Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Washington Charters and Godwin's Other Law

Over at the Flypaper, the bloggy wing of Fordham Institute's reformster website, Robin Lake had a point to make about the recent Washington State ruling that found the state's charter law unconstitutional.

I get that she's pissed. Lots of charter-loving folks in Washington are, and on the one hand, I don't blame them-- as I observed before, the court's decision to hold onto the ruling until the Friday before schools were supposed to open was, at a minimum, pretty unkind and inconsiderate of the 1,200 students who thought they were going to start school. On the other hand, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a reformster group of which Lake is director, might try saving some of that outrage for the many charters across the country that have closed up shop without warning, even in the middle of the school year. But yeah-- it was a sucky way for the Washington court to handle it.

So that's probably why she looked around for a grumpy comparison and landed in the Kremlin. I'm pretty sure this violates Godwin's Lesser-Known Second Law-- when you drag Russian commies into an argument, you're done. If Lake is going to use such over-the-top, ill-fitting analogies, how will she get anyone to take her seriously? Wow, I've never tried concern-trolling before. It's kind of fun. Next time I'm at Wal-Mart, I'm going to look for a Tone Police hat!

So if we can get past the walls of the Kremlin, do we find Lake making a point (or saying things that make the pro-charter position clearer)?

Lake leads with the argument that the court was allowing itself to be jerked around by a 100-year-old law, and goes straight to Why Charters Are Needed Regardless of What the Law Says. She's a Seattle mom, and her observation is that South Seattle suffered through the urban drain phenomenon-- good teachers gravitate to well-supported, well-funded schools, and the poor schools get the lesser teachers. Therefor, charters.

I've heard this argument many times, and it still sounds to me like, "A bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves." Or maybe, "My family's house was getting run down, so the only choice was to get myself adopted by a different family." 

Why does the charter argument always run, "Because these schools are undersupported and underfunded, we must set up charters for SOME of the students there" instead of "Because these schools are undersupported and underfunded, we must demand that proper support and funding are provided so that the schools can properly serve ALL the students there." This is a point on which I fundamentally disagree with charter folks.

Lake writes:

By giving these schools true control over their programs, staff, and curricula, and by opening them to all families, authors of the charter school law resurrected the true American vision of public schooling: equal access to great instruction and accountability for results.

Would it not be cheaper, more efficient, and useful to a far larger number of students if we brought these freedoms and support and empowerments to the public schools? Yes, the resources invested in charters "save" some students. How many more might have been saved if those resources had been invested in public schools?

Particularly since the second part of her statement is not true. Charters do NOT provide equal access to all students, but only to the select few. And charters do NOT provide accountability for results, because they do not operate transparently, openly, or by answering directly to elected representatives of the taxpayers. And charters have yet to demonstrate that they know anything about educating students that public schools do not already know.

We need to stop romanticizing an obsolete version of “local control.” Community members ought to have input in area schools and hold them accountable. But checks are also needed to protect poor and minority students from the neglect of the powerful. These families need better options—

Community members should not have "input"-- they should have control. And they should have accountability-- which does not come from school operators who do not have to answer to anyone except the owners, stockholders, or corporate sponsors of the school. Poor and minority students do need to be protected from the neglect of the powerful-- on this we are in complete agreement. But I do not see where charters provide such protection-- particularly for the poor and minority students who are left behind in a public school that has been stripped of desperately needed resources by the charter schools.

The families do not need better options.

They need better schools. They ALL need better schools-- not just the "fortunate" or "deserving" few who get into charters.

There's no question that local control comes with its own set of issues and a need to protect the rights of those with less power. But Lake is romanticizing charter/choice systems when she imagines that they provide any such protection, or responsiveness to the community, or stability in the neighborhood, or solutions for ALL students.

When Lake talks about the "needless chaos" of the Washington ruling, she is correct. When she suggests that charters were going to be the salvation of Washington, or any other, schools, she is incorrect. I'm going to steal my closing from Martha Hope Carey 's piece at Edushyster:

But what the case in Washington underscores most is the elemental choice made by charter proponents all those years ago, as they crafted the Minnesota legislation, variations of which are now on the books in 42 states. The choice was: do we work together as a community to best provide the state-mandated education of all our citizens and do so in a way that continues to be overseen by the electorate, which may mean re-allocating resources and (gasp) raising taxes, or do we just let private groups of folks do their own thing, using our taxes, in the name of education?

And if we've decided that when Americans work together as a community etc etc etc is somehow reminiscent of Communist Russia, then we've lost sight of our own national character and history as well. 


  1. Two unrelated points:

    First, Godwin doesn't actually say that you lose the argument by bringing up Nazis/the Soviets/etc. It just says that the longer a debate goes on, the more likely it is that Nazis will be brought up. I think we need to be very careful about automatically rejecting any argument that brings up Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia or other totalitarian regimes because our own regime is becoming increasingly totalitarian and some comparisons are apt. The point of comparing to horrors of the past is to wake people up to what's happening in the present so we're not left, yet again, blinking and wondering, "how did *that* happen?"

    Second, I think we need to be careful about talking about the "fortunate" few who get into charters, especially those designed to "save" poor students of color. Almost all of those charters are brutal "no excuses" behavioral management schools that focus exclusively on raising test scores, no matter how degrading and/or abusive they have to be to get there. Students in those schools are hardly "fortunate".

    1. Just to clarify, I'm not saying I find Lake's arguments about Russian commies convincing. Just saying we can't throw out the possibility of making arguments on that basis.

    2. It sounds like the "no excuses" charters are the Stalinist ones.