Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Stopping Bad Charters

Over at Campbell Brown's Reformsters R Us PR site, charter fan Richard Whitmire addresses the question of how to handle terrible awful no good very bad charter schools. It's an important question, and his five answers are worth discussing. But it's also worth discussing how his answers direct attention to some fundamental charter issues.

Whitmire starts out by acknowledging that the charter movement keeps getting shot in the foot by its own friends. He drops the ball by characterizing charter opponents as either unions or competition-hating superintendents, skipping right past other opposition from groups like "people who care about public education" or "people who don't want schools to be used primarily as money-making tools for investors" or even "people who think the whole charter-choice approach is grossly inefficient and over-expensive." But he does nail his central point-- when charter foes ask why anyone should approve more charters when "so many crappy charters remain in business," they have a point.

Whitmire offers five ways that charter fans can sweep away the junk that is making Charterville look kind of shady and run-down.

Advocates Need To Change Their Mindset

Whitmire argues for quality over popularity. Filled seats and a waiting list don't prove that a school is good. He notes that CREDO research indicates that struggling charter schools can rarely be turned around. Which I would expect-- a public school has external pressures to answer to, while the board of a charter often answers to nobody. And he says this:

"And never justify keeping lousy charters open just because equally bad district schools never get closed. This is not the same thing. “Charter schools are meant to be an improvement over (traditional) public schools,” said [Scott] Pearson. “If not, why are we bothering? If we’re not delivering quality, I don’t think we have a business being in this game.”

It's a good point. Too many charters base their marketing on "the pubic schools here suck" and not "we can do things well."

Charter Advocates Need To Name Names

Yup. It's understandable to want to avoid calling out your own people when you're already under attack. But Whitmire says only California's charter association has the nerve to put charters on a "should close" list. But California's charter association chief says not calling them out is a threat to growth and autonomy.

But this is a great idea. I look forward to when the 74, which promised to follow the stories wherever they lead, starts naming names of bad charter actors.

Identify the Low Bar and Enforce It

Whitmire says states should set a minimum and close charters that fall below it. Good and great can take many forms, Whitmire says, but the bare minimum should be an enforceable universal standard.

Start Advocating-- Loudly-- For Changes In Mushy Laws That Allow Bad Charters To Stay In Business

Whitmire cites two Philly groups for doing so, and really, it's a surprise that more don't do so, because the next phase of the charter market will inevitably be the big players getting rules passed that make it harder to survive the market as a small fish. Charters used political connections and leverage to get the market pried open in the first place, but the next step for any evolving market is for the winners to enlist government help in maintaining their dominance.

The trick is in how the laws are written. If states set a true low standard below which charters can't fall, that's one challenge (particularly if it's test-based-- congratulations Test Prep Academy). But if legislators turn to industry insiders for a little help, we could see standards such as "Good charter schools have a combination of the letter K and a number in their title."

But there's certainly room for better laws in places like Ohio, Charter Junkyard of the East, or North Carolina, where charters are now assumed to be worthy unless someone proves they deserve to be shut down.

Improve Charter Authorizing 

Whitmire correctly notes that in some places (e.g. Kansas City) the incentives are in place to encourage authorizers to open as many charters as possible (Hmmm... wonder how the law ended up being written that way). Whitmire cites Arizona as a state where the charter board was "an embarrassment," but eventually figured things out (he comes just short of calling Ohio an embarrassment today).

There’s a dangerous notion out there that little can be done about weak authorizers. But that’s just wrong. What’s needed is for state politicians to insist that the job gets done.

So there are Whitmire's five thoughts. And if we assume for the moment that I'm not going to get my druthers regarding charters or their mission, then these are not bad thoughts. But for me, it raises  issues.

Embracing Churn

Whitmire's model is at least honest in its assumption that a charter system will involve schools regularly being shut down. And if I'm an economist looking down on a free market sector from high up on a cloud somewhere, that is normal and natural and not at all troubling. But if I'm a family on the ground, where schools are opening and closing and churning and burning-- well, that's not so great. Uprooting children on a regular basis? Not so great.

This is one of the many ways in which a market approach is incompatible with public education-- the free market does not provide a great deal of stability on the individual level (well, at least not until some market leader emerges to turn it into a not-so-free market). Children and their families deserve a stable system, and they benefit from not having to shift and change and retool and re-adjust every fall (and especially not during the year).

When it comes to schools, having a bunch of schools closing every year is not a desirable feature. But with a free charter market, it's not only a feature, but as Whitmire righly suggests, it's a necessity.

Meet the New Boss

Whitmire's article is shot through with calls, some direct and some not-so, for state regulation of charters.

Now, I don't have a problem with that. I would absolutely love to see states regulate the hell out of charters. But it doesn't really make sense for charteristas to like the idea, because it underlines a flaw in their whole premise.

After all-- the whole point of charters is to operate outside the heavy hand of government regulation and interference. Except that outside the hand of government regulation, we find lots of crappy charters. So we bring in the hand of government regulation to keep tings in line. Which means now we have two alternatives-- public schools that are locally run but regulated by the state, or charter schools that are locally run but regulated by the state. And if the charter regulations are going to be different in ways that are supposedly good for education, then why not use those better regulations for public schools.

It's possible that the long game is, as with many industries, to capture the controls of the regulatory agencies so that the regulations are just what charter operators would like them to be. But for that to happen the charter biz would have to be far more unified than it is now.

If ultimately we've got to call in the state to make sure that charters are accountable and run right and aren't corrupt crappy cons-- well, what's the point of having charters in the first place?

So I don't disagree with what Whitmire has to say, but it leads me back to the same old conclusion that charter schools as currently practiced don't do anything new or different except channel public tax dollars to private corporate pockets while increasing the total cost of education to a community (and suck the blood out of public schools in the process). More carefully regulating charters will just make charters less different from public schools.

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