I'm a big fan of the opt-out movement when it comes to testing. I believe, in general, that it's better for people to have a choice, to be free to consider options. It would make a certain amount of sense for me to be a supporter of school choice in general and charter schools as an expression of that choice.
And yet, I am not a supporter of either-- at least not as currently proposed and practiced.
But I think any time one finds inconsistencies rattling around in one's head, intellectual honesty and a desire to live with as much integrity as one can muster demand that one considers what that inconsistency means.
So-- why am I a fan of choice, except when it comes to school.
Dishonesty about the cost
Choice and charter systems are currently constructed as a zero-sum game. In many districts, the charter system forces multiple schools to finance multiple systems with a pot of money that isn't even sufficient to finance a single system. This means that one school must be the loser, and charter policies are written so that the loser is always the public school. This system creates several problems.
There's a problem with rampant inequity-- students who most need extra support are left behind in public schools that have the least per-pupil ability to support them. Challenging application processes, targeted marketing, counseling out, and non-backfilling can all help insure that the public school becomes the holding ground for the students who most need help even as charters strip away the public school's financial ability to deal with them. And that's before we start to consider how a school climate is affected by the absence of the top-tier students.
The system is also unsustainable. Taxpayers funding multiple systems are essentially footing the bill for excess capacity spread over several schools. Schools have to cut programs so that they can have seats for students who may or may not show up on their doorstep. Furthermore, initial stages of a charter system work on a simple dynamic-- all charters drain their money from the public system. But as the market saturates, the charters begin stripping resources from each other. That adds to
System instability and impermanence
Market-driven systems pretty much demand a cycle of growing too much capacity followed by shucking off that capacity. In other words, a choice system is going to have closing schools as a regular feature. This never seems to stop surprising people, particularly when the closing is mid-year and unannounced.
A school should be a permanent feature of a community, not a temporary business venture. A school should not be a store in a strip mall, but a pillar of the community that is, in fact, paying taxes to provide exactly that. A commitment to operate a school should be "until the community decides to close it" and not "until the business owners decide it's not to their advantage to stay open." Schools should be married to their community for a lifetime, not hooking up for a hot weekend in Vegas.
I actually can imagine a system that provided a selection of different school environments and emphases. Arts schools and science schools. Highly structured schools and loosely organized schools. I can imagine some cool systems built on schools that provided different sorts of fits.
But I don't imagine any of those schools having the ability to refuse or reject students. And I don't imagine any of those schools being allowed to short-change programs for students with special needs or English Language Learners.
The American public education system must never, ever, require students to settle for a second-class school, and our current charter system does exactly that. In fact, by giving Student A access to a supposed first-class school, most choice system condemn Students B through K to a second-class school in order to finance Student A's shiny education. One of the most damaging and ungenerous problems of the traditional system has been well-to-do parents who take the position, "I've got mine, Jack." Our new charter systems haven't changed that a bit; they've just created a new mechanism for indulging selfishness. Warren Buffet called this one exactly right-- if wealthier parents hadn't opted out of public schools, we'd have a far better public school system.
All schools must be ready, willing and able to take any student. Period. Our current charters by and large are not. Charter schools should provide unique and different educational experiences. Current charters are set up to do exactly what public schools do-- just with a more carefully-selected student body.
Marketing eats everything, to the point that students are there to serve the school by getting scores that will help the school market. Plus, marketing wastes a ton of precious tax dollars.
Marketing will do to a choice and charter system what it did to cable TV-- drive every vendor to the middle in search for a broad and profitable customer base (leaving niche markets and low-wealth markets ignored and underserved). And any attempt to reduce the salient characteristics of a school to an easy ad slogan will yield no true or useful information to consumers anyway. Marketing leads us to things like schools that focus all their energy on test prep so that they can get high scores so that they can advertise high scores. That's not a good school, but it's a nice clear marketing strategy.
Local governance only. Local taxpayer accountability only. No schools where all policy decisions are made by people in an office in some other city. All taxpayers who have a concern about a school should be able to pick up a phone, dial a local number, and start a sentence with, "If you want my vote in the next election..."
Including not-for-profit profits. Never. No school should be pitting the educational interests of students against the financial interests of the operators. No school operator should be figuring out how to cut a theater program so that he can buy a second house in Boca.
Could I Support Charters
I have said on many occasions that I could support a charter system. But it would look far different than the system we have. Most fundamentally, it would be fully funded so that schools were not locked in wasteful stupid zero-sum battles over table scraps. But it would also be set up in order to provide the best, richest, deepest, widest education for all students-- not set up to provide maximum Return On Investment for hedge funders.
We got the system we have by answering the wrong question. This system does not answer the question, "How could we provide a better, richer, more effective education for all students in the community." It answers the question "How can we get our kids away from Those People?" and "How can we get our hands on a slice of that massive education tax dollar pie."
I have no doubt that a great charter system is theoretically possible. But that's not the system we got because it's not the system we tried to build. And that's why, right now, I am not a charter fan.