Saturday, October 1, 2016

When a Charter Closes (and Choice Is Not Choice)

The free market acolytes, lovers of the modern charter school, have a pretty neat and clean vision of the future. Well-informed parents choose from within a wide array of charter schools, and at appropriate moments, the market sloughs off those schools that either do a lousy job or are just not providing something that a large slice of the market wants.The whole process should be as tidy and bloodless as shopping at Wal-Mart.

But a piece from KPCC (Southern California Public Radio) last month shows how messy the actual function of the charter school market is.

Kyle Stokes reports on the story of a West Los Angeles charter that shut down three weeks into the school year. Thirteen months after opening, the fragile City Charter Schools high school hit a financial bump that ended them.

The article points at several issues that led to the school's demise.

One was that it simply didn't dent the market. Even though it was intended to receive students from the chain's elementary and middle schools, that didn't happen. And the insight offered about that under-enrollment highlights one of the paradoxes of "choice."

"Some kids just want the bigger school," Braimah said. "They want the football field, the marching band and all of those trappings; lots and lots of elective choices."

Yes-- if you want your child to have choices, one of the best ways to get those choices is by enrolling at a full-sized public school, where students can have their choice of many different programs under one roof. Want to start out as a band geek who also plays a sport, but then later decide to switch to art and science without completely changing schools? A full-sized public high school can do that. City Charter's high school, with less than half of its hoped-for 540 student enrollment, could not.

City Charter also highlights the problems of the infamous waiting list. City Charter had hopes for higher numbers this fall, noting that there are 41,000 students on waiting lists. But there aren't. There are 41,000 seats that are wait-listed, and when one student is on six wait lists, that means that five schools are not going to be enrolling that student.

City Charter also suffered from lacking a distinct marketing pitch, a clear brand identity.

"Our story’s a little harder to tell," said [executive director Valerie] Braimah. "It's like, 'We love kids!' Well, everybody says they love kids."

The school's still-up website underlines the rather undistinct mission of the school:

Our school provides an educational experience on par with the best schools in the country while emphasizing a mixed-socioeconomic, mixed-ethnicity student body that is truly reflective of Los Angeles. Our supportive community of learners propels students to express concerns and ask for help, develop character and lead.

They had hoped that this fall would see an increase in enrollment, but instead, they were losing steam and students. City Charter didn't have a real sales angle, a clear picture of what they were offering that was different from the public system. Which raises the question of why they ever needed to exist in the first place. What exactly was the point of opening the school if it was indistinguishable from public offerings? And isn't there something wrong with a system that requires a school to have a clear marketing brand to succeed?

The last thing to note about City Charter high school is that it could have limped along much longer than it did, except that an electrical fire led to the discovery that the building had "deep-seated" problems with wiring and air conditioning, and it was going to take a battle with the landlord to get them fixed. Which serves as yet one more example of what happens when the school system becomes infected with groups for whom business missions, not educational ones, are the driving force.

The students who found themselves cut loose managed, mostly, to find a new school to take them in, and I suppose they were at least a little fortunate in that they were cast adrift close to the beginning of the school year and not in January. But in the meantime a whole bunch of taxpayer money and resources have been wasted on a school that not much of anybody wanted and which didn't provide anything special other than a chance for charter operators to expand their brand vertically.

This is not the neat, efficient system that charter fans promised-- just a wasteful mess that has destabilized the education of a hundred-or-so families. What exactly is the point of the charter revolution, again?

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