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Charter schools suffer from ill-prepared teachers, unequal funding, says PACE study

– The nation's ballooning number of charter schools relies heavily on uncredentialed teachers, fails to acquire federal monies to aid low-achieving or disabled children, and displays the same financial disparities that beset regular public schools, according to an unprecedented study to be released today (Tuesday, April 8).

This analysis of national data about charter school educators was led by scholars with Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an institute based at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.

"Charter schools now offer hope for hundreds of thousands of families, many dissatisfied with mediocre or unsafe local schools," said PACE co-director Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy 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 its local school board and most government rules.

Among the report's highlights are that:

  • Forty-eight percent of charter school teachers lack a teaching certificate, compared to 9 percent in the typical public school.

  • Charter schools have spartan staffing - most teachers instruct 20 percent or more students each day than do teachers in regular schools.

  • Fewer than 5 percent of all charter school students are helped by federal programs for low-income students, even though 43 percent of the children qualify for assistance.

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

The survey 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.

The PACE investigation also reveals that black children attending charter schools are more isolated racially than those attending regular public schools. In charter schools serving the largest number of black students, enrollments are 80 percent black, on average. In comparable public schools, students are more integrated, and the highest percentage of blacks enrolled is 54 percent.

"Some black educators are attracted to the charter school mechanism, aiming to reinforce their communities and ethnic identity," said study co-author, Marytza Gawlik, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education. "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 predominately 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 federal funds for low-performing children remains a mystery, according to the report. Earlier research, however, points to insufficient management within charter schools and tight-fisted school boards.

Researchers found that charter schools run by private firms rely heavily on less experienced, uncredentialed teachers, who make up 55 percent of their staffs, compared to charter schools 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 charter schools.

The study found that teacher quality and instructional resources vary dramatically across states. In California, the ratio of children per full-time teacher is 30-to-1, more than twice the 14-to-1 level observed among charter schools in North Carolina. Florida charter schools identify 22 percent of their students as having a learning disability, compared to just 8 percent of all charter students in Michigan. Eighty percent of all charter school teachers are uncredentialed in the District of Columbia, compared to 32 percent in California.

These findings will likely fuel debate among political leaders over supporting centralized school accountability systems and 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. Yet, given incidents of compliance problems and some closures, some states are clamping down on charter schools.

The new report also asks whether the Bush Administration will hold charter schools to the same standards required of regular schools, 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, along with 2,847 participating teachers. The study has undergone peer review from independent scholars, and a portion of the findings will appear in a book this summer published by Teachers College Press, Columbia University.