Saturday, July 19, 2014

Charter Conversations

Over at the Fordham Institute blog, Andy Smarick dissects and critiques the current state of dialogue regarding charter schools.

What's the problem?

He starts by observing that there are really two conversations going on.

The first "presupposes (or, at minimum, concedes) the legitimacy of chartering and then explores how to make it better." Smarick believes that these nuts-and-bolts, sizzle-free conversations are worthwhile, but undervalued and insufficiently publicized. That's because of the second conversation.

The second, about philosophy and politics, is essentially about whether chartering is good or bad. Participants are interested in basic questions such as, “Should charters exist?” and “What does chartering mean for public education?” This conversation, which typically emanates from deeply held principles and big ideas, seems to attract the scholarly, the idealistic, and the impassioned—but also the certain and the dismissive.

Smarick's concern is that the impassioned side of the conversation attracts too much name-calling and sensationalism. If you want attention and press, he says, use name calling like "privateers" or “corporate interests, hedge fund managers and billionaires starve public schools and services of resources and suck up as much profit as they can." He's also not fond of long-form pieces like the New Jersey article that focused on the web of corruption and general misbehavior that characterizes the charterward shift of New Jersey schools. He thinks the Detroit Free-Press series on corruption and general misbehavior in the Michigan charter missed a chance to examine charter relations to public school and instead focused on scandal and intrigue.

There's a faint smell of flop-sweat around Smarick's complaints, like a Nixon aide complaining that Watergate coverage is failing to mention all the great things the President did in China. But Smarick is generally a serious guy, so I'm going to address his concern seriously here.

What does he want to see?

Here’s my request. If you think chartering is, at root, a threat to public education and believe that it must be brought to an end, please make that case publicly and straightforwardly, with conviction and tact. You’ll find a more receptive audience than you might suspect. If you aren’t obdurately anti-charter but think there are aspects of chartering that need serious improvement, marshal the data and make your case. 

I think there a couple of problems with this request.

Smarick's two-conversations model misses a third conversation that's going on. That's the conversation not about charters in the abstract large-scale policy sense, but in the specific let's-talk-about-the-charter-in-my-neighborhood sense.

Many of the people who have found themselves embroiled in charter debates are there because, like folks in NOLA or Detroit or Chicago or NYC etc etc etc are there because they are dealing with the very specific behavior surrounding very specific charters. The stories he cites about Camden and Michigan are not policy stories-- they are local news stories.

The charter movement's problem is not a policy-and-philosophy problem. It's a too-many-instances-of-specific-crooked-behavior problem. That problem points to some policy and philosophy issues, but those aren't what are driving press coverage and public crankiness.

What's driving the bad press?

Inside Philanthropy ran a piece Friday looking at how Charles Schwab is heavily into charter school investing.

A $1 million gift to the Charter School Growth Fund in 2011 stands out, not only because of the size of the gift but also because of its destination. Founded in 2005, the Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF) is a bit like the mother ship of the charter school movement, working to grow and professionalize this alternative ed sector. A lot of the major players in the charter school funding world have given to CSGF, including Walton, Gates, Dell, Bradley, and Fisher. 

It is no mystery why so many finance guys are interested in the charter movement. Forbes (not exactly liberal tools of the public school establishment) reported back in September of 2013 that investors were flocking to charters because Clinton-era tax laws made such investments very attractive, possibly allowing investors to double their money in seven years (and that includes plenty of foreign investors, which is its own kind of troubling).

Charter schools are not new at all. But the influx of hedge fund managers and rock stars and all manner of people whose motivation is not quality education but ROI is a recent development that has shaped the charter movement, and not in a good way. In state after state, money has greased the wheels of charter regulation (or lack thereof) and the results are fairly predictable.

But people are not waking up to these issues because of some burning interest in educational philosophy or public-private education policy. They are waking up because their own neighborhood schools are being shuttered and replaced by charters that handle them with the same kindness and consideration as the phone company or the DMV.

In my own small ruralish town, people used to not care about PA's cyber-charter laws. Then our school district shuttered two elementary schools to save around 800K in the same year that they had to pay out about 800K for seventy-some students to attend cyber-charters. That, not some philosophical interest in policy-wonkery, is what had taxpayers saying, "Well, that can't be right" and a school board president saying, "You all need to call your congressman today."

Three days after Smarick posted his piece, the Hartford Courant was reporting on the FBI serving subpoenas to FUSE, a Connecticut charter operator. Reporters who went to FUSE offices found a receptionist shredding papers. This sort of story has reached the level of "dog bites man" for its shock and surprise value, so in that sense, Smarick is correct in saying these stories might get too much attention.

But his straining to suggest that coverage of charter misbehavior is exaggerated is off base. For instance, the coverage of Tony Bennett's misbehavior was consistent with the level of misbehavior he displayed and was, again, a local story, particularly for the schools that might have stayed open had they received the same largesse Bennett extended to others. His "exoneration"is not particularly credible nor convincing.

When all is said and done, I'm not sure exactly what Smarick wants. Facts? The stories that he objects to are all loaded with carefully and responsibly researched facts. Make the anti-charter case with tact? Personally, I've made the case both with tact and without. But there are more gifted writers than I who have made the charts and graphs and fact-based arguments about charters in their neck of the woods (Jersey Jazzman pulls off that trick regularly).

Less inflamatory rhetoric? That's not an unreasonable request, though people who are fighting for the life of a local school district that they value are often rather inflamed. Particularly when it turns out they are being shut out of policy decisions that A) have a huge effect on them and B) turn out to have been made for financial, not educational, reasons. It only gets worse if it turns out that some sort of misbehavior is also involved.

Sometimes you have a PR problem because of perception unrelated to reality. Sometimes you have a PR problem because your client keeps doing bad things. That seems to be the plight of the modern charter. Old-school charters, the kinds started by teachers and local people and persons who were generally on an educational mission-- these charters did not give rise to large conversations about the value of charters. But the modern 500-pound-gorilla mega-chain ROI charters are a different animal.

Remember that old Ann Landers column?

Dear Ann Landers: I`m a 16-year-old girl who is a nervous wreck from getting yelled at. All I hear from morning till night is, ``Stop smoking, get off the phone, hang up your clothes, do your homework, clean up your room.`` How can I get them off my case?
             Sick of Parents

Dear Sick: Stop smoking, get off the phone, hang up your clothes, do your homework and clean up your room.

If charters are tired of press about how they get sweetheart deals with politicians to strip resources from public schools in order to enrich themselves, if they're tired of stories about how some charter operator got caught in crooked deals, if they're tired of being raked over the coals for using politics to grease some moneyed wheels-- well, their best move would be to stop doing those things.

If charters are tired of being attacked, they could stop attacking public education, as in the recent charter gathering in which the recurring theme was "Charters are great because public schools suck." I'm not a fan of "they started it" as an argument, but it's also specious to declare "all I did was keep calling him names and stealing his lunch, and then he just hit me for no reason!"

I'm not a fan of Smarick's first posited conversation (let's just assume charters are great), I think the second one is valuable (let's talk about how and if charters can work), but I think both are being drowned out by the third conversation, which is a mass of local conversations about the damage being done and the attacks on local schools that people feel they are suffering through. That conversation is, I believe, a direct result of the injection of huge amounts of money into the process. It's hard to have the conversation because the stakes on all sides are so high (ROI vs. local concerns for children).

I'm actually a fan of old-school charters, and it makes me sad that their promise has been swept aside by the current wave of money-driven charter chains. But asking people to please be more polite and reasonable and please stop pointing out where we've screwed you over is not likely to get the conversation back on track or reclaim the benefits that charter schools could provide.


  1. I would like people to realize that F.I. has Gates funding and they also fund the Education Next articles; their articles go direct to the Board of Governors at the NAEP and I find this offensive when they tell us we need to now measure our students "grit" in addition to all of the tests that are standardized. P. Peterson and C. Finn are behind the scenes with the intrigue and I would want people to know that they list Jeb Bush as the first name on their advisory board (P. Peterson's group). I have been complaining for 5 years about their teacher bashing .

  2. "Union busters then and now" blog by NYCeducator explains the many headed hydra that F.I. represents .... Harvard is the currently the home of The Program on Educational Policy and Governance (PEPG), and has notable alumni such as Michelle Rhee and Cami Anderson " these are affiliates, integral to the union busters and i cannot take anything Smarick says as honest.

    quote: "A quick look at their Advisory Committee and major funders, shows it to be made up almost entirely of pro-privatization and anti-labor individuals and groups. Its funders include foundations such as the Walton Family Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Olin Foundation, Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation and the William E. Simon Foundation. Its Advisory Committee includes Jeb Bush and a host of investment bank, hedge fund and private equity interests. Its affiliates include the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, The Hoover Institute and The Heritage Foundation [all] dominated by the free-market fundamentalism and is now (to use a term from the Wall Street backers of corporate ed reform)) engaging in a hostile takeover of the public schools." please see the original post by Michael Fiorello at NYCeducator "union busters then and now"

  3. I think there's a place for old-school charters, for at-risk students or to pilot an innovative program. The problem is the for-profits and the supposedly "non-profits" where the CEO pays herself a half a million dollars. Isn't there some way to legally get the profit motive out of it?

  4. I know many sincere teachers and school leaders working in charters who want to do the right thing, but their idealism is over run by an atmosphere of colonialism, through "no excuses" discipline policies, lack of experienced teachers on staff, harsh working conditions and the resulting staff turnover. Change can't come by willing it so. It takes hard work, yes, but also informed work. The charters I have visited are not well informed in teaching and learning.

  5. Nice job, Peter - and thanks for the shout out. Let me extend this a little further (I probably should do this in a post):

    There is, perhaps, a fourth conversation: a conversation about the truth.

    You linked to one of my posts about Hoboken, which is really an excellent example of this conversation. Over and over, the folks in Hoboken have been sold a hill of beans about charters. They were told by the charter cheerleaders in town that the charters really were serving the same types of kids as the public schools. But that's just not so. I have spend hours and hours proving exactly this; the response is to twist and contort and, arguably, to outright lie about the facts.

    In my little corner of the world, I've had to debunk this sort of thing for Camden and Newark and Trenton and other parts of the state. And I've done the same in Miami and Chicago and lots of other places. The story is always the same: "miracle" charter schools are anything but. While some charters do, indeed, get better results than expected, a majority of "successful" charters owe a great deal of their "success" to patterns of attrition and segregation: they simply don't serve as many at-risk, special education, LEP, or academically struggling students.

    This myth busting is time consuming and frustrating, but it has to be done. Because if I (indulge me for including myself in the following list) or Bruce Baker or Ed Fuller or Julian Vasquez Heilig or Gary Miron or any number of folks at NEPC or a whole bunch more researchers ever let up...

    The charter cheerleading industry is going to continue unabated in selling their fairy tales about how their "hard work" "proves" that "poverty is not destiny."

    I just can't take anyone seriously if they don't acknowledge some basic facts about this. To their credit, some have begun to concede the point: Mike Petrilli is among them. But too many do not.

    If Andy Smarick wants a civil conversation about charters, he should start by acknowledging that the charter industry has engaged in a lot of sophistry for a good long while. And he should demand that they cease and desist.

    When that happens, I'll worry about my "tone." Until that happy day, however, all bets are off.

  6. It's sad when conversations can't be honest conversations because of vitriol. Isn't that how Smarick talks about public ed?