The Detroit Free Press recently ran a huge, extensively researched and reported story on Michigan's charter schools. They concluded, among other things, that charters hoover up a billion dollars with little transparency, that many charters are simply an ATM for family and friends of operators, that even really bad charters have stayed open for decade, and that charters don't do any better at educating students than public schools. It's a great report, and well worth the read.
Frederick Hess, however, is not feeling the love. In his column of July 3, Hess characterized the Free Press report as a "crude, unhelpful slam" on charters. Do his criticisms have merit? Let's take a look.
He leads his response with a quote:
As Chuck Fellows, president of the FlexTech High School Board of Directors, argued in a Free Press op-ed, "Traditional
schools spend $11 billion annually and have a graduation rate ranging
from 70% to 79%, according to a 2006 Gates Foundation report. Does that
mean that $2 billion to $3 billion is wasted each year?"
I realize that we have limited data available, but we all of us need to stop citing school research from seven, eight, ten, twenty years ago. Ten are years are a hundred regular years in terms of how much the culture and function inside a building work.
But we also have to stop using graduation rate as a point of comparison between charter and public schools. When a charter student doesn't graduate from a charter school, all that means is that he goes back on the public school rolls. The only meaningful statistic for measuring charters is cohort completion. Here's 100 students in your freshman class of 2010-- how many of the 100 were handed diplomas at that school in 2014?
But I will make a deal with Mr. Fellows-- I will give him that $2-3 billion to any charter that agrees to take on and keep every one of the twenty-some percent of future non-grads.
Hess then moves on to a quick item by item rebut.
A] Charters are spending less per student than are traditional district schools.
Here's something that I think all smart charter operators know-- not all students cost the same to educate. The per-student costs we see cited are averages. Some students just require the basic services and education, but some students have special needs, special requirements, and special compliance with various regulations. I can drop the per student costs in any school-- all we have to do is cut special services.
B] Even the paper's reporting concludes that charters are doing similarly while spending less money.
So, separate but more or less equal? Of course, we don't know that charters are doing similarly. What we know is that they are generating similar test scores. We don't know if the charters are providing no phys ed, no arts, no music, no food, and a miserable soul-crushing environment-- we just know their test scores are in the ballpark. To be fair, we also don't know if the charter is providing superlative arts programs, either. But-- and I cannot say this enough-- test scores do not even begin to give the full picture of a school.
C) Charter schools have no guarantee. Some crappy ones aren't closed aggressively enough. Charter authorizers and advocates are working on the problem. Are public schools doing the same?
I'm going to go with "yes," although undoubtedly more effectively in some quarters than others. I'll call this one a tie.
D) Responding to the charge that Michigan has more for-profits running schools than any other state. Hess says basically, "So what?" What difference does the tax status make?
I agree that for-profit vs. non-profit in the charter world is a distinction without a difference. People like to assume that non-profit means "losing money for altruistic purposes" when it just means "we don't have to share the money we're raking in with stockholders." I've outlined my argument at greater length elsewhere, by the basic point is this: when every cent I spend providing education in my school is a cent I don't get to put in my own pocket, the students are my opponents, not my customers, and not my reason for being in business. They are just a means to the end of my own $$, and I find it impossible to believe that such a system favors providing quality education.
E) If charter board members were forced out because they asked for financial reports, that is bad. But I'm not sure you got the whole story. But if you did, I hope you're chasing naughty public school board members, too.
F] If the law doesn't prevent "insider dealing" or "self-enrichment,"
and that's a problem, then legislators can and should change the law.
But I found the series peculiar in the way the Free Press tried to beat up on charters for doing things that are currently acceptable under Michigan law.
Really? This is feeling kind of graspy. "Currently acceptable under the law" is setting the bar remarkably low. I will not bother to include every objectionable act ever completed that was acceptable under the law, other than to note that the list would include pretty much every instructional choice made by a teacher in a public school and every tax increase ever imposed by a governing body.
Throughout, Hess seems to be struggling with this rebuttal. Hess's conclusion is especially ironic. He points out a fundamental flaw in how the press covers charter schools:
It's that reporters and editors tend to hold choice programs up to some
imaginary standard of high-quality, equitable provisions, rather than to
the options that actually exist.
Where did people, in the press and elsewhere, get the idea that choice programs would be super-awesome and high-quality? I'm going to go with "from the proponents of choice programs." I don't have the resources to check every single PR and ad campaign out there, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no charter or voucher school ever approached parents or the public or lawmakers by saying, "If you just give us the chance, we will do a completely adequate job that is not particularly better than what your public schools are doing now." (If someone has seen that campaign, please send it along, and I'll retract.)
At a minimum, you might have expected an awareness that the chance to rethink and reimagine K-12 schooling comes with bumps in the road.
Except what we're seeing is not anything that rethinks or re-imagines schooling, other than to imagine schools that don't have to serve certain sectors of the student population, don't have to deal with challenging students, and don't have to account for what they do with public tax dollars. If this is the kind of "re-imagining" we have to do in order to get schools that provide results indistinguishable from the schools we already have, I fail to see the advantage.