Friday, November 21, 2014

Charters Make Money. So What?

It's a response that comes frequently to the charge that modern charter schools have become all about grabbing large piles of money for their backers and operators.

"I don't care if they are making a pile of money," is the response. "If they're getting the results, what difference does it make?"

It's a response that bugs me, and it has taken me a while to figure out exactly why. You know I love a good illustrative analogy. I'm going to give you the following analogy instead.

That response makes the same sense as saying, "I don't care if I'm going to bed with a person who's committed to a loving, long-lasting relationship or if I'm going to be with a hundred dollar an hour hooker. As long as the sex is good, what difference does it make?"

I might argue that it ultimately makes a difference because sex is better within a committed relationship with someone you love than a stranger paid to fake affection. I might also argue that absent a more stable relationships, you don't really know what other factors, concerns, agendas and second-hand biological effluvium are in bed with you.

But even those arguments assume that you're using the right metric, and maybe comparing the quality of the sex is not the only way to weigh the relative merits of a long term committed relationship versus the merits of hiring a hundred dollar hooker. Maybe we should be comparing on the basis of other, deeper, ultimately more important considerations. I mean, if the quality of the sex is the only thing you care about, then maybe the hundred dollar hooker is the best choice for you. But I'm pretty sure that is not the prevailing metric for most people.

In particular, I would argue about the "long term commitment" part. Your hundred dollar hooker will only be around as long as you can come up with a hundred dollars, whereas in a long term committed relationship, the idea is to stick around for the long term. The hundred dollar an hour hooker is not worried about your needs or concerned; the hooker is just watching the clock and the money, and not because the hooker is a wretched evil awful human being but because that's just the nature of the transaction. Yes, many LTR and marriages are miserable or unsuccessful or fall apart. Even then, I don't believe the most commonly suggested solution is hundred dollar hookers.

Yes, yes, yes. I'm aware that this analogy is imperfect, and I don't mean to suggest that all charter school operators are prostitutes (some classic charters are like, I don't know, Mother Teresa), and I certainly don't mean to suggest that standardized tests and the results thereof are like sex. And, no, I haven't really figured out where charter teachers or students themselves would fit in this analogy.

My point remains. "Who cares if charters make money as long as they get results" fails for the following reasons:

1) "Results" inevitably means "test scores." Test scores are the not the ultimate measure of student achievement, teacher effectiveness, or school quality. You might as well tell me "I don't care if charters make a profit as long as they have pretty door jambs." If by "results" you mean something other than "test scores," we might be able to have a real conversation here. (And if you mean test scores, you need to look at what charter results actually are.)

2) Charters make more money by spending less on students. Charters will always only be able to get more money by taking it away from students. They are not worrying about student needs; they are just watching the money. That is not because they are evil or terrible human beings, but because that is the nature of the transaction.

3) Charter schools will be there only as long as it makes good business sense to be there. If they aren't making enough money, they will close up shop. A public school starts with the premise that the community, through its school, must provide an education. A charter school starts with the premise that it must bank enough money to be viable. Just because a charter school has good (test) results today doesn't mean it won't be a MegaMart parking lot next week. Is that hard on students and the community? See #2.

Public education, like other important relationships in life, is not best served by being re-interpreted as a simple retail transaction. That's my answer to "so what?"


  1. Wisdom from the ancients: You can't serve students and Mammon.

    In a non-profit but fund-raising institution, you might serve students vigorously and perhaps sometimes extra money will come your way, which is fine. If it comes your way regularly, you might decide to pay your faculty a good solid wage or improve their benefits; you might even throw a bit of a morale-lifting party. But basically, if you're serving students, your first thought is always going to be, "Oh great, we've made a profit - now we can expand the science lab / beef up our special ed services / take kids on a kick-ass field trip" etc. So there is really no way a for-profit institution can be said to put students first.

  2. I love a good analogy and this one really got my attention and made a great point. Thanks!