Charter School 101: An Interview with Dr. Ron Zimmer

The Trump administration is making school choice expansion a cornerstone of their education policy. In a recent speech, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promised “the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.” Charters and other school choice options are at the center of debate for parents, educators and policymakers.

Leading charter school researcher Dr. Ron Zimmer, director of the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Kentucky, discussed the basics of the charter school model, including how charter schools work, who runs them, how they are funded and if they are more effective than traditional public schools.

What do we mean by charter schools? How do they differ from traditional public schools in their structure?

“Charter schools are considered schools of choice, meaning they aren’t residentially zoned schools. The enrollment of the school is not based on where you live, but a family’s choice to send their child to the charter school. Charter schools are given greater freedom than a traditional public school. They don’t have to follow the curriculum that a traditional school district is required to follow, and additionally they have freedom to hire whoever they want. In return for this greater freedom, they have a contract, called a charter, with some sort of oversight organization called the charter authorizer.”

What does a charter authorizer do? What kinds of organizations can be authorizers?

“Authorizers oversee the charter schools to ensure they meet the requirements of the charter contract and provide performance measures for accountability. Additionally, they provide administrative support. They help the charter school navigate how to get special education services or get free and reduced lunches for example. It’s very common for a school district to be a charter authorizer, but it can also be the state, a nonprofit organization or a university, depending on the state.”

How are charters funded? Is it similar to traditional public schools that receive funds from federal, state and local governments?

“Almost all charter schools receive federal funding, but a lot of federal funding is categorical. For example, if you have no students with special needs you won’t receive those funds. As far as state funds, charters almost uniformly get the equivalent amount a traditional public school gets. Where funding deviates significantly is local funding. Sometimes municipalities will give charter schools equivalent amounts, sometimes they will give partial amounts and sometimes they will give nothing. One advantage that charters do have is they receive a lot more philanthropic funds than a traditional public school to help with startup costs and capital expenditures not covered by government funds.”

Have you found charter schools receive more or less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools?  

“In the vast majority of states charter schools get less public revenue than traditional public schools; however, when you take into account the philanthropic money their total per-pupil amount is often times equivalent or greater than the traditional public school. The public dollars are almost always less than a traditional public school.”

Have you seen any trends in terms of the types of students enrolling in charter schools? Is there a certain demographic that is more likely to pursue enrollment?

“Charter schools initially located in urban areas near pre-existing low-performing schools. Implementers felt they could attract students because traditional public school weren’t performing well, and they wanted to go where they could make a difference in accordance with their mission.

This resulted in charters serving a larger percentage of more impoverished minority students. This has changed over time as the charter movement has spread and broadened their scope. There’s more suburban charter schools, and cyber charter schools to serve rural areas.”

Based on your research, is it your opinion that charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools? What are some common characteristics of successful charter schools?

“The research points to evidence both ways. One characteristic of the successful implementers is that their process is slower. They are more methodical in their implementation. The most successful charters are the ones that have a personal responsibility component within their curriculum. There is a network of charters called KIPP, or Knowledge is Power Program, that have shown to be very successful because of their no excuses approach. The idea is that every child can succeed, but students need to invest the time and energy it takes to succeed.

What many states are doing now is only expanding charters that are a part of an existing network shown to have success. For example, in Ohio anyone used to be able to open a charter school, but over time greater requirements for starting charter schools emerged. The schools must be a part of an existing network that have shown to have success elsewhere.”

Are there states that stand out as best implementers of charter schools or other school choice models?

“Massachusetts is the best example for implementing successful charters. They were very methodical when expanding charters. They didn’t expand immediately when they found early indications of success. They were more selective in what schools got authorized and which ones didn’t. Other states who aren’t performing as well expanded too quickly.”

Does the research justify DeVos’ and Trump’s enthusiasm for expanding school charters?

“There are certainly very successful charter schools out there that a child would be better in than a traditional public school. However, the opposite is also true. There are schools where the child would have been better off staying in traditional public schools. There are both great successes and failures.

Charter schools are supposed to be innovative. If you try to do something innovative it may succeed, but it may fail. By developing more school choice options, policymakers are saying they are willing to live with the failures in order to experience the successes.”