Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Common Schools vs. Diversity

Over at redefinED, a reliable source of reformy pro-school choice arguments, Patrick Gibbons (also a reliable source of pro-school choice arguments) has posted a pretty thoughtful response to the can of worms opened by the Washington state smackdown of charter schools.

In "Common schools and the feat of diversity," Gibbons takes a look back at the actual history of common schools in the US, in particular focusing on how many ways those schools have failed to live up to the promise of public education in this country.

Yet Mann’s common school concept remains a source of conflict today. The ethical and moral lessons of students in a one-size-fits all environment have created a battleground in the American culture wars, from book banning, to the fight against communism in the 1950s, to the fights over textbooks and the Common Core standards.

In this, and in shared criticism that common schools have to often (and still in some places today) reflect the racism and classism of their communities, Gibbons has a point. 

But in his suggestion that charters are the solution, he is indulging in a  fantasy far more reality-deficient that any "romantic vision of free, universal public education."

Gibbons repeatedly slides in the notion that public schools are one-size-fits-all. That's hugely arguable-- most public schools allow a wide variety of students with a wide variety of interests and skills to pursue a wide variety of goals. It is precisely because public schools are NOT one size fits all that the one size fits all reformster ideas one size fits all standards and one size measures all testing have been such fruitless failures.

But even if we were to stipulate to public schools being one size fits all, how can charters possibly be held up as an alternative? Charters are frequently constructed as one size fits some, and only those some are welcome to attend. Nor do they make educational options available to all-- not even close. Charter school systems have been constructed in such a way as to abandon many students to the schools that have, in the process, been stripped of resources. Meanwhile, charter students must select one and only one alternative with little or no room for diversity under their roofs.

A public school is like a department store where students can select a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Do you want to play sports, sing in a choir, prepare to become a doctor, and develop your love for literature while finding your way to teachers whose temperament and style matches your own? You can do that, or any other number of combinations, in a public school. But charter schools are often conceived as boutique shops that sell one product, and one product only, while serving only one narrow kind of customer. Part of the point of diversity in schools is to bring together students from many backgrounds. Some urban schools fail to move toward this goal, but charters are deliberately designed to move away from it.

Gibbons and charter advocates may argue that the sheer number and variety of charters provides the diversity, but in practice that's simply not true. Because it's hard to stay in business as a boutique, many charters don't offer anything other than the same general education as a public school-- just in a charter setting. But only for certain students.

Not all public schools have successfully embraced pluralism and diversity, but neither have charters, and while public schools have been steadily over the years changing and growing and working to embrace those qualities-- because that's what they're expected to and by law required to do-- there is no similar path forward for charters. Those fights that Gibbons references are the result of communities standing up to demand that their public schools reflect community values, while charters answer to nobody, not even the taxpayers who pay the bills.

Gibbons diagnosis of the problem is not entirely wrong, but his solution is no solution at all. Charters have accelerated segregation, drained resources from public schools serving the larger population, and tried to sort students into isolated, homogeneous silos. Common schools have not done a great job embracing diversity, but whatever value charters may add to a school system, it is certainly not their fostering of diversity.


  1. In the school district in my city of 300,000, not only is there strong college prep and six foreign languages, there's career tech prep for just about any career you can think of, and if the program or course you want isn't offered in the school in your zip code, you can attend the one that has it. Plus there are also two magnet schools, one Early College and one for engineering and robotics. So you're not "trapped in your zip code" and there's a lot of diversity.

    The link about "conflict" that goes to the Cato Institute site and from there to a pdf paper is interesting, though very wrong. It says that all social conflict in society is caused by public education, "government" schools trying to impose a universal, secular education on everyone. That's not freedom! Civic responsibility isn't learned in school, it's learned from commerce! Everything would be fine and dandy and kumbaya if there were no public schools, and everyone had vouchers to go to a private school so they wouldn't have to be with Those People and so they could go to whatever religious school they wanted (except, I'm sure, Muslim.)

    Maybe public education hasn't yet attained Jefferson or Dewey's vision, but it's getting closer, and it would be closer still if not for the "reform" of the past 30 years.

  2. Students in the Normandy school district are certainly trapped by their zip code.

    When the state government accidentally allowed the students to leave, one out of every four students left the district. When the state tried to herd the student back into their zip code, the student sued and won the right to leave their zip code.

    1. Yeah, maybe other districts ought to look to mine.

    2. I think that your district might well be a good model, but it would not help the Normandy school district very much because the district only has a total of 4,000 students and a single high school. Students who want a program not provided by the Normandy district high school must leave the district, an unaffordable option for many.

    3. It sounds like Missouri legislators are making very poor decisions. It sounds like they should consolidate area schools.

    4. The current Normandy school district is a result of consolidation. The Wellston school district (about 600 students) was absorbed into the Normandy school district in 2010.

    5. No, no. More consolidation. If you want these students to have more choices and have schools that are more integrated, you have to have them absorbed into a bigger district. My district has five traditional high schools of about 1500 students each, along with several magnet or alternative schools that are much smaller. They don't have to be that big, but in this case obviously the legislators are not doing their jobs. It was stupid to have Normandy absorb Wellston, because Wellston was doing worse than Normandy. In order to have the students do better, they need to be in schools where everybody isn't behind because of years of neglect. If everybody isn't behind, it's easier to address the problems of those who are, and won't hurt the ones who aren't. That was the conclusion on the This American Life podcasts.

    6. Rebecca,

      I think the school district lines in St. Louis are drawn the way they are for a reason, and that reason is not to provide the best possible education to the students of color in the St. Louis region. Like many things that should be done, consolidation will not be done by the people who win elections in the school districts, the city, or the state.

    7. This is sad, because that's what needs to be done. From the information I could find, the state supreme court said they had to be allowed to transfer to other schools, but evidently Normandy had to pay for tuition and transportation to the other schools, which is just wrong, and they became insolvent. They could have sent all the students to nearby schools, but those schools said they were afraid they could lose accreditation because of poor scores on the stupid state tests, and put pressure on the state to take over Normandy instead. This is Missouri, where Ferguson is, so I guess it's not surprising, but it's really wrong.

    8. TE, I had missed your last post on the Parent Choice article from before, so I'll respond here.

      I think the Summit Academy school sounds very good. There are three schools for autism in my city, and Summit is one of them. Of the two others, one is also a charter school, but not part of a chain as Summit is. Chain or not, all of them sound good, at least from reading on their site what they do.

      I think schools such as these are what AFT president Albert Shanker had in mind when he came up with the charter school idea. There's definitely a need for them, for these students that traditional public schools have a hard time serving, and it's good that two of them are charter so that they can serve everyone who needs them, not just the wealthy.

      I understand your point that affluent parents have choices that poor parents do not, either by buying a house in an affluent area or by sending their kids to a private school. The problems with charters as a solution for whole neighborhoods in poverty, as a substitute for the neighborhood school, however, are many. To begin with, you'd have to have an awful lot of them to serve all the kids in whole neighborhoods. I really think a better solution is the way my district has done it.

      The problem in Ohio, to start with, is that the supreme court said years ago that the funding formula is inequitable, but the legislature refuses to do anything to change it and bring it into compliance. The other problem, of course, is that Ohio refuses to have any sort of real regulation of charter schools because for-profit advocates have hijacked the legislature. The two biggest chains, White Hat and ECOT, along with others, are terrible. So it's not a solution, because poor choices are no better than no choice, and they can't serve everyone who needs them anyway.

      I think students should be able to transfer, but the only long term solution I can see is to make funding more equitable and to change the economy. In such a wealthy nation, it's absurd that so many children are living in poverty. It doesn't have to be that way. Plus, of course, we need to stop the high stakes standardized testing and punishment regime that doesn't improve learning, and politicians need to listen to teachers instead of to rich businessmen.