Sunday, March 6, 2016

What Is the Charter Difference?

What exactly makes a charter school a charter school? What is it that charter supporters expect to get from a charter school that they cannot get from a public one?

Variety and choice? 

Some advocates say that parents and students need choices, a variety, a plethora, a cornucopia of educational options from which to choose. We should have a sciency school for science students and a musicky school for musicians and a welding school for welders.

But we have that. In smaller districts, the possibility of magnet schools and specialty schools is lessened, but even in my mostly-rural county, districts have a co-operative vocational school that prepares welders and auto mechanics and security guards. Large urban districts can have all manner of specialty magnet schools that give students plenty of variety and choice. We don't need charter schools to accomplish this.


As I've argued before, people don't really want choice, anyway-- they want their children to go to one good school. Being "trapped in a zip code" never comes up when people have a school they like.

There's no arguing that some schools fail to live up to the promise of public education. But if you don't like the color of your house, do you paint the house, or do you buy a second house? If the school that I'm providing for my community's children is not doing a great job, sending some kids elsewhere will leave Sore Thumb High School still right where it is, doing poorly.

If I want it to be a better school, I can make it into a better school. This is what many communities have done over the years-- remade and reconfigured their local school to better reflect their desires at the time. We don't need charter schools to accomplish this.


Charter fans say, "Well, we can create schools that don't have to work under the weight of bad government regulations."

I say, "If we know they are bad regulations, why don't we lift them for all schools?" And if it's a bad idea to lift them for all schools, exactly why are they bad regulations? If there are regulations that are not good for education, let's get rid of them for everybody, and if they are good for everybody, then let's have everybody follow them.

We can fix stupid laws on the legislative level. We don't need charter schools to accomplish this.


Charter fans like the idea of schools that are non-union, non-professionally-trained teachers who can be paid by whatever mechanism and salary schedule. But in many locations, advocates have successfully imposed such ideas on the public system, with the dismantling of tenure, collective bargaining, and professional requirements to be a teacher. And local school districts are always free to negotiate whatever contracts the local market will bear. We don't need charter schools to accomplish this.


Free marketteers believe that if schools have to compete, that will drive them into paroxysms of excellence. But we already have competition between school districts-- in fact, competition between school districts is often a single factor in larger competition between communities. One of the ways that communities distinguish themselves as Better (and the houses therein more valuable and the neighborhood more desirable) is by making sure that the schools in East Egg are way better than the ones in West Egg. It is competition that has produced the very tyranny of the zip code that reformsters so hate. Because a feature of free market competition is that it has winners and losers, both in terms of producers and consumers.

We already have a school system handcuffed to a free market system of real estate. Schools already compete-- as best they can, given whatever local limitations they wrestle with. We don't need charter schools to establish a system of competition.

Doing more with less?

Do we need charters to show us how to do more with less? This is a non-starter. Plenty of public schools already have to do more with less every year, while charters frequently decide that the secret of success is more money. Next?

Laboratories of Innovation?

There is nothing to keep public schools from innovating and no signs that charters have discovered heretofore undiscovered revolutionary ideas in education. There is also nothing to indicate that public schools are not already filled with educators intent on finding new and better ways to do educate students. If you want to see more innovation, then by all means, rewrite the rules and regulations of public schools to reward or spur more such innovation.

But we don't need charter schools to accomplish this.

Selective enrollment?

All right, this isn't even an advantage that charters claim they want, but it's one they're often accused of-- creating a school with carefully selected student body, with undesirable low-performing high cost students pushed out and desirable high-performing low cost students gathered in.

But this, too, is something we already do in public schools. Districts with magnet or specialty schools require students to move through an admissions process. And systems have an alternate education placement with students whose more severe issues, from autism to social maladjustment to developmental disability, make them a poor fit for the mainstream classroom.

We don't like to admit that we don't always take all comers in public schools, but we know how to be selective about who gets in the door and stays in the building. Some charters go much further, but the basic principle is the same-- public schools just don't fess up. Not that we should be proud of it, but we don't need charter schools to accomplish this goal.

So, really-- what do we need charters for?

Improvements in quality, choice, innovation, instruction, programs-- all of it can be accomplished in a public school system. All of these ideas for improving education could be applied to public schools, which would have the additional advantage of bringing the improvements to ALL students instead of a small group.

Of course, part of the challenge would be that changes and reforms would have to be discussed, debated and deployed publicly. A person who wanted, say, to subject non-wealthy non-white students to boot camp style No Excuses education would have to convince the taxpayers that it was a good idea. It's possible that only charters can provide an opportunity for one driven visionary to impose his or her ideas on a school without being answerable to anyone. But that would be less like a democratic institution and more like a small-scale dictatorship. It's not a very admirable goal-- and anyway, the invention of mayoral control has once again made it possible to establish small scholastic dictatorships without resorting to charters. This, too, we can accomplish without charter schools.

There isn't anything on this list of goals that we actually need charter skills to accomplish.

Is there any other goal I'm forgetting to-- oh, wait a minute.

Redirecting Tax Dollars

Charter schools do accomplish one goal that can't be achieved by public schools-- they manage to redirect public tax dollars into the pockets of private corporations, charter operating companies, corporate shareholders, and guys who just figured they'd make some money in the charter biz.

For everything else on the list, no charters are necessary. For everything else on the list-- well, imagine this: your car needs a new bulb for the headlight, has a flat spare tire, and is filled with discarded beer cans and McDonald's wrappers, and your mechanic says, "Well, obviously you have no choice but to buy a new car." And that makes no sense until you discover that the used car salesman is your mechanic's business partner.

The charter purpose that cannot be achieved by public schools is to move public tax dollars into private pockets. The one true difference between public schools and charter schools as currently envisioned is that only charter schools are making people wealthy. And if that's the only true thing different about charters, maybe we should stop talking about charters and start talking about fixing the issues-- the education-related issues-- that we really want to work on.


  1. A charter school, quite by definition, is a school that writes its own rules (as a charter). It thus disobeys laws and regulations that voters, school boards, elected representatives, and union members have worked (and fought) to erect. There is no hypothetical situation in which a charter school would not disobey laws and regulations, for if it would not, it would not need a charter - and it would be a normal public school. Like the IMF which has ravaged the third world, and like Emergency Managers, who have ravaged Michigan's third world cities, charter schools eschew democracy for the sake of a type of efficiency that the fruits of elections, legislation, and collective bargaining oppose. Contrary to the definitional-and-indisputable notion that charter schools should exist by exception (the charter is the exception), charter advocates believe that they should boundlessly proliferate, in a zero-sum game that minimizes, by definition, the voice of democracy. Much as if Michigan should become prosperous by creating a boundless number of Flints.

  2. You have outdone yourself here. Superb column.

    Michigan had charter schools long before other states--and one of the things I have learned is that you can never confidently say "charter schools____________" because, state to state, regulations and outcomes vary. There are some wonderful charters in MI (not very many, but they exist)--schools that represent the foundational idea of charters as something WAY outside the mainstream, but genuinely open to all children. There are, of course, hundreds of very fine fully public districts, too--so your point about "if something's wrong, why don't we fix it for all schools?" is the most important one. And you get to that, in your last 3 paragraphs. It's about public good/private profit. Always has been.

    Twenty years ago, in the salad days of chartering, an entrepreneur (with public school teaching and administrative experience) opened up a charter smack in the middle of my (highly functional) district. It was founded as a K-6 Glasser school (and I liked Glasser, back then).

    In its first year of operation, our Superintendent asked the founder for a list of students who lived in our district catchment area who had opted to attend New Charter Elementary instead. A reasonable request--simply trying to pin down how many of our first-day no-shows were now attending the charter.

    What we discovered was that an unusually high number of 4th graders from one of our 4 elementary schools had "chosen" to attend the charter. It didn't take long to figure out that parents were avoiding the 4th grade teachers there. And, frankly, there was plenty of reason to avoid two of the three teachers there. The third teacher had zero no-shows on Day One, but there were a dozen kids missing from the other two classrooms (and they took their siblings with them).

    It took some time, but the Superintendent eventually shuffled the teachers (who preferred to teach together, since their punitive philosophies and styles were so similar), then eased them out, one at a time. Ironically, people are now evidently lining up to get teachers like this (who berate and humiliate students) in charter schools in NYC. Rip that paper!

    Thanks for an excellent synopsis of charter logic.

  3. Even as a supporter of charters, I must say that Greene's article compelled me to think about the critical elements of charters that distinguish them from district schools:

    1. Variety and choice - Greene is correct. In the system where we raised my eldest, there were no charters. But there were magnet schools including one of the top rated high schools in the country, High Tech High.

    2. Quality - Here's where he misses the point a bit - "If the school that I'm providing for my community's children is not doing a great job, sending some kids elsewhere will leave Sore Thumb High School still right where it is, doing poorly." My oldest was zoned by Red Bank Regional High School (which Greene wrote about recently). RBHS was losing many of its top students to the magnets like High Tech. So we met with the guidance counselor there before deciding which school my daughter should attend. Since she wanted my daughter to attend, she talked up the Arts program at RBHS. On the academic side, she touted the fact that they were starting an IB program for interested students. In other words, "Sore Thumb High School actively made changes to address the flow of kids to other schools.

    3. Regulations / Staffing - Sure, we can fix unhelpful regulations. And we can improve the quality of our staffing. See the Mckinsey report showing that the U.S. uniquely draws from the bottom 1/3 of college graduates for its teaching rankins.

    The question isn't can we change these things. The question is will we ?

  4. (Cont'd)

    4. Competition - I addressed above the effect of competition within a district. But Greene correctly brings up the competition between districts. Where I live (in Westchester, NY), there is fierce competition between towns largely based on school performance. But Greene missed the point here. This is competition between relatively affluent towns. The denizens have the resources to move to a better town if a school disappoints. By contrast, the residents in nearby poor areas of the Bronx do not have the same choice.

    5. Selective Enrollment - Yes, it's a common charge against charters. But the point is becoming weaker as charter operators begin to take over entire school districts or cities (e.g. New Orleans).

    6. What do we need charters for ? - Obviously, this is the key point. And it comes down to accountabilty.

    "It's possible that only charters can provide an opportunity for one driven visionary to impose his or her ideas on a school without being answerable to anyone."

    By definition, that's untrue. If a charter cannot attract and retain a sufficient number of students, then they close. That's NOT a "small scale dictatorship". When students have no choice and are to poor to move elsewhere, that's the dictatorship. The only difference is that Greene pays dues to and is friendly with the dictator.

    Lastly, let me answer Greene's question as to why all this cannot be done without charters ? A friend of mine owns a McDonalds and a Chinese restaurant in a local mall. I asked him one time why he would own two restaurants in the same mall since they obviously compete with each other. He answered that he didn't care which place people chose, but as long as they were hungry in the mall, they would eat in his restaurant ... and he would earn money.

    Teachers unions are like that restaurant owner. They may offer choices. And certainly, each restaurant (or school) wants to do better (just as RBHS tried to). But overall, there is simply too little desire to improve (regulations, staffing, educational performance) since regardless of where they attend, the student will attend a union controlled school ... and the union will receive their dues. Former head of the teachers union, Al Shanker, saw charters as "laboratories of innovation". But if someone invents the car and you sell buggy whips, you may not be so quick to adopt the innovation - even if it is better.

  5. Unions do not make schools bad. Lack of funding does.

    When charter schools are not good, there are still no good choices. The bad charters don't close, because the students are trapped there, because there are no good choices. And so there is no accountability.

  6. EVERYTHING which the public needs to know about a test-score-based school reform could be summed up by simply publishing your final statement: Charter schools do manage to do one thing -- "they manage to redirect PUBLIC tax dollars into the pockets of PRIVATE corporations."