Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Charter Schools’ False Promise

with 7 comments

Amidst all the debate about charter schools, one thing has often been left out. They are not delivering on what their advocates claimed they would do, as the New York Times reports:

Fund Our SchoolsA primary rationale for the creation of charter schools, which are publicly financed and privately run, was to develop test kitchens for practices that could be exported into the traditional schools. President Obama, in recently proclaiming “National Charter Schools Week,” said they “can provide effective approaches for the broader public education system.”

But two decades since the schools began to appear, educators from both systems concede that very little of what has worked for charter schools has found its way into regular classrooms. Testy political battles over space and money, including one that became glaringly public in New York State this spring, have inhibited attempts at collaboration. The sharing of school buildings, which in theory should foster communication, has more frequently led to conflict.

Now, I’d push back a bit here. “What has worked” is typically how these questions get framed, where the presumption is higher test scores are the goal and a school that gets higher test scores is ‘working’ or ‘successful’.  I’m not convinced that higher test scores are a  particularly useful way of understanding education (which isn’t to say they are useless, just limited.) And this leaves aside pesky questions like whether schools are selecting students who are likely to do better on these tests and getting rid of those who won’t.

I never bought the idea that charters would develop solutions we didn’t already know about in education. We do know what works. We systematically provide fewer resources and a punitive, non-supportive environment to students on the basis of race and class. That’s just another way of saying we provide a worse education to those students who need the most, because of systematic disadvantages.  Students need schools that aren’t crumbling, that have libraries and counselors, that have air conditioners, that have enough textbooks for everyone on the first day of class. They need teachers and administrators who treat them like they count, not like a threat, who adopt an ethic of caring, not of test and punish. They need eyeglasses and dental care. They need food. And safety.

As teacher, activist and lieutenant governor candidate Brian Jones said:

We want schools that are safe, humane, child-centered places where young people are treated like intelligent human beings. That means we have to end the racist zero tolerance discipline policies and the policing of school hallways that, for thousands of mostly black and brown students, is the first step into what is often called a school-to-prison pipeline.

We need to end stop-and-frisk in the schools, just like we need to end it in the streets. Changing the culture of our schools means making the curriculum culturally relevant, and allowing our students to be critically minded and outspoken, allowing them to speak their languages and have those languages respected, valued and nurtured.

Part of the reason is that ‘accountability’ reformers have been pushing two ideas that are in tension. First, that charters would be collaborative laboratories for public schools and second that ‘school choice’ would improve education. But the latter, the value that has clearly been the dominant one, undermines the former.

Education experts said it might prove difficult to encourage the kind of sharing of ideas that charter schools were originally supposed to foster, given competitive dynamics. Charter schools serve about 5 percent of public-school students nationwide, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, up from about 1 percent in 2003. In some cities, like Detroit, New Orleans and Washington, the percentages are much higher. (In New York, it is 6 percent.)

“It’s like putting a Burger King kitty-corner to a McDonald’s and expecting — in the same location and competing for the same families — warm and fuzzy cooperation,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

And all that money is drained away from public schools that were already underfunded.

But instead of addressing this, or at least making sure that charters are properly regulated, both parties are pushing for more charter expansion with few limits, as Zoë Carpenter reports.

On Friday, lawmakers in the House largely missed an opportunity to strengthen oversight of charter schools, passing a bill to encourage charter school growth by boosting federal funding without including several amendments that were offered to increase transparency and accountability. The bill, called the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, increases federal funding for charters from $250 million to $300 million. The bill received wide bipartisan support—it passed by a overwhelming 360-45— although it is being championed by GOP leaders, who tout charter expansion and “school choice” as a central part of their anti-poverty agenda. “This legislation is about upwards mobility,” said majority leader Eric Cantor, who also took the opportunity to bash New York City mayor Bill di Blasio for his position on charter school co-locations.

Cantor has it backwards. Fighting inequality will help education, but education does not fight inequality.

Given the promise, charters are only “successful” if they improve “achievement” beyond their own students–but they don’t. Some individual charter schools may be doing great things. But it isn’t a policy solution and it’s a distraction from long-standing problems. Insufficient innovation was never the problem. Racism and inequality were–and are.

And that’s a key point that is often lost for many critics.  Charters and other market solutions aren’t the core problem either. But they make it harder to address the core problem.  It’s essential to not lose sight of either point.


Written by David Kaib

May 12, 2014 at 10:53 am

7 Responses

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  1. […] trips to the Galápagos Islands — that their ideas are viewed as unworkable in regular schools. Charter Schools’ False Promise. Neoliberal reform in […]

    • Great argument, Dave. The research on the cultural (and race/class) bias in schools has been around for so long, and for some students Supreme Court decisions like Lau v. Nichols provide some protection, but for many students, no such protection exists! I am not the expert in that area, so I am not sure if part of the solution can be through similar lawsuits or not.

      In Connecticut, the charter/public school debate is especially hot in our urban centers. We have the worst income and education gap in the country! Governor Malloy has said that mandated, state-funded (not municipality-funded) pre-Kindergarten can be a way to “equalize” school readiness and success, but I don’t really feel his plan is solid yet. It is an election year for him, so hopefully he will roll out a real plan for this important step toward reducing the achievement gap in our state.


      May 14, 2014 at 10:11 am

      • I love pre-K, but I think it won’t have long term effects. There will still be large scale starting disparities, and there will be big disparities in what students are provided for the rest of their educational career. State funding though is a step in the right direction – local funding is really effective at reinforcing existing inequities.

        (I need to go back and re-read Lau).

        David Kaib

        May 14, 2014 at 10:23 am

  2. Also, what has “worked” are often things like suspending and dismissing disruptive students at rates much higher than is tolerated at traditional public schools and making enrollment of special ed and English Language Learners difficult.


    May 15, 2014 at 10:26 am

    • Yes, the language of ‘what works’ obscures these sorts of things, which are essential to address.

      David Kaib

      May 15, 2014 at 11:44 am

  3. […] discussed part of the problem with charters as a policy solution recently: pitting charters against public schools and each other to compete for students, and […]

  4. […] Charter Schools’ False Promise Charter schools aren’t a policy solution to our educational problems, but a distraction from […]

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