Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Charter Fans Challenge DeVos

The Massachusetts Charter Public [sic] School Association has joined the discussion of Betsy DeVos-- and they've joined it by asking Senator Elizabeth Warren to grill DeVos a little more thoroughly.

Don't worry. Confirmation hearings have to end some time.

MCPSA has had a rough few months. In November, Massachusetts voters resounding rejected a proposal to lift the charter cap and let charters roam free, feasting on public tax dollars. But on January 9th, they sent a letter to Warren that opened with this paragraph:

As the Association representing the 70 Massachusetts commonwealth charter public schools, we are writing to express our concerns over the nomination of Elisabeth DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. We do not express these reservations lightly, but we believe it is important to raise certain issues that should be addressed by the nominee.

So what's the problem? MCPSA assures the senator that they are "hopeful" that Trump-DeVos will continue "the bipartisan efforts of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations" to keep promoting charter schools. But they have concerns.

They are concerned about reports about DeVos voucher support and charter proliferation in Michigan "that has been widely criticized for lax oversight and poor academic performance, and appears to be dominated by for-profit interests." They even cite a Detroit Free Press piece on the subject.

MCPSA wants to remind their senator that they are super-duper, and the Massachusetts charters are just the best ever (a hugely arguable point, but let's not get sidetracked today). And they believe that oversight and accountability are a big part of their success. And they are concerned that DeVos has a history of opposing oversight and accountability, and somebody had better ask her about that and just, you know, make sure that she is going to support rules and accountability and oversight and demands for quality.

Meanwhile, the New York Times editorial board, which has never met a charter school scheme it didn't like, also came out to express "big worries" about DeVos. The nominee

also faces a big challenge in explaining the damage she’s done to public education in her home state, Michigan. She has poured money into charter schools advocacy, winning legislative changes that have reduced oversight and accountability. About 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are operated by for-profit companies, far higher than anywhere else. She has also argued for shutting down Detroit public schools, with the system turned over to charters or taxpayer money given out as vouchers for private schools. In that city, charter schools often perform no better than traditional schools, and sometimes worse.

Goodness, New York Times! Are you ready to join the rest of us defenders of public education? That would be... unexpected. So what's going on? Why would stalwart charter fans be concerned about a DeVos USED? I can think of four reasons.

1) Protecting the brand.

If you let any kind of riff-raff set up a charter school, and they do a lousy job of it, you hurt the brand. "Charter school" becomes synonymous with "crappy school" instead of "cool private school you can send your kids to for free." Worst case scenario, your lousy practitioners of the charter arts screw up so badly that the public starts calling for really tight regulation and oversight. Nightmare scenario-- some lunkhead messes up so badly that charters end up with more scrutiny and regulation that regular old public schools. And then the fun times are over for everyone. You let one bad apple in, and before you know it, none of us can have nice things.

2) Protecting the coalition.

As suggested by MCPSA's bipartisan President supporter list, reformsters in general and charter fans in particular have built a bipartisan coalition. Conservatives get a free market, highly profitable system of education-flavored school-like businesses, and lefties get a system that supposedly uplifts the poor and restores social equity. The rise of Trump has been a real threat to this coalition, and while some of the pretend progressive groups like Democrats [sic] for Education Reform have mapped out a sort of two step (don't work IN her department, but totally work WITH her department) the fact remains that it is going to be hard to rally progressives and justice warriors behind a Trump administration. But the newly formed Democratic Education Caucus may be just what they fear. Some figure far, far more conciliatory than Betsy DeVos will be needed to bridge that gap.

3) It's that voucher thing.

Not all charter fans love the idea of vouchers. Vouchers, among other things, take a whole bunch of money off the table because the same day that vouchers go into effect, a whole bunch of Catholic and other pre-existing private schools get a windfall. Vouchers mean that charter schools have to compete not just with public schools, but with all the parochial and private schools already out there. Vouchers do not necessarily work out well for charter operators.

4) The threat of the Way-Too-Free Market.

Imagine that you are in the jewelry business and you are creating 14 carat gold. What a pain would it be for someone to enter your market selling rings that are labeled 14 carat gold but which are actually made out of brass, and discover that there are no regulations that forbid them from lying about their product and nobody with the authority to make them stop.

In states like Massachusetts, where there is at least a light smattering of regulation, charter school operators compete on a level-ish playing field because they have to provide an entity that bears at least a passing resemblance to an actual school. But when we get into states like Ohio and Florida and, yes, Michigan, we find people entering the charter school game by providing something that barely resembles a school, pumped up with advertising full of lie-soaked baloney (here's a Florida example). How is a charter school that actually wants to be a school-- how is that supposed to compete with some charter scam artist?

Or look at it this way. Free market competition, particularly between businesses that can't really increase their revenue streams, is not about pursuing quality, but about cutting costs. Regulations essentially establish a financial floor beneath which the business may not sink, established by costs that may not be cut (e.g. auto makers cannot cut costs by removing seat belts). Ideally, that floor is also set by the business person's ethics, but the invisible hand can exert a pretty powerful force, and there will always be people who are far more interested in making a buck than doing the right thing. So charter school accountability and oversight help establish a level beneath which operators may not stoop, and some operators will always want to make sure that their less ethical brethren are restrained from-- well, I would call it cheating, but then, it's not cheating if there's no rule against it. If the rules say you can establish a charter where attendance is not mandatory and you only have to have one teacher for every 200 students, it's not cheating to do so-- but it sure gives you an advantage over competitors.

Put one last way-- charter operators are happy to have ways to undercut public schools, but they would rather not have other charter operators undercut them.

It will be interesting to see if opposition to DeVos continues to appear on her reformy flank. Our first few months in Trumpistan will undoubtedly give rise to much political shifting and re-alignment; only time will tell how that will shake out in the education biz.


  1. On number 3, vouchers are a significant threat to charters. Here, in Michigan, schools receive funding based on enrollment. Every kid pulls money with them. Many charter school parents want a "private" school. Basically, a school with different rules that sends unwanted disruptive kids packing.

    Those parents would rather their kids went to private or parochial schools. And a voucher would allow many to do just that. Vouchers would lose a ton of clientele. And here in metro Detroit, we've seen Catholic schools continually get smaller. Part of the reason is that parents could send their kids to a charter (with a more easily managed type of kid) for free. Vouchers would flip that to some degree and charter schools know it.

  2. Peter, your analytical ability never ceases to amaze me.