Friday, June 10, 2016

Chester Finn's Charter Market Worries

Chester Finn, honcho emeritus of the right-tilted Fordham Institute, was back on the Fordham blog this week to continue his charter school series with a look at what he thinks are three "market malfunctions in the charter sector." Man, I just love the word "sector"- it sounds so clean and neat, not like marketplace or business. Honey, I'm going to get a tub of popcorn in the snack sector. Last night I was forcibly relieved of some financial instruments by an armed member of the mugging sector. Girl, do not get all up in my sector.

But I digress.

Finn was actually called out almost immediately on twitter by a fellow conservative who pointed out that Finn's "market" malfunctions are really "government regulation" malfunctions, which was doubly ironic. Ironic the first time for a conservative calling out another conservative for mistaking regulations for market forces, and then ironic again because what conservatives like to call the free market is really just a market that is government-regulated in a particular manner that some folks like to label "free market." We like to have these discussions as if the choice is between having a government with its hands on the scale and a free market where the government takes its hands off the scale. But a free market is Somalia. A free market is Neanderthals clubbing each other for a piece of rat. The government always has its hands on the scales.

But I digress.

Here are Finn's three malfunctions. Well, first, part of his wind-up to the pitch:

In general, the charter marketplace—where it’s had the freedom and capacity to grow in response to demand—has done pretty well at responding to families’ non-educational priorities, such as safety, convenience, and a welcoming atmosphere. It’s also given rise to an array of fairly diverse schools that align with the varied educational tastes of an ever more diverse society.

I'm not sure that's true. I'm not sure that's true at all, though Finn probably knows more charter sector specifics than I do. But here's that "free market" falsehood again. For instance, in New York City, the "free market" has been rigged so that the public school system has to bear the expenses incurred by the charter sector. The public system has to pay the rent for charter school locations. Charter "freedom and capacity to grow" has always come at the expense of public schools; it's like saying that Burger King needs the freedom and capacity to grow by being able to bill McDonald's for its supplies. Or that I need the freedom and capacity to grow by being allowed to take my neighbor's car and raid their kitchen for my food. Likewise, charters have been able to meet non-educational priorities by getting government to lower the bar. In Detroit and Chicago, the continued and deliberate starvation of public schools has the effect of making parents happy to find a school that isn't collapsing. Hell, Detroit has worked it so that a charter could be successfully launched just by advertising bottled water and heat in the winter.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah-- the three malfunctions.

First, too few or too many schools.

Finn is concerned that charter school development is not keeping up with demand. While he throws out an "estimate" that a million students are waiting to get into charters, and hell, I can "estimate" that only a dozen students are waiting to get into charters, I'm not really interested in how great the demand for charters is. Because the demand for charters is really just a demand for good schools. Why, oh why, do policy leaders and educrats not look at these supposedly huge waiting lists and say, "Well, that's a million people who aren't happy with their public school, so what are we going to do to fix those public schools??"

We make a big fuss over how testing can identify failing schools that need help (though we never send them any), but don't waiting-to-get-out numbers also pinpoint schools that need help and resources and better stuff? Why are we not making use of that data? Man-- it's almost as if we are only interested in finding ways to boost the charter business sector, and not in actually improving education.

At any rate, we can stop talking about demand for charters as if it's a meaningful piece of data. Or at least we could start discussing the ways in which that demand is manufactured. Demand for charters is manufactured by gutting and undercutting and under-resourcing public schools, as well as creating new ways to "prove" that public schools are failing (like Big Standardized Tests).

When we talk about demand, absolutely nothing that we're talking about is a natural market force. It is all subject to manufacture and manipulation. It's not any more real than Santa Claus.

Second, weak consumer information. 

I don't disagree entirely. All schools could be more transparent, though charter schools are by far the worst when it comes to providing transparent and accurate information.

But that's because the marketplace does not run on strong consumer information. name me a single product of any sort whose marketing strategy is based on strong consumer information. In fact, huge sectors of the marketplace have fought-- and fought hard-- to NOT have strong consumer information (nutritional listings on food, anyone?)

The marketplace does not run on transparency and full, open information. It runs on companies keeping tight and careful control of exactly what information consumers have access to. What strong consumer information is involved in knowing that Frosted Flakes are grrrreat, or that Coke is "the real thing"? Right now I see a steady stream of ads for a cyber-charter that definitely wants me to know that their school brings families together and makes children happy, but is definitely not making sure that I know studies have shown that cyber-charters are terrible.

The free market hates strong consumer information just like vampires (non-sparkly ones) hate sunlight. Finn's complaint really makes no sense.

Third, distracted suppliers.

Many charters are strapped for funds. They feel overregulated by their states, heckled by their authorizers, and politically stressed, so the people running them often struggle to keep their heads above water (which includes keeping enrollments up). They have little energy or resources to expend on becoming more rigorous or investing in stronger curricula and more experienced instructors.


On behalf of public schools all across the country, let me just say-- well, I can't decide. Smallest violin in the world playing "My heart bleeds for you"? Waaaaaaa? Would you like some cheese with that whine? No shit, Sherlock?

I mean, seriously. This is like complaining that running a hospital is hard because all these sick people keep coming in. Or it sucks to be a judge because you spend all your time listening to this legal stuff. There are two things that Finn really needs to understand here:

1) Every single sentence of this paragraph describes life in public schools since pretty much forever (just substitute "taxpayers" for 'authorizers").

2) The modern charter school sector has made every one of these things worse for public schools.

This is the gig. These are the limitations that come with providing education in a country that, when push comes to shove, doesn't really value public education quite as much as it likes to say it does. If you find the problems listed in that paragraph just too much to battle against, then you are in the wrong sector, and you need to get into some other sector, because in this sector, the education sector, the job has always been to do more than you can with less than you need. The belief among some reformsters that the free market would somehow change that would be cute if it hadn't been so destructive.


  1. Great post again, Peter. First, in reference to Finn, charter demand is really inflated. We know the methods like double counting and keeping kids on lists after the lottery. Not sure the demand is quite what he thinks it is. Second, you are correct that businesses don't want total transparency. Charter advocates have fed this narrative but constantly pimping outlier examples. It's why marketing is the most important thing a charter does for its survival. (A local charter pitched it's language program. Parents discovered that it was Rosetta Stone. Oops.) Third, you nailed it. Quit crying about the treatment that charters have exacerbated in public schools.

    Also, I went to the McShane paper you linked. I only browsed the impressive looking charts and graphs. It really professionalized the appearance of a weak paper. It had the audacity to suggest that "no-excuses" schools were specialized. Really? In what way?

    But here's a howler from the conclusion: "Their (charters')goal is not simply to produce higher reading and math scores or higher graduation rates."

    Um, that's exactly what they base their existence upon! It's all we hear about. Right, Eva? To claim, quite suddenly, that charters have some diversity argument is crazy. Lumping no-excuses into specialized, rather than generalized, was quite fantastical. Also, cyber schools were included perhaps because of their long record of excellence.

    Here's the thing: The very idea of diversity is already provided in many school districts. My district and other surrounding districts have the types of offerings that specialized charters are just duplicating. My district has a small credit recovery high school of about 120 students with small classes and teacher aides. My county (and some nearby districts) have an excellent and highly awarded vocational training center whose offerings include culinary arts, auto mechanics, welding plumbing and other trades. We have an early college program that allows for kids to get college credits while still in high school.

    We're plenty diverse. And we're a working class suburb. Yet charters have popped up around us to fill those niches they claim are not options. It's ridiculous that charter operators suggest that they're actually building a market that doesn't exist. It does. They know it. They are ideologically, financially and politically motivated but hide it behind "for the kids."

  2. You left out the part where the guy making all these comments wants more charters in the state on whose Board of Education he sits. ;-)

    One more reason I'm in no hurry to return to public education in Maryland. :-(

  3. I liked the digressions. Good stuff.