Saturday, May 27, 2017

What Do Charter Schools Solve

The challenge-- the problem to be solved-- for public education is fairly simple: How do we provide a solid education for every child in the United States for a politically sustainable cost? (I wish the last part of the challenge wasn't there, but let's face it-- it's not like education is, say, a war in Afghanistan for which politicians are willing to write a blank check).

The challenge is not easily met, and in many places, in many ways, public schools have not fully succeeded. From entrenched racism, to the effects of poverty, to denial of necessary resources, to "failures" that are manufactured or imposed on schools, to widespread and hard-to-budge inequity, public schools are sometimes hampered by larger issues, and sometimes are part of the problem.

Public schools are not perfect. They're pretty damn good, and in many cases, their problems have been exaggerated or created out of whole cloth (Oh nos! Low PARRC scores!!!). But public schools are definitely not perfect.

I don't know any public school advocates who won't acknowledge that, despite being labeled as intractable flat-earth defenders of the status quo. But charter advocates often fall back on a style of argument roughly outlined as "There are HUGE problems here, therefor we must use our solution." This is the rhetorical equivalent of a person who shouts, "You're on fire, so you have to let me punch you in the face" and when you try to ask why, exactly, a punch in the face is a solution, they just keep hollering "But you are on FIRE!"

The presence of a problem does not automatically prove that a proposed solution is actually a solution. Which is why I keep coming back to this question:

What problem do charter schools solve?

Are charters just a road to nowhere?

Public school critics say that wealthy folks can choose the school they want by choosing which upscale neighborhood they want to stay in. Do charter schools solve this problem of privilege? Entry to some charter systems require an educated adult who can navigate an application system(and has time off during the day to do it). Some charter schools require contributions of either time or money or both. Privilege does help with access to a charter system-- just like the public system. How that plays out varies from location to location-- just like the public system.

Public school critics say that they want to extend the same kind of choice that rich folks get. But charters don't solve that problem. Poor families can't choose to live in a rich neighborhood so that their child can attend a rich neighborhood school. But a charter system does not give them a free selection, either. Ultimately the charters will choose who attends them by finding ways to reject or discourage or push out students who "don't fit." Charters will choose to bar students with language issues certain special needs by refusing to offer the supports those students need. Charters also choose WHEN students can enter-- if you miss the window at a relatively young age, you're SOL because they don't accept students in the middle of the year or entering higher grades.

And our current Secretary of Education has made it quite clear-- she cannot imagine situation in which the federal government will say to a charter or other private school, "You  may not have federal tax dollars if you are going to discriminate against those students." The ability of charters to pick and choose their students without penalty is being dramatically expanded.

Public school critics say that public education is hidebound and trapped in other centuries, in need of a stiff shot of Vitamin Innovate. But we've had modern charters for over a decade-- exactly what educational innovations have they discovered that can be used to improve the nation's schools? If you have good facilities, plenty of resources, and a carefully chosen batch of students, you can run a good school? That's not an innovation-- everybody already knew it. Other attempts at innovation, from strapping a child to a computer to enforcing a prison camp atmosphere, have proven to be not particularly useful and often depend on the power to get rid of students who "don't fit" to keep from totally collapsing.

I don't bring these up simply to play neener-neener so's-your-old-man. In fact, if these were the only problems that charters failed to solve, I'd say go ahead and let a thousand charters bloom. But that is not the case.

Public school critics say that public schools cost a lot of money and don't give enough returns. But running a parallel system of schools, duplicating administration and buildings-- it's a very expensive way to do education. And again, I would say, even as a taxpayer, to bring it on. But most states have set up a system of trying to run several systems with the same money that used to run one system, and that means that every child taken out of the public system weakens that system for the students left behind, the students whose parents can neither move them to a ritzy neighborhood OR get them into a charter school.

Public school critics say that the public system is an unresponsive monolith, and that can certainly be the truth. But how is it an improvement to have a charter school whose operators are unelected, do not have to meet in public, and are not accountable to the public. My small town is served by a public school system and some cyber charters. This month, the proposed budget for the public system is available to anyone who wants to look at it. Taxpayers can come to the next board meeting to comment on that budget, or they can just call their elected board member and spout off. Meanwhile, nobody knows who even runs the cyber charters or what they intend to do with the tax dollars they collect. How is that better?

Public schools screw up, and it's not just public school critics that notice. But there are laws and rules and regulations in place that govern public school and public school staff, providing an avenue for reporting, punishing, and correcting those issues. Charters are mostly operating with far fewer rules and regulations. How does that make them more accountable or reliable?

Public schools often reflect and exacerbate equity issues. But charters have also been instrumental in increased segregation, as well as programs that seem aimed at creating compliant worker drones and not future leaders.

Again, my point is not "Hey, these charters are no better than public schools." That would suggest that the effect of charters is simply neutral. But it's not-- modern charter policy is economically damaging, the dispersal of students to charters damages the community, and charters attempt to rescue a handful of students at considerable expense to all the students who are left in public schools.

This is like taking a special tonic that costs a thousand dollars a bottle and makes you feel worse. It's bad policy.

Charters do solve the problems of some individual families-- I don't want to send my child to public school (for any number of reasons, some more admirable than others) and now I don't have to. I'm sympathetic to that choice (well, unless your beef is that you don't want your white kid to go to school with those black kids-- then you're just a racist jerk) and I understand why you want to make it. But as a nation, our approach to education can't be, "We'll make sure that some kids can get a good education, and the rest-- oh, well. They're not our problem."

The challenge of public education is, again, to provide a good education for every child in the United States for a politically sustainable cost. It is a challenge that comes with lots of obstacles and problems, and after so many years, it is still not clear to me how modern charter schools help meet that challenge. Instead, I think modern charters have been set up to be one more obstacle. But by all means, if you want to explain to me exactly what problems charter provide a solution for (and not more explanation of how public schools are bad), my comments section is open for business.


  1. I don't think charters are *the answer*, but I certainly know why some people would find them appealing. I work at a school with high turnover, high poverty, and poor leadership. Trying to change this culture seems difficult, if not impossible. Given the enormity of the task, some parents would rather just make a smart decision for their own child. I can't blame them.

    1. Okay, but we're not talking about what parents should or shouldn't choose. We're talking about what the government should provide. In fact, according to the constitutions of all 50 states, what the government is mandated to provide - for each and every student.

  2. How do we provide a solid education for every child in the United States for a politically sustainable cost?

    If that is the question, some people think more choice is the answer. Many people have deep reservations about the government's ability to make good on it's promises (including in education), and they often have a host of reasons why they think that. I think it can be demonstrated that charters often do not solve these problems, but it seems insincere to suggest that there is no good arguments for them. For my own part, I'm not convinced that schools can generally transcend the problems of their communities. The real issues are entrenched poverty, lack of jobs, and chronic patterns of dysfunction. That school systems tend to mirror these issues is not really surprising.

    1. For those who have never taught in a high needs school, please take this comment to heart. Trying to transcend the obstacles associated with teaching children raised under the grip of generational poverty, economic hopelessness, and chronic patterns of dysfunction and generally insecure and chaotic lives is asking schools to do the impossible.
      The degree to which these outside issues inhibit the best efforts of educators would be impossible to understand without experiencing it first hand.

      Thanks for your insightful commentary lbwolpert.

    2. Thank you for your kindhearted response!

  3. "providing a solid education for every child in the US for a politically sustainable cost."

    Which is the biggest obstacle to success?
    a) "solid" education
    b) every child
    c) sustainable cost
    d) other?

    The scale of trying to provide a solid education at a sustainable cost to 50,000,000 different five to 18 year olds in 100,000 different schools with 3,000,000 different teachers over 180 school days (X 9, 40 minute periods) under constant political and public scrutiny and interference makes it this an impossible task.
    Significant improvement will not be possible until economic hope is restored to those struggling at the margins. Within this vast system, look at the common threads of success: affluent and well educated parents with high expectations for their children and unwavering support. When kids have to raise themselves, all bets are off.

  4. Well at least you know that the Walton Kansas school exists because it became a charter school, even if your readers have been mislead.

    How doe it feel to be a junior Roger Ailes? I doubt you will be as successful as Roger at bending peoples perception to your world view, but who knows? Keep speaking to the choir and you will no doubt get the choir to support you. The rest of us, not so much.

    1. Dude, I just turned sixty. I'm not a junior anything.

    2. So you don't allow my first post to be read, but this one is fine?

      A new parent at sixty? Your a braver man than I. I hope you see you children graduate from college when you are 82.

    3. And the point of that was to show your math skills? If you're concerned about being printed here, I suggest that you check the comment guidelines. The ones you most frequently violate would be those about responding to what people have actually written instead of just making stuff up, and the ones about being personally abusive. Disagreement and debate are welcome here; constructing straw men so you can play gotcha is not. I'll continue to publish your comments or not as I see fit.

    4. TE
      You are a habitual troll. Your comments are often inappropriate, derogatory, boorish, or irrelevant. Arguing with you on these ed-blogs is like taking a hike on a Mobius strip and expecting to get somewhere. Time to take up a new hobby.

  5. After reading these comments, one can see that the arguments are reasonable. It is true that some neighborhoods affect children adversely; to an extent that mere teachers cannot reach beyond the imprisonment of the such children’s mind.
    And yet according to books such as ‘Our Kids,’ ‘Coming Apart of White America,’ the cost in social programs, prisons, decreasing productivity, is such that the entire nation is paying a nearly unsustainable cost. It seems, according to these gentlemen that the consequences of not attending to them is prohibitive and destructive. They argue that funding programs which will get us out of this difficulty will in the end pay for itself when we consider the price we pay for not paying attention to these troubled communities.

    1. If the problem was just money, maybe it could be fixed. Even that would be a difficult sell, considering how much money it might really cost. It's not just money though. It's norms, values, segregation, human nature, trauma, environment, families, etc. You can't separate education from the people being educated.

    2. Significant increases in school funding and teacher pay would never turn a so-called "failing school" into a thriving school. Teachers in these schools do not fail to provide learning opportunities. Asking teachers to overcome the neglect, insecurity, chaos, and baggage that children from largely dysfunctional families bring into school, is asking them to do the impossible - especially at a scale which absolutely overwhelms these schools. The solutions would require restoring economic hope in the form of meaningful work at a living wages, the elimination of institutional racism, the restoration of the two parent family as a norm, improved access to health care (mental, physical, pre and post natal),and breaking the cycle of generational dependence. There can be no salvation without hope.