Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fiction, Charter Fiction, and Damned Lies

Back in August of 2014, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools published "Separating Fact & Fiction: What You Need To Know About Charter Schools." This is kind of like reading a tobacco industry publication about the health benefits of smoking. Admittedly, the NAPCS only suggests they're going to separate fact and fiction, not tell us which are which. But the National Education Policy Center, one of the most indispensable research centers for education, did their own review of the charter report, and that review was just released.

NEPC's review is scholarly, thorough, and responsible. So I figured I would take a quick scan through the NAPCS piece with a somewhat less grown-up eye (since I missed it when it first came out) and see what kind of baloney the charter folks are selling.

I'll preface this, as always, by saying that I believe there is a place for charters, particularly the classic charters that pre-date the current explosion of charters that are more interested in investment return and money-funneling than actual education. It's unfortunate that the current crop of charters are making the whole concept of charter schooling look bad. So, no, I'm not a knee-jerk automatic charter hater.

Now let's check out some myths.

MYTH: Charter Schools Are Not Public Schools

Their claim is that they meet the legal definition of a public school. Of course, there are states (looking at you, OK) where helpful legislators are actually trying to get charters excused from those pesky testing and transparency requirements. Otherwise, the rule remains the same-- charters are public when they want access to public money, and private when they want to avoid being transparent-- even to other parts of the charter network!

MYTH: Charter schools get more money than other public schools.

I see what you did there with the word "other"-- asserting some more that charters are public schools. Their claim is that charters get less money. Of course charters also get more free buildings for co-locations or just plain take overs. And charters have started agitating hard for a bigger piece of the pie, so I guess all that talk about how charters would do more with less was just a sales pitch.

MYTH: Charter schools receive a disproportionate amount of private funds.

Well, "disproportionate" is a fancy word for "fair," and fairness is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly some charters have some fancy high profile fundraisers while schools like mine are holding car washes. But I have no idea how we figure this, since every dollar a parent spends on a Hello Kitty backpack would conceivably count as a private fund.

MYTH: There is a lack of transparency around charter schools' use of funds.

Well, yes. There was also a lack of civility during assault on the US Embassy in Benghazi. Charters don't so much lack transparency as they fight it like cats being forced to bathe. One of the authors of the NEPC review sent out 400 Freedom of Information Act requests to charters. 20% answered, 10% asserted their right to ignore FOIA requests, and 70% simply ignored the request.

Now, what NAPSC actually says is that charter schools "have greater accountability and scrutiny over their finances than traditional public schools." They have no real support for that other than claiming that they must meet all state laws as well as keep their authorizers happy. Maybe what they really mean is that they have to answer to their investors.

MYTH: Charter school teachers are less qualified than teachers in traditional public schools.

"Like all public school leaders, charter leaders aim to hire talented, passionate, and qualified teachers who will boost student achievement and contribute to a thriving school culture." Well, baloney. Nobody asked what you aim at. You can aim at anything. But since charters aim to spend less money on teaching staffs and charters aim to fill spaces with easily-replaced TFA temps and charters aim to install systems where they can hide lousy pay structures with shiny "merit" systems, we can easily predict that what their aim is confused. They may be aiming for the target, but their big cheap gun is pointed straight at the floor. I have no doubt that there are many excellent teachers working in the charter world, but since they prize the "flexibility...to draw from a wider candidate pool," they will, in fact, have a teaching pool of less-qualified people filling teaching slots.

MYTH: Charter schools are anti-union.

The National Alliance believes that teachers in any school should be treated fairly and should be given the due process rights they are accorded under the law. And we believe in giving school leaders the flexibility they need to staff their schools with teachers who support the mission and will meet school standards. 

We are happy to have unions, as long as they are ineffective and powerless and never intrude on the management's freedom to run the school however they wish.

MYTH: Charter schools aren't accountable to the public since their boards aren't elected.

Yeah, we're just going to fudge our way through this one. See charters have to answer to authorizers, who are just like the public. "Charter schools are uniquely accountable to the public because they sign contracts with a government-endorsed authorizer..." So, no, they aren't accountable to the public. In fact, they rather like it that way.

MYTH: Charter schools cream or cherry-pick the best students from traditional public schools.

NAPCS says that charters are "generally required" to accept all students. But one of their most vocal supporters says, no, they don't, and that's a good thing. The modern charter is excellent at making sure it only serves the kind of students it wishes to serve, and this selectivity has been demonstrated by researchers again and again, to the point that the New Jersey Charter Schools group tried to use the court system to stop one set of researchers from proving that yet again, the charters do not serve the same population as the public system.

Part of the answer here is also marketing. If you market a restaurant as a prime steak house, you won't pull big vegan clientelle. If you market a charter as a no excuses, all science all day, we make slackers miserable school, your potential market will do some of the cherry picking for you.

Also, you know what kind of student charters never have to accept? The kind of student who comes into school in the middle of the year. For the most part, charters do not have to back fill their empty seats. None of their students have come in in the middle of the year-- those kids can hie them to a public school.

MYTH: Charter schools don't enroll children from underserved families.

The research is stacking up that charters accelerate segregation by both race and class (NEPC has a list of six). Charters do enroll such students, but not at the same rate as public schools.

MYTH: Charter schools serve fewer English language learners than traditional public schools.

NAPCS says there is "no significant difference" in the percentage of ELL students served by charter and public schools. NEPC says this claim is "unsubstantiated and demonstrably false" which is the polite researcher way of calling pants on fire. Maybe NAPCS thinks "no significant difference" means "no difference large enough to bother us."

MYTH: Charter schools serve fewer students with disabilities.

NAPCS says they're at 10% enrollment versus 12% for public schools. They neglect to mention how the disabilities sort out as far as severity, so they are counting a child with a mild processing disability the same as a child with severe learning challenges. They also give themselves a big pat on the back for keeping a huge percentage of their students in a least restrictive environment of a regular classroom, which is a great way to spin providing no special supports for students with special needs.

MYTH: Charter schools depend on counseling out for academic results blah blah this is a wordy one for some reason.

Well, not for some reason. The myth is worded to embed the notion that charters get better academic results, which they don't. The NAPCS defense is awesome: "There is no evidence of charter school policies that explicitly push out students." So, "You'll never catch us doing it."

MYTH: Charter schools have higher suspension and expulsion rates.

Pretty sure that's just wrong. For instance, Chicago just noticed a problem. And DC is really out of whack. NAPCS is using a single Education Week article covering 2009-2010 data. It's a weak stretch.

MYTH: Charter school students do no better than traditional public schools.

NAPCS uses their own studies to assert their superiority. Well, actually, just a couple of their own studies. Funny they didn't use any of the independent studies out there, most of which show that charters generally are neither better nor worse than public schools. But I'm going to give them a pass on this because most of those studies reach their conclusions by looking at standardized tests scores, and those things don't really tell us how any students in any schools are really doing.

MYTH: Underperforming charter schools are allowed to remain open.

Tricky one to defend, since the most striking defense is that the really bad charter schools often just close up shop during the school year with no warning at all. Closing whenever they feel like it is one of the defining characteristics of the modern charter school, and one of the reasons I oppose them.

MYTH: Charters are an urban-only phenomenon.

Well, I believe that probably is a myth. I'm sure that charter operators will go anywhere they think the market is ripe for the plucking. Pennsylvania's cyber charters have displayed a rapacious love of money that knows no boundaries whatsoever. Of course, if we can agree that charters also appear in suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, then perhaps we can move onto the next logical question, which is "So what?"

MYTH: Competition from charter schools is causing neighborhood schools to close and harming the students attending them.

MYTH: Charter schools take funding away from traditional public schools.

Again, the statement of the first myth itself is a big fat lie. The implication here is that charters are just out-competing those lame-o public schools. But no-- it's not the competition that's doing the damage-- it's the sweet, sweet political deals that turn charter systems into bloodsucking leeches firmly latched onto the veins of public education.

NAPSC's defense is stupid. "No research has shown that the presence of public charter schools cause neighborhood schools to close."  Come visit me at my home, and I will walk you across the street to the former neighborhood elementary school that was closed a few years ago. In that year, our goal was to save about $800K in operating expenses. In that same year, we handed over about $760K to cyber-charters. Charters suck the money out of public schools. In places like New York City where politically-connected profiteers like Eva Moskowitz can strong-arm the city into handing them free real estate, charters are literally taking the school buildings away from the neighborhood.

One of the biggest, boldest, fattest, most destructive lies of the charter movement is that we can operate multiple school systems for the cost of one. But charters have made sure that their political backers will insure that it's the public system that loses out and that the public schools will be the ones stripped of resources and left with less than they need to function.

In 2014, the charter industry could still claim with a straight face that only a portion of the per-pupil cost left the public schools with the student. But they have been working on that. Indiana's Governor Pence actually wants the charters to get MORE per pupil tan a public school.

NAPSC ends with a non-denial denial, leaning on the competitive aspect. In essence, their position is, "Well, yes, we take resources away from pubic schools. But we are better, so we deserve to."

MYTH: Charter schools resegregate pubic education.

Asked and answered. All the reputable research suggests that they do, in fact, do this. In fact, the NAPCS defense is, "Yeah, we're working on that."

MYTH: Some charter schools are religious schools.

NAPCS response is that it would be wrong to operate as a religious school, which I guess means that charters are careful enough not to get caught. NEPC wryly observes that researchers are studying faith-based charters, which suggests that such schools exist.

MYTH: Charter schools aren't the incubators of innovation that they claim to be.

NAPCS wants you to remember that charters themselves are an innovation (though I don't know if you get to call yourself a new idea if you are older than the internet). And they've blending learning  and using online instruction. So, you know, innovation! You might expect a longer list to back this point up, but I guess this is all they've got. In all fairness to charters, I think I more often here the incubator of innovation claim from their supporters (e.g. POTUS). I don't recall often reading about a charter saying, "Hey, everyone, come look at this innovative success we're having here," probably for the same reason that you don't hear me holler, "Hey, everyone, come watch me flap my arms and fly off the top of the Chrysler Building."

That's the myth portion.

Post-mythbusting, the paper moves into the endnote section, which leans heavily on the work of NAPCS and other charter school boosters. Not so much on actual real research.

I give them credit for not crafting all of the myths as straw men, but here's the thing about myths-- they often spring into being because many, many people encounter something and reach a similar conclusion. The idea, for instance, that gay folks are actually human beings pretty much like other human beings seems to have spread mostly because, as gay folks stopped hiding the gay, straight folks looked around and went, "Oh. I know some gay folks. They appear to be regular human beings." It did not require a massive PR campaign.

Charter folks may be confused here because they shoved their way into recent prominence by spending a lot of money for PR and political influence. So perhaps they feel that these myths are the result of some sort of massive PR counter-offensive, and not the result of people using teir eyes and ears and brains. People know that charters are bleeding public schools dry because they have eyes and ears. People know that charters cream and cherry-pick and push out because people have eyes and ears.

But if you want to counter these counter-myths with facts and research and scholarship, I recommend the NEPC report, which handles the Big Bunch O' Charter Talking Points nicely. Let's hope it helps beat back the modern wave of charters and helps keep alive that charter schools can go back to being the positive force for education that they once were.


  1. Off topic, but I just read an article about how parents are fighting back against the "cradle to grave" data mining and legislators are talking about addressing it:


    Though I'm leery of the comments by the director of the "Future of Privacy Forum", a thinky tank supported entirely by companies like AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, saying that "transparency is key" and that schools and tech and data companies need to "make sure parents and students understand why and how technology and data are being used to advanced learning". That's supposing that there is any legitimate use for what they're doing.