Charter schools are contentious. Most people sort themselves into one of two camps — fierce proponents or fierce opponents. Teachers, both in and out of charters, sort themselves as well, although less fiercely than the general public. That tells us something.
Both sides include thoughtful people of good-will.
Charter advocates point out that some neighborhood schools, especially serving disadvantaged students, provide poor education. Attempts to improve the schools failed; families are desperate. Charters offer a seemingly miraculous alternative. Charters were once envisioned as laboratories in which one could experiment with innovations that district schools might subsequently adopt. Everyone wins when if that happens.
Opponents point out that innovations seldom happen. (Longer school days, school uniforms, and “no excuses” are not innovations!) In any case, charters make little effort to interact with district schools to spread ideas. While some charters are excellent, high test scores are frequently the result of selection bias, not in admissions but in retention. Almost without exception, the cohorts of charters dramatically decrease in size as students leave or are expelled. And some charters are dreadful, run by unscrupulous entrepreneurs who see schools as a way to profit from rather than to serve the community.
The arguments go back and forth and are familiar. Passions run high.
Each of these arguments has some validity. It is callous to dismiss the pleas of parents who see charter schools as the only salvation for their children; no one wants to send their kids to abysmal schools! It is sensible, in theory, to create schools that can act not only as alternatives but also testbeds for innovation, trying out ideas before adopting them full scale. (Reformers should take note of this!) But charter schools are not always high-quality alternatives for those desperate parents. Some charters are run by people who are uniquely unqualified. Some are unstable and quickly close, leaving families worse off than before. And as for miracles schools … they are invariably debunked. (Mathematicians know how easily one can fool people with numbers.)
If we want to make progress on the charter issue, we ought to agree on some things. Stop arguing about whether some students benefit from charters (they do), whether some charters have good ideas (some do), whether some charters are abysmal (incontrovertible) and whether miracle schools have in fact performed miracles (not a serious question). Stop arguing and let’s talk about something bigger.
What would our school system look like if charters took the place of traditional public schools? Not long ago, this would not have been a serious question. In the past few years, however, charter advocates have changed their message. Famously, the Secretary of Education called traditional schools “dead ends.” Advocates focus on “school choice” rather than experimental schools. They promote “vouchers” not as a stopgap but as an institution. They insist that because charters receive taxpayer money, they must be called “public schools.” These are shifts in messaging that portray charters as a new kind of permanent, market-driven school system.
What would this market-driven system look like? What happens to those students who are forced out or expelled from their schools? Who makes decisions about curricula and practices? Who controls admissions? Who protects special-needs students? What role would private schools play in such a market-driven system? And make no mistake — private schools will play a major role. A recent survey of parents claims that while 80% of their children attended district schools, 42% would prefer to send them to private; only 15% would choose charter.
Last month, an article in the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 10 percent of students in New York City now attend charter schools, and nearly 18 percent attend private. That’s over a quarter of all students who form a subsystem of roughly 300,000 students. It gives us a glimpse of what a market-driven system might look like in the rest of the country—highly segregated, extraordinarily heterogeneous, an amalgam of programs for the privileged and programs for the disadvantaged. This subsystem contains good schools and bad, is supported by public taxes as well as gargantuan tuitions and provides open classrooms along with draconian discipline. The “school choice” it offers is largely illusory because of strenuous admissions, quirky lotteries, and burdensome tuition. It’s a school system without any cohesive mission whatsoever.