Sunday, July 5, 2015

Consolidating Charter Gains

Has it seemed strange lately, to find reformsters advocating for stronger charter school regulations? Does it seem odd to find guys like Mike Petrilli, one of charterdom's most tireless salesmen, traveling to Detroit to tell reformsters to police charter quality more thoroughly? Is it surprise to find Fordham calling for tougher charter regulations in Ohio, where they themselves operate charters?

In war, an army may take a position through rough and ugly means-- but once there, they consolidate that position by tightening up the troops, re-positioning defenses, and generally settling in.

Or if you prefer a more peaceful example, try retail. A good used car salesman knows to assume the sale and swiftly shift the conversation away from "Are you going to buy this car" to "How would you like to pay for this car?" Because the second conversation assumes that the purchase of the car is not in question.

Defining the new normal

Charter fans have been shifting into consolidation mode, working hard to assume the sale. In places like Ohio, where charters have grown up like kudzu and died off like your confused grandma's unwatered plants, supporters are quick to call for reform-- not an end to a charter system. In York, PA, an editorial points out in one breath that the small charter system has produced some staggering fails, but in the next breath calls for reform, not abolition. Even a new report on the state of New Orleans' mess of a charter system, written by the Center for Popular Democracy and the Coalition for Community Schools, decides that the widespread failure, fraud and abuse means it's time for more regulations.

This is particularly remarkable because back when folks were trying to get the charter foot in the door, every mention of a public school's failure or general shortcomings was proof, not that public schools needed help or resources or more government control, but that they needed to be shut down. When we found so much as a spot on the public school apple, we declared it was rotten and needed to be thrown away, but nowadays, when we find a charter apple that is brown and mushy, we just get out a paring knife and declare, "We'll just cut a couple of bad spots out and make a great pie!"

Petrilli and other charter pushers have fought hard on specific battles, but they are playing the long game as well. When Petrilli tells audiences like the New York Superintendents to seek out the sensible middle, he's really assuming the sale, selling the idea that replacing public education with a charter system is not all that wild and crazy, not at all a complete change of the point and mission of public education.

Charter fans regularly put out a simple message-- that, of course, charters are a permanent and appropriate part of the education landscape, and while we may need to talk about how to manage them, the idea that the charter system approach is now proven a failed experiment and should be dropped-- well, that's just crazy talk and we'd just as soon nobody even say it out loud.

Free-ish Un-open Market

In the process of tightening charter regulations, the charter army can also shed some of their erstwhile allies. A legion of charter operators descending on a city might have helped sell the Educational Variety Charter Concept, or made the dismantling of local public education more manageable, or just been a lovely paean to the Free Open Market.

But step two of having a Free Open Market is for some folks to dominate the Free Open Market and immediate start squeezing everybody else out of the Free Open Market (e.g. John D. Rockefeller or William Gates). This effect is compounded in the charter marketplace because some of the rabble are making the market winners look bad by association. The trick to watch for here is how the regulations are written. Market dominators usually like to get in there and help write the regulations so that the regulations favor the dominators (e.g. the food industry and the military-industrial complex). Look for charter regulations that favor the big players in the charter biz. Remember, when you are winning at Free Market, you want to squeeze out your competition and make it harder for other competitors to get in the game. Since most of the big players in the charter biz are also hedge fund guys, you know they already understand this perfectly.

Put the hammer away

Another feature of the consolidation stage is an attempt to shift the locus of power.

Once upon a time, reformsters loved the idea of getting the feds involved. The feds were maneuvered into pushing Common Core, high stakes testing, anti-teacher evaluation systems, Big Data collection and pushing turnaround mandates that would open the door for charters. Yes, once upon a time reformsters loved the federal gummint.

They loved them because the Big Federal Hammer was the only hammer big enough to break apart the state-level so-called-monopolies on education. "Go get 'em, USED," cheered reformsters.

Now, some things went wrong with that pretty quickly. I don't think anybody expected Common Core to blow up in conservative's faces so thoroughly, and the dream of two national-scale tests fell apart pretty quickly as well. Reformsters shifted pretty quickly to, "It's that darn Obama/Duncan who messed up our perfectly fine Common Core."

But reformsters were always going to turn on the feds. Say you're madly in love with Ethel, but she's dating Alphonse, who is big and strong and buff. So you hire/manipulate/coerce Waldeaux into taking Alphonse out of the picture. Before you can make your own move on Ethel, you need Waldeaux to go away. That's where we are now.

Reformsters are writing big thoughtful papers about how the feds need to shift control of the educational system back to the states while they are also pushing models for how the state can best implement charter expansions. They need the Big Federal Hammer to go away, because now that the golden eggs of individual states have been busted open, they need to NOT have federal regulations and control getting in their way. The dog that got off the leash and chewed up public schools has to be releashed before it lays any teeth on the charter biz.

Unintended consequences

No, I don't think they had this all figured out ahead of time. The collapse of Common Core, the routing of some Big Data companies, the failure of PARCC-- I think all of those required some improvisation. I also think they've been auditioning different models of state-level privatization, only just recently settling on the NOLA-Memphis style Recovery-Achievement School District model as most promising.

So, no, I don't think they've worked this all out, and I don't think we're on an unavoidable track toward charter domination.

School privatizers now face a challenge-- the writing of the rules. Pretty much everybody believes that charters, at a minimum, need some reining. But every piece of regulation can potentially cut into the power to make money easily in the sector. For charteristas, writing just the right regulations that tighten the market without turning it all into another version of the same old public school system, which is related to the puzzle of how to get government to hand over tax dollars without attaching strings to it.

For the rest of us, the challenge is to keep the right questions on the table. Charter promoters are predisposed to present each issue as a momentary blip, and not evidence that there's something fundamentally unsound about a charter-choice system. Instead of discussing how best to manage the privatized charter system, we should keep asking why we should even be having it in the first place.


  1. Excellent observations, Peter, especially this last: "Instead of discussing how best to manage the privatized charter system, we should keep asking why we should even be having it in the first place."


  2. One reason to have a charter school system would be that families do not feel that the school district is responding to their concerns for their students. It seems to me that the immense size of NYC Public, for example, is one reason that charter schools are popular in NYC.

    Another reason might be to avoid a tyranny of the majority. East Ramapo public schools are one example. A more important concern is how the curriculum in traditional public schools must be designed to minimize the number of people who dislike the curriculum. This has had a terrible impact on mathematics education.