Charles Sahm and I have been in as low motion conversation about charters. After the New York Times ran a less-than-inspiring portrayal of Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy, Sahm replied with his own look at the charters to explain their success (such as it is). I suggested that he might have missed a few parts of the explanation. He offered some further observations via the internets, and I set them aside for thought-- well, the reason that our conversation is slow motion is because despite the amount of writing I do, I usually have a stack of things I want to respond to, and I'm usually behind.
I've raised one question several times in the last month-- if charters are supposed to be the laboratories of education, where is our scholastic hoverboard? After so many years of charter experimentation, where are the educational breakthroughs that are supposed to be revolutionizing the rest of us?
Sahm's response is one that is popular in choice circles. Charters are creating new choices, new ideas about what is possible, and most of all, a "sense of urgency" among public schools to be more responsive to the public.
Sahm is at the Manhattan Institute, a NYC thinky tank promoting conservative policy ideas, so he's a New York guy. I have an old friend who works within the NYC school system, and I'm not unsympathetic to the notion that any institution that is so huge, sprawling, mammoth and, well, institutional can come to seem rather unresponsive to its customer base. But is making the various little cilia of the beast compete for food and air healthy?
Regular readers know my answer: the free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.
Sahm gave me a specific example-- many parents were choosing charters because charters kept their kids till 5:00 or 6:00 (presumably parents valued either extra instructional hours or not having their kids home alone in the late afternoon). Seeing that, some public schools began offering the longer day.
That seems like an okay thing. But my first question is-- what did the public school cut to do that?
See, here's one way in which the "free market" works differently for public vs charter schools. When a charter school sells more seats, it takes in more money. But the best a public school can hope to do is not lose money. A charter school, like any business, can make a costs-benefits analysis of its marketing- spending $10K to bring in an additional $100K is a win. But a public school will never bring in "additional" revenue, so any money spent on marketing is always 100% loss to the operating budget. Spending $10K so that charters siphon off only $100K is still a net loss of $110K. Money spent on fliers and advertising is money not spent on students and education.
So if a public school is spending money on marketing, either by buying ad space or changing programs, it has cut that money from something else.
That's not necessarily the end of the world, but it does mean that a public school has to be thoughtful about getting the best value for its money. And that means resisting the push to market in dumb ways.
K12 had an ad campaign in Pennsylvania (paid for with taxpayer money) with a simple message: put your kid in cyber school so that education doesn't have to interfere with his sports. They also had a campaign based on the selling point that their school would make the student happy. While neither of these are awful, toxic marketing approaches, they don't exactly work as anchors for the unrelenting pursuit of excellence.
Competition often turns into competing on the wrong things. NYC has charters that promise great test scores (check out Moskowitz from six years ago)-- but so what? Test scores get you what in life? High test scores do not equal educational excellence. But they are easy to use in marketing.
We can start to see how marketing affects education by looking at colleges and how they are marketed. Some colleges market themselves by being excellent. Many colleges market themselves by being excellent at only one thing (and sometimes it's a sport, not an academic area). Others market themselves by being mediocre but cheap. Some market themselves by being great places to spend four years drinking beer. And some for-profit schools marketed themselves by just lying through their teeth.
Now imagine two more things. Imagine that we required every single person to go to college-- whether they wanted to or not-- and that we had to build a system with full-nation capacity. And that we had to build it at taxpayer expense.
We would have a rush to marketing, but the pressure to achieve excellence would die a sad, lonely death.
Here's a thing that free-market competition fans often forget-- democracy allows us to harness all the power of the free market at a fraction of the cost. If a huge part of the community wants a school that offers basket-weaving class and grilled lizard for lunch, they round up some candidates, elect them to the school board, and get the baskets and lizards under way. Granted, having a ginormous district like NYC blunts the power of democracy considerably. But turning the power of the "free market" loose on education just wastes a ton of taxpayer money and doesn't particularly improve schools (Insert much-repeated CREDO director quote here).
All of this would be an academic exercise if charters were not sucking the life blood out of public schools. But in my neck of the woods, trying to "compete" with the cyber-charters would require an additional expense at a time when we taking cuts of millions of dollars each year. Part of that is PA's monumental pension fiasco, but a huge part of those yearly budget cuts are the result of tax dollars diverted to charters. In my county, almost half of the elementary schools have been closed because districts just don't have the money. The taxpayers thought they were paying for community schools, but instead they are paying so a handful of families can cyber-school their kids. Schools are not so much worrying about how to create new programs as they are debating which existing programs can still be maintained.
This is not pressure to be excellent. This is taking half of my kids' lunch and saying, "Now you're under pressure to eat more efficiently and creatively."
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