Sunday, February 12, 2017

Charter Schism Explainer

The charter world (which is mostly all that's to what we mean by "education reform") has been wrestling and fracturing and considering serious marital counseling over the past year or so. This bit of a crisis has been exacerbated since, oh, November. I've been drawn into conversations about this schism several times in the last week, which means it's time to write a simple explainer.

Feel free to grab some popcorn and watch

Warning: the goal here will be to make this issue simple, so I'm going to strip out all nuance and grossly oversimplify. I am also not going to get sidetracked into where I think they're wrong, misguided, or twisty-- you have the whole rest of the blog to read my thoughts on that. That's not the focus here today. Just so you know that going in. Let the questioning begin:

Aren't all education reformers on the same side of everything?

No. Lumping all reformsters together is a mistake, just like lumping all of their opponents together.

So what are the two camps when it comes to charters?

We can divide charter supporters into two groups.

The social justice crowd wants charters as an engine of equity and opportunity. They see non-wealthy non-white students, mostly in urban centers, as desperately in need of alternatives. Urban school, schools that serve the poor, schools that are tied up in institutional racism-- these schools should be helping students to rise, and instead are seen as part of the mechanism that holds those students down. So social justice charteristas want an alternative, a choice, a place that isn't the "failing public school" to send their child.

The free market crowd believes that a free market approach to education is just inherently better. They believe it will lead to quality through competition. They believe that businessmen will do a better job of running schools, better meaning both "producing better graduates" and "producing profitable outcomes and good ROI."

They worked essentially on two different problems. For social justice charteristas, the problem was that too many non-wealthy non-white families couldn't get into a good school. For free marketeers, the problem was that the education sector wasn't functioning on free market principles. They were able to forge an alliance based on, "If we solve our problem, I think it could solve your problem, too."

What's the difference? They both want charters.

True. But they have different priorities and goals.

The social justice charteristas aren't that concerned with spreading charters everywhere. They see greater need in poor urban areas, and that's where they want the focus to be. If charters spread because of it, then fine, but that's not the main goal.

The free market charteristas want to see the business model scaled up for the entire country. They're not above using poor urban minority students as a foot-in-the-door approach, but that's only to get things rolling. They want more business-operated charters in more places capturing a greater market share. If non-wealthy non-white students get a more educational equity and quality out of it, that's fine, but that's not the main goal.

So what does this have to do with accountability?

Accountability has become one of the wedges in the charter movement. For social justice charteristas, accountability is super-important. The people they're worried about, the non-wealthy non-white folks don't need to be taken advantage of by charter sharpers, and as it has been increasingly clear that some folks are getting into the charter biz just to make a buck, social justice charteristas have called for accountability measures so that the people who are supposed to be getting rescued don't get screwed instead.

Free marketeers, however, believe that the fewer regulations, the better. Any kind of accountability measures or regulations are seen as inhibiting innovation or reducing flexibility or just generally interfering with some business visionary's ability to realize his cool idea. Could people get screwed? Why worry-- the free market will let parents vote with their feet and bad actors will be run out of business.

In other words, accountability measures help solve the give-poor-kids-good-schools problem, but they interfere with solving the more-free-market-education problem.

What's one reason this is ramping up now?

ESSA moved a lot of responsibility to the state level. Free marketeers are championing the states' right to regulate (or not) schools as it suits them, but plenty of folks recall that using a states' rights approach to social justice has not always worked out very well. Many states and cities have shown huge creativity in ways to implement and institute massively unjust policies; the feds could barely keep them under control when they were sort-of-trying.

What's another reason?

The election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is solidly on the free market side of the charter industry. Like all such operators, she's smart enough to make mouth noises about non-wealthy non-white families, but her history is solidly on the free market side, not social justice.

So free market charteristas have been saying, "Well, I think we can work with her. Anyway, who said that real charter reformers have to put social justice ahead of everything else." And social justice charteristas are saying, "We didn't get into charters so there'd be one more way for white people with a ton of money to get more by screwing over poor non-white people."

The neo-liberal Obama administration was well-positioned to represent the interests of both groups, to say it was working both problems. The Trump regime is not.

Anything else?

No, I said I would keep this simple. We could talk about how some charter fans fear vouchers, the role of super-vouchers and choice on steroids (put your education together class by class rather than choosing a school), or the general pressure being exerted on the charter sector by their general failure to create any decisive successes. And, as promised, I have left out all the ways in which both some charter goals and some charter methods are arguably bunk.

I will acknowledge again that there are nuances and wheels-within-wheels here, that there are people of good faith and hucksters and charlatans on all sides, and that these things often come down to the vagueries of local politics. We will leave all of that for another day. In the meantime, people far smarter than I are also writing about this, or you can put your two cents in the comments. I'm going to go make some popcorn.


  1. Peter, given the two categories you put forward, can you share which camp you feel Eli Broad would be placed in? Because he came out against DeVos' free market approach, but I wouldn't say this applies to him either: "The social justice charteristas aren't that concerned with spreading charters everywhere."

    1. No, I think Broad is full-on corporate free marketeer. But I get the impression that he and Betsy got into some turf wars in Detroit and so he's not a fan. Her work in Michigan seems to have been too much for some of the corporate reformsters, who have pulled out of that market.