the sandbox, my partner Sally and I actually let our kid “unschool” in their teen years rather than going to high school, but that’s a long tale (told in a number of blog pieces if you are interested.)

    Just FYI… I also post my stuff on Daily KOS, a progressive political blog site, where I get way more comments than the few I get (like yours) on my own blog. Here is a URL to our “Education Alternatives” group, where we have a dozen or so bloggers all contributing under that rubric.

    Anyway… thanks again for the comment and glad you are out there blogging! Reply if any of the above is of interest to you!

  3. Sonny says:

    Very well written. Thanks for doing the research! This issue is very interesting to me being that I came out of the public education system totally unimpressed with the attempts made to educate me and my peers. Not to say I didn’t have good teachers or teachers that cared. But the system they operate in is completely hopeless in my eyes.

  4. Cooper Zale says:

    Thanks Sonny… I’d be curious what you think would be a better replacement to the current system.

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