Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Practically Honest Charter Speech

Greg Richmond is the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, "an independent voice for effective charter school policy and thoughtful charter authorizing practices that lead to more great public schools." So, charter fans who make a living from promoting charters. Richmond has had an unusually stable career compared to many of the folks we encounter-- after graduating with a BA in geography and an MA in public affairs, Richmond worked for the Illinois Senate for a few years, the spent a decade at the New Schools Office of Chicago Public Schools, then moved on to NACSA, where has also been for over a decade.

Richmond regularly turns up advocating hard for charter schools. That's his job. But I want to direct your attention to the speech he delivered (and then posted on the NACSA website) at a March 10, 2016 meeting of the Philadelphia Charters for Excellence meeting. "A Way Beyond Our Public Education Weaknesses" is by no means fully free of some standard charter baloney. But it includes some unusually open and honest statements.

Richmond opens with a personal story, harking back to his days in the Chicago Public Schools office where his job was to oversee charters, and he talks about how frustrated and desperate some parents were to get their kids out of public schools, and what a bummer it was that there were not enough charter spots. It was his job to manage that response to the problem, so I'll only ding him half a point for not saying how frustrated he was that more was not being done to fix the schools that these students were trying to escape.

But Richmond sees any progress made by charters stymied, in part by the continued warfare between charter fans and charter school "opponents." He does some audience shmoozing by saying that Philadelphia is uniquely poised to take the necessary steps, but he's flat wrong there-- all public school districts in Pennsylvania are inclined to be hostile to charters because 1) under PA law, charters suck their resources directly away from public systems and 2) under PA school finance system, no public school district in the state has enough money to operate properly as it is. So in Pennsylvania, no district will be place for public-charter detente, because under current PA law, school funding is a zero-sum game, and no charter school can "win" without some public school "losing."

However, Richmond's more general points about the errors of both sides are far more interesting, no matter what state we're in.

The Three Greatest Weaknesses of Charter Schools

First, the toleration of bad charters, including those that are flat-out frauds and scams. And Richmond is not afraid to be specific, starting with an example that really hits home in PA.

There are plenty of examples. For one: virtual charter schools. Most are performing terribly, yet they continue to operate year after year, delivering, not a better education to students, but a worse education at great taxpayer expense. Pennsylvania has more than 34,000 students in virtual charter schools and these children deserve a better education than they are getting.

Yup. There is not a cyber-charter in PA that looks remotely like a success-- well, except in their ability to come up with good marketing and their ability to win protection from the legislature. Richmond also calls out for-profit companies that use charters to run real estate cons (he does not acknowledge that non-profits are also perfectly capable of this lucrative dodge).  

Second, an island mentality. Here Richmond manages to surprise me .

Charter school operators and proponents, of which I am one, have had too little concern for how charter schools impact the other public schools and students in our communities. We believed that each charter school could be an island unto itself.

We have created schools that will not enroll students in upper grade levels. We have some schools that believe it is appropriate to counsel children out mid-year. Some charters believe it is appropriate to tell families of students with disabilities that their charter school cannot serve them.

In short, charters have relied on the district schools to be a safety net for students not served by charter schools. That’s not right. If we believe that charter schools can provide a better education for children, we need to include all children. (My emphasis)

Well, yes. I mean, yes. I mean, I have no quibble or qualm about what he's saying. This is exactly correct. He might also mention that charters could stop selling themselves as if they really understood and believed all this, instead of trying to pretend that they really are including all children.  

Third, a lack of community voices.

Again, Richmond manages a surprising level of candor.

Though well intentioned, charter school boards, advocacy organizations, and funders have not been representative enough of the communities that schools are serving.

Let’s be honest: this is a movement led primarily by white middle-class and wealthy individuals, yet primarily serving low-income communities of color. I am one of those white, middle-class people and I worry that my colleagues and I do not truly understand the experiences and values of the communities our schools serve. Too often, we have resisted including their voices in our organizations because of a fear that they might lead our organizations in different directions.

And he includes teachers on the list of people that are under-represented and under-consulted. And I want to give him a big round of applause for his honesty here. Yes, charter operators resist community involvement (and in some cases, "resist" is not really a strong enough word) and many charter schemes have been built (as is Philly's) on disempowering voters entirely in then district. The charter biz really has attracted a great number of people who believe they are personally gifted with a genius vision, and that they must roll over all obstacles to implement their vision, even if those obstacles include local parents and teachers and community leaders and voters and basically everyone else. It is a genuine insightful and honest moment for Richmond to say so out loud.

Richmond also wants to list three big weaknesses of charter school opponents. He is not quite so on-the-mark here, though I think he's probably being honest about what he thinks he sees.

First, the profit myth. Richmond says that charter opponents believe that Gates and Broad and Walton are pushing charters for the money. Oh, and Wall Street hedge fund managers. His claim is that these guys aren't all about the profit, but are being swell philanthropists. This is both cutting hairs and slicing baloney.

There are definitely some big money backers of charter schools who are plenty interested in busting unions and/or launching their own personally controlled schools. There's plenty of reason to believe that charter schools are often a tool for gentrification. Even wealthy celebrities can start a charter to help finances and PR at the same time. And a charter empire is a great way to gather some political power without having to be elected by actual voters.

Oh, and get rich, too. And that's not just the research done by public school friendly writers like Juan Gonzalez, who may have his loyalties, but he also has facts about things like how getting involved in charter schools can double your money in seven years (thanks to some Clinton era lawmaking). Even Forbes, not exactly an enemy of free market economics, figured out that the charter game is a great way to make a buck. 

Mind you, I don't believe that going into a business to make some money is inherently evil. But I do think it is at odds with the purposes of public education. And I think that it's no surprise that observers in education conclude that the rich powerful people who enter the business and get more rich and powerful because of it-- well, I don't see anyone like Eva Moskowitz saying, "Pay me how much?!! That's insane-- cut my pay and put the money into the school."

Second, being stuck in the past. In public education, we're stuck in a system from another time and applied to a different population. I'd like to disagree with Richmond here, but he's not entirely wrong. Much of our education system is a kluge, based not on a starting-from-scratch assessment of how to do things, but a structure built on the foundation of tradition and history.

That said, I think many reformsters are far too impatient. Calls for revolutionary change are wrong when it comes to school-- you can't dismantle and rebuild the plane in mid-air when it is filled with vulnerable young passengers, and we can't tell America's parents, "Hey, just hold onto your kids for a year while we re-do some stuff here." Incremental change helps us preserve what's good, change what needs changing, and keep taking care of our students while we do it.

Richmond also makes the point that public school advocates can't seriously say, "Well, these schools have always been perfect, so don't tell us to change," which is true, but I don't know any serious public school advocates who say we're perfect as is.

Third, the blame game. Richmond wants public schools to stop blaming charters for their problems, "for the financial and academic failings of urban school districts." Again, he and other reformsters are hearing something I am not-- people in the most troubled schools have always known that their schools are troubled, challenged, messed up, failing, whatever-you-want-to-call-it (though testocrats insist that without a Big Standardized Test, we would never know what schools are failing. Testocrats are full of it).

Charter schools did not create unfunded pension systems. Charter schools did not force school districts to borrow money that they could not afford. Charter opponents have the cause and effect backwards. Charter schools did not cause urban school districts to fail; urban school districts failed and caused parents to demand better options, like charter schools.

Well, no. The legislatures do those things. And then legislators (often some with generous charter financial support) use those same failures that they forced as a reason to set up charters under rules that make things for the public schools even worse.

I don't doubt that many charter fans see charters as the cavalry, coming to save students from disastrous failure. But from my side of the street, it looks more like public schools are the victims of engineered failure-- a failure engineered specifically as an excuse to set up charters-- and those charters are only going to "rescue" some of the students, and the rest will have to stick it out in the now even-more-poorly-funded public schools.

It is frustrating and rage-inducing. Government creates problems with bad funding systems and bad regulations, and when the problems emerge, government penalizes schools for having bad funding and regulatory problems, setting up (and giving resources to) charter schools which are better why? Because they don't have the funding and regulatory problems of public schools. It's like demanding that your spouse wear an ugly hat and then declaring, "I'm leaving you because I don't like your hat." The missing part of the narrative is the part where government actually tries to help public schools.

And while charters don't create any of these problems, they make them all worse. Charters leave public school with less funding and turn them into dumping grounds for the most challenging students.

Richmond does have some recommendations. He'd like to see us all get past the fighting and "work for the benefit of all children." And here we find some of our fundamental disagreements.

One, equity. All students should get "their equitable share of public education resources." That is only half a solution. Splitting the pie into equal shares for one thousand dessert eaters does not work if you only have one pie. But this is one of the universally ignored issues of charter schools. You cannot fund two or three or fifty school systems for the same amount of money that you use to fund just one. If we want to have a charter-public hybrid system, we have to put up the actual money that it will actually cost, and so far nobody has successfully or willingly gone to taxpayers and said, "We want to raise your taxes so that we can open some redundant schools in your district."

In short, we don't just need equitable funding. We need honest and full funding.

Two, fairness. "Both charter and other [sic] public schools need to do better with student discipline, with special education, and with English Language Learners." No disagreement from me.

Three, teachers leading. "Our public education system needs to respect the professionalism of our educators and empower them with the autonomy they need to best serve the children in their schools. We must replace the early 20th Century, top-down model with a 21st Century model that supports educators and innovation." Also, charter folks need to let teachers start and run schools, which I'll agree with if we stipulate that we're talking about actual teachers and not Teach Faux America style pretend teachers.

Four, consequences for failure. I don't think we can carry our agreement past those three words. Richmond wants to say that no school has a right to keep on existing if it has lousy results (" a perpetual right to exist regardless of outcomes" is how he puts what they shouldn't have).

Well, no. In this, he is looking at the whole thing from an incorrect and not-very-useful angle. First, no school has "a right to exist." Every community has the right to have a school. If a community's roads start getting lumpy and potholey, the community does not expect that the people they elected to represent their interests will come in and say, "Sorry, but these roads have given up their right to exist. We're tearing them up." The "failure" of the roads is a sign that they are not being properly cared for and are not getting the resources and support they need. Ditto for schools. Because-- and again, this is where the charter biz viewpoint is radically different from the public school one-- schools are not businesses. My high school is not a restaurant or a bowling alley or a used car lot that needs to create an economic raison d'etre. It is a public service, a shared facility created and maintained to serve the public good. If the community wants to have a school, that's the only reason the school needs to have to exist.

I do not stand in my classroom and tell a student who is failing my class that she has no perpetual right to exist regardless of her outcomes, and I also would not tell her that she has no right to have a school if she keeps failing-- which is what reformsters repeatedly do. Richmond may say, "Well, we'll build a nice charter for her instead, but we both know that's not true. He admitted as much further up the page. She might not make the cut for the charter. Then what?

Five, choice. This is already a long post, so let's just leave this as "nope." My reasons are many and sprinkled through many posts on this blog, but the best answer here is that choice will not accomplish any of the things that Richmond thinks it will. It will not spark improvement (the free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing), it will not make schools cheaper, it will not make schools better, and it will not come close to guaranteeing parents what they want and need for their children.

Richmond and I remain largely on opposite sides of many crucial issues. But I appreciate his willingness to try some open and honest and everybody-should-be-reasonable dialogue (yes, I know doing that is a ju-jitsu move that elevates his charter folks to equal standing with public schools, but let's let that slide for the moment), and he had some interesting things to say here. I'd be happy to sit down and chat with him any time, if he wants to talk to a real live public school advocate.


  1. There are obviously some school districts that can be cut into multiple systems for the same average cost per student.

    NYC Public educates more students in a single school district than the entire states of Massachusetts and Vermont combined. If those states can efficiently run a public education system with 694 separate school districts to educate few students than NYC Public, surely you could divide NYC Public into 20 separate systems with no appreciable difference in cost per student.

    1. You could, but of course that's not what we're talking about.. Chartersystems don't involve multiple side by side districts, but multiple overlapping redundant districts.

    2. Peter,

      You are making a distinction without a difference here. Your claim is that scale of a school district matters a great deal in the cost of educating students. If that were true, NYC public, would be the most efficient school district in the country because of its scale. Even you cant actually believe that, right?

    3. Nope. You're still wrong. Having a school in East Egg and a school in West Egg is substantially different from having two schools in East Egg and two schools in West Egg. My claim has absolutely nothing to do with scale. It's about redundancy.