Tuesday, January 27, 2015

9 Things to Know About School Choice

To help kick off School Choice PR Week, Forbes ran a puff piece about choice entitled "Kicking Off School Choice Week With 9 Things You Need To Know". The piece comes from contributor Maureen Sullivan who in 2009 was elected to the the Hoboken school board arguing "for lower taxes and higher standards" during her "nearly" four year term (Sullivan was elected as a member of the Kids First team, then defected because she found them insufficiently reformy, leading to a great deal of fiscal grandstanding and wrangling in Hoboken)

Her 9 things make a nice compendium of what choice advocates offer as arguments these days. Let's consider them in the order she presents them.

1) Sullivan cites the American Federation for Children poll as proof that Americans want school choice for realsies. As Diane Ravitch pointed out to me when I wrote about that poll, it's interesting that in all the times choice has been on a ballot in the states, it has never won once (update: my mistake-- with huge backing, a charter bill did finally just pass in Washington) . At any rate, looking to AFC for information about school choice is like looking to R. J. Reynolds for information about the effects of smoking.

2) More than 100K students use vouchers to attend private school (according to Center for Education Reform, another school choice booster group). There are a little under 50 million K-12 students in the US, making voucher students about 0.2% of the student population. It's a good number to remember the next time anybody offers students in a voucher program as proof of anything.

3) There are 6,500 charter schools open now. Well, probably, more or less. Hard to say exactly how many have opened or closed this week. According to the National Alliance for Public School Charters, 2.5 million students are enrolled. Sullivan did include one actually interesting factoid here-- half of all charters are in four states (California, Texas, Florida and Arizona).

4) The Center for Education Reform offers grades each state on its charter school swellness. It's a fifty-five-point scale, and twenty-five of those points are based on independent authorizers and number of schools allowed. Fifteen more points for a combination of state and district autonomy, along with "teacher freedom," whatever that is supposed to be. Final fifteen are for funding. The A states are DC, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan and Arizona.

5) Eight states don't allow charters (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Vermont, West Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky, though Nebraska is likely to change under a new pro-charter governor). It's an interesting list. Do you suppose the lack of any juicy urban profit centers is a factor for these states?

6) Charter schools go out of business. Sigh. I wish this weren't news to people, but as we repeatedly see, it is. The NAPSC reported that 200 2012-13 charters didn't open again the following year. The Center for Ed Reform says that of 6,700 that ever were, 1,036 have closed since 1992. I do not know how to make those figures fit with the figures in item 3.

7) Charter schools are getting better results. This is based on the wishful thinking and fluffy unicorns study released bu CATO studying Texas charters. In fact, there are no conclusive studies showing that charters do it better, and where marginally better results occur (and also when they don't, which is sad for the charter) those results are readily explained by how the charter manages its student body with selective intake and pushing out low performers. There are virtually no examples of charters attempting to educate an entire student population in the same way that a public school system must. So far we've had one all-charter district, and it failed to have any positive effect whatsoever.

8) The US Senate passed a resolution recognizing National School Choice Week, sponsored by Tim Scott (Rep-SC) with ten co-sponsors including Ted Cruz , Rand Paul, and Dianne Feinstein.

9) The two biggest teachers' unions got their asses handed to them by pro-school-choice candidates, achieving victory only over Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, who arguably could have been beaten by my dog. There's a whole host of explanations for those electoral victories, and they do underline how disconnected AFT and NEA leadership are from absolutely anything at all. I suspect the elections mostly show that political fooferawing only moves the needle so far. Scott Walker wasn't going to lose unless someone caught him on video beating a nun to death with a puppy. Tom Corbett wasn't going to win even if someone had a video of Jesus endorsing him.

Sullivan's article is one more example of the long game that charter and choice advocates are playing. Just keep insisting something is true long enough (public schools are failing, vaccines are dangerous, fluoride makes you communist, The Bachelor is a show about finding true love, charter schools are popular and successful) and eventually it enters Conventional Wisdom as, at a minimum, a "valid alternative view." It's not necessary for the things to be true, or even supported by facts-- just keep repeating them uncritically and without argument, and eventually, they stick.


  1. I hope your final paragraph is wrong… but…. after 35 years we "know" that government isn't the solution, it's the problem! And we "know" that regulations strangle innovation and the market place should decide what's best. Somewhere, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman are smiling at what they've wrought.

  2. One important point to continue making is that parents have never had a seat at the table where what will be made available to choose from is decided upon. They are presented with a backroom done deal and asked to rubber stamp it. When parents do raise their voices and tell the politicians and edu-preneurs what they want, they are ignored and marginalized. Currently, school choice is exactly like the choice Henry Ford offered Model T buyers on the color of their cars, "You can have your Model T painted any color you like just so long as it's black."