Charter and choice fans continue to refine their argument about charters as a tool of social justice, as exemplified by an exchange with charter fan Dmitri Melhorn that quickly expanded to a conversation still puttering along this morning. Melhorn started in the reformster biz at McKinsey and Co, and moved on to co-found StudentsFirst, but his day job is venture capitalist. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss this argument (shared by many reformy folks) out of hand. Tne first part of their argument is solid; the second part is shot full of holes.
The First Part
The linkage between real estate and schools has resulted in public schools that are crippled by the effects of racism and poverty. We can talk about patterns of forced settlement as in Chicago, where blacks coming north during the Great Migration were herded into certain neighborhoods. We can talk about white flight in the 50s and 60s, and we can talk about the negative and segregating effects of public housing. In Our Children, Robert Putnam notes that the sorting of America has continued until today, pushing the non-wealthy and the non-white into neighborhoods that are mired in poverty and its effects, while the rich escape to gated communities, where the poor literally cannot follow them.
Housing costs, available jobs, patterns of open and subtle racism-- there's a whole lifetime of research there, but the end results is a highly heterogeneous pattern of settling in America, and since we have tied school attendance and funding to geography, schools are doomed reflect the socio-economic reality of the neighborhoods to which they are tied.
The argument says that we have school choice, but it is choice that is directly linked to wealth-- if you are rich enough to buy whatever house you like in whatever neighborhood you like, then you can, by choosing a house, choose a school. Put another way, escaping a bad school is often synonymous with escaping a bad neighborhood.
The Second Part
Reformsters start here with the premise that non-wealthy non-white students must be rescued from the terrible schools that are inextricably tied to poor support, poor resources, poor staffing, poor neighborhoods, and the lousy local control that leads to all of these poor inputs.
They see local control as an obstacle because particularly in large urban districts, "local control" means "control by board of rich jerks who don't give a rat's ass about schools in poor neighborhoods." They see "fix the school and fund it properly" as not-an-option because the schools are too broken, and because the teacher union stands in the way-- the union just wants more money for the school so that they can pay more terrible teachers. They would like to see all the terrible teachers fired, because they believe terrible teachers are at the root of terrible schools, but That Damned Union won't let them do it.
Because so many of these guys come from the corporate and financial investment world, they tend not just to believe that the system is broken, but that it is built wrong in the first place. Teacher lockstep pay and its lack of ties to performance data, funding based on what you want to do instead of how well you've done it, the utter tying of management's hands by government regulation and union agreements, the lack of enlightened profit-and-loss motivation anywhere in the system-- these things don't bother the reformsters merely in their particulars, but because, to them, these are just terrible ways to run a business in the first place. For them, it is like watching someone try to build a car with square tires and a rubber-band engine-- there's just no way anyone could ever succeed trying to what those guys are doing!
So their main impulse remains to scrap the square wheel system and replace it with one that follows the rules they know and understand. And that gets us to charters and choice. Charters will free students from their zip codes, bust up the tyranny of geography so that families who can't afford to live in East Gotrox can still send their kids to an East Gotrox calibre school.
The newest nuance to the choice argument is to point out that vouchers and voucher-like programs provide non-wealthy families the same kind of choice that wealthy folks can exercise by choosing where to buy a house. They believe that a free market in education will exert a cleansing influence, that competition will create excellence.
Reformsters are not very good at articulating why charters should be a good idea because they neither know nor speak the language of educators, nor do they really feel a need to-- after all, those are the people who tried to build the square-wheel car. To bridge that gap, they've tried through every means from Teach for America to the Broad Academy of Fake School Administration to create educators who speak the language of business and investment.
But when educators and reformsters try to talk about schools, certain points of contention always emerge.
Public education supporters-- sometimes angrily-- point out that charter schools and choice systems seriously damage the public systems to which they are attached. Reformsters observe-- sometimes angrily-- ask if poor students are supposed to simply sit and wait in crumbling, failing schools while public ed advocates try to tinker their system back to health. If they can save even a few students, isn't that worthwhile?
And let's not forget to have the argument about educational transformation. Reformsters routinely charge that public school supporters use poverty as an excuse for not teaching poor kids well; public school supporters charge that reformsters believe that happy, positive thoughts will somehow overcome real educational challenges.
In some cases, reformsters end up charging that public ed folks are denying Part One of this argument. But I think most people who are serious about these issues all see Part One pretty clearly. The big disconnects come when we get to Part Two-- the What Do We Do About All This part. Reformsters are inclined to argue that since the problems are real problems, their solutions must be real solutions. They are wrong.
So let me lay out where I think they get things wrong.
I have to point out up front that we supporters of public education can sometimes fetishize local control just as badly as reformsters fetishize the Free Market.
Local control can be disastrous. The story of how five Pinellas County, Florida elementary schools in black neighborhoods were turned into the worst in the state in just eight years is one more reminder that elected school boards can do horrible, stupid, racist things. Elections do not turn racist asshats into crusaders for social justice.
Of course, the free market does not guarantee action for social justice, either-- anybody is free to open Racist Asshat Academy, or a charter school where students learn to follow orders, stay in line, and never speak unless given permission.
Any system can be used for or against the interests of social justice by people who want to fight for or against those interests. The difference is that a public school system must answer to the public. They are not allowed to meet in secret, keep their financial dealings secret, or make major decisions in secret. When they make decisions that the taxpayers don't like, they are required to sit there and listen to people complain to them (yes, many boards are trying to get rid of this feature of meetings, but they have to fight the laws about public comment, while charter operators can just go ahead and ignore the public at will).
The Pinellas County school board is going to have to deal with the voters and answer to the taxpayers. Eva Moskowitz doesn't have to answer to anybody.
Do People Want Choice?
Do you want a good marriage, or do you want a bunch of possible partners to choose from? Do you want a good meal for lunch, or do you want the choice of a bunch of lunches?
People don't want choice. They want a good school. The distinction is important for many reasons, not the least of which is economic-- do we need to prepare and maintain five possible school seats for Chris, or just one good one? Because one is cheaper than five.
Are students actually escaping poor neighborhoods for high quality schools. The research says, mostly not. Or maybe sometimes. Mostly what the research says is that we could use some research done by somebody who wasn't, say, paid by the charter industry. There's very little research that looks at charter schools that are working with identical student populations as the local public schools.
The better question would be, how do we know? Virtually all of the studies of the question center on Big Standardized Test scores, and that's a terrible measure of school quality-- especially when we're focusing on social justice. Privileged kids don't get their privilege by scoring well on BS Tests, and nobody ever escaped poverty by getting really good at taking standardized tests. I don't notice any ivy league schools saying, "We're looking to reach out to some non-white non-wealthy students with good PARCC scores."
The focus on testing in US education has been toxic in the extreme, and the people who have the wealth and privilege to make educational choices for kids choose to move their kids to schools where nobody worries about the PARCC. Conversely, when folks are talking about how terrible a notoriously failing school is, "And their SBA scores are so low!!" does not come at the top of the list. But charters are perhaps even more vulnerable to the toxic testing plague because right now, when it comes to "proving" that you are a high-quality schools, the only game in town is BS Test scores. A charter that starts drilling test prep in November is not a high quality school, regardless of what the test scores indicate. We need to stop perpetuating the fiction that good PARCC or SBA scores are the doorway to a successful life.
So I'm calling the relative quality question a non-starter, because we still don't know how to measure school quality. Charter fans will cite demand as a measure of how great a school is, but waiting lists have been repeatedly debunked, and they provide no measure of what families are running from or toward.
One of the biggest problems with free market ideology in education is that the free market sorts businesses into winners and losers. That may be fine for coffee shops, but it's not okay for schools. Between 2000 and 2013, 2,500 charters closed. That represents a huge number of students whose education was uprooted and destabilized-- and it just keeps happening.
Students in East Gotrox don't just benefit from having a great school. They benefit from having a great school in their neighborhood that they attend with their friends and neighbors and which they know without question will be open every day of every school year.
Robert Putnam in Our Children talks about how important stabilizing influences are, how a stable setting helps them build the social capital that will help make them successful. Schools that will come and go and may or may not survive or which have good advertising to mask incompetent leadership-- these are exactly the wrong solution for non-wealthy students, who very much need something dependable and reliable.
The Zero-Sum Problem
"Well, isn't it worth it if we can rescue even a few students from a failing school?"
I'd agree-- if "rescuing" the handful of students didn't make things worse for the students left behind. But because policy makers want to have school choice without paying for it, we have a huge problem.
The biggest fallacy of school choice and charter systems is that we can have multiple school systems for the price of one. This is just insane. Let's say you have 100 students to educate. Which is cheaper? Educating them in ten different separately-administered and separately managed facilities, or educating all 100 in a single building?
The notion that the per-capita cost of a student is money that belongs to that student is an absurdist fiction, both in the notion of computing such a figure and in transforming it from taxpayer money into a student grant. But if 5% of the students leave a school, that school does not become 5% less costly to run. For that matter, the money that moves out with the charter students isn't enough to operate the charter, either-- hence the need for contributions from well-heeled donors and big-ticket fundraisers.
This problem is even more damaging in schools that are already underfunded and under-resourced. Losing money to charter-choice systems just makes the troubled school that much more financially distressed. So to "rescue" these ten kids, we are going to make things even worse for the ones left behind.
Let's say we have ten starving children, faced with a small, meager meal. So we take some food away from nine of them so that the tenth one can have a full plate. Does that feel like social justice? Not to me.
Free Market Motivations
There's a difference between asking "How do we solve this problem of social justice" and asking "How do we make money addressing this problem of social justice."
So What's The Solution Today?
"So, what," choice fans will say. "Are we supposed to let all ten of them keep starving while we wait for someone to fix the food supply system?"
There's a selective urgency that comes with the charter argument-- things are dire and we must act right now, but charter schools deserve three or five years to prove themselves and we have to wait for the market to sort itself out. I agree there's some urgency here-- a child's childhood goes past quickly. But to me urgency means being careful, because we have limited slack to work with (this too, is one of the differences between poverty and wealth-- wealthy folks can make mistakes and recover, while the poor make one false move and pay for it forever).
So I don't want to let failing schools fail a minute longer than we have to-- but I don't want to see us bulldoze the system in haste and then realize we can't build anything decent to replace it after all. And while the massive issues of poverty are a definite obstacle to better education for the poor, I don't want to wait for those to be solved, either.
So What's The Solution Ever?
We already know most of what works. Charters have, ironically, "discovered" many things we already knew-- plenty of resources and support applied to the right assortment of students gets results. We know that letting buildings fall down around students is Not Good or Helpful. We know that filling a building with beginning teachers doesn't help. We know that getting good leaders into schools matters. We know that having strong connections to the community matters, and is, in fact, part of the point. I love this quote from Andre Perry:
Our goal is not to improve a school in spite of the community. Our goal is to improve a community using schools.
Of course, in order to do that, we would have to involve the community in the development and growth of schools. We would have to stop conceiving social justice and education as gifts bestowed by drive-by do-gooders. It can't happen as something we do to people; it has to be done with them. And that is a problem for folks on both sides of this debate, but especially so for schools-should-be-run-like-a-business charter CEO's.
In short, we don't have a problem of knowledge. We have a problem of money and political will. We have states currently under court orders to fund their schools properly-- and they aren't doing it. Attracting and retaining top teachers is also Not A Mystery-- but all attempts to do so are done on the cheap, and many locations have simply abandoned the attempt, believing that we can have a system in which any warm body will work in a classroom. Hell, a working charter-choice system is not impossible-- it would just require more regulation and more money.
I know none of it is instantaneous or sexy, but here's the thing about the charter-choice approach-- it isn't working, isn't set up to work, and will likely never work. It can't do the things that its supporters want it to do. Unless your idea of social justice is a handful of families saying, "Well, I got mine, Jack. Good luck to the rest of you," this is not how you get social justice.
The charter-choice system, as currently conceived and executed, promises a possible maybe rescue for some students while making the vast majority of non-white non-wealthy students pay for it, while simultaneously lulling policy makers into thinking that the problem is actually being solved, all in a system that allows charter operators to conduct business without being answerable to anyone.
The problem (see First Part) is real. The solution being inflicted on public education is making things worse, not better. It is making some folks rich and providing excellent ROI for hedge funders, but neither of those outcomes exactly equals a leap forward in social justice. There's a whole argument to be had about charter booster motives; I figure that some are in it because they believe it will work better and some are in it because they believe it's the last great untapped well-spring of tax dollars. Ultimately, their motivation isn't as important as this: their solution will not actually solve anything.
No, Seriously. Solutions?
Warren Buffet actually suggested one of the best solutions that will never happen-- No Choice At All.
If the only choice we had was public schools, we'd have better public schools.
The point is valid. Far too much of reformsterism looks like an attempt to weasel out of having to pay for education for Those People. If the rich were trapped in schools with Those People, we would have so many resources focused on public school that it would make a scholar's head swim. If charter operators focused all their energy and resources on demanding that public schools be fully funded and completely supported, we'd be in a different situation. Some would most likely say that such solutions are not possible because entrenched bureaucracies and teacher unions and the Big Institutional Blob stand in their way, and as someone who has spent his adult life within just a small-town version of that BIB, I won't pretend that public education doesn't suffer from all sorts of bureaucratically generated nonsense inertia.
But what the reformsters are also complaining about is that when they walk into the room and say, "This is what you should do," the folks in education don't slap their heads and yell, "My God, you're right! We've been so foolish. Here, inexperienced amateur, please tell us what to do!"
They are so absolutely certain that they are right, and that people working in the education field should just listen to them, right now. And that certainty in their own righteous rightness has also stopped progress on the pursuit of social justice.
As rich and powerful people with an interest in education and social justice, they could have gathered together summits of stakeholders, talked to educational experts, brought together people who have worked on these problems their whole lives-- and then listened to all of those folks. They didn't. And now they've largely lost the ability to tell the difference between factors that are part of the actual problem, and factors that just piss off the wealthy and well-connected by thwarting their will.
Yes, the army is losing the battle for educational social justice on many fronts. The solution is not to try to raise an entirely new army, but to support and supply the army you already have in the field. That doesn't mean you just encourage them to keep doing what hasn't worked, but you have to talk to them to understand what's really happening and what they really need.
I'm a high school English teacher. I'm not wise enough to know the solution for an educational social justice solution in this country, and I'm not powerful enough to gather together all the people who could help work it all out. But I know enough to know that A) an increasing gap between rich and poor has exacerbated existing problems of social justice in our country, with those problems being reflected, expressed and sometimes amplified in our schools and that B) the charter choice system currently being foisted on many parts of the country doesn't fix any of those problems.
To charter choice advocates: Your problem is a real problem, but your solution is not a solution. Whether you're blinded by devotion to your ideology or your intent to make a buck or just your lack of understanding, your vision is impaired. You need to clean your glasses, take a step back, and look again.