Thursday, June 28, 2018

Education Deserts

Two weeks ago, a hearing by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce tipped its hand with its title-- "The Power of Charter Schools: Promoting Opportunity for America's Students." It featured a parade of charter school advocates, with one exception. Somehow, Jonathon Phillip Clark made it into the room.

PS 138 used to be right over there
Clark is a father of seven, assistant director of a Detroit nonprofit that provides mentoring and tutoring and a board member of 482Forward, a group that advocates for high-quality education for all Detroit children. Clark's testimony highlights many of the  problems of charter schools in Michigan and elsewhere—broken promises, unstable leadership, unelected governing bodies hundreds of miles away from the people they serve. He underlined the practical problems as well, like driving back and forth across the city to get children to and from their separate schools.
Clark later in his testimony calls this an education desert, a predictable result of a free-market approach to schools.
We already know about food deserts, described by the CDC as "areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet." Food deserts tend to be areas where it does not make business sense to serve the local (usually poor) population.
The free market is not evil, but it is practical. No matter what sector we're talking about, there are always some customers who are unprofitable to serve. You may want new Chipotle or Lexus dealership in your town, but if nobody can build a business case for the operation, then your town will remain a Chipotle and Lexus desert.
This is why the government provides some goods and services. If the markets were responsible for roads, only some people would get roads. If the markets were responsible for providing military protection, only some people would be protected.
We have an area where the private sector competes with the government—mail delivery. Private mail and parcel services compete with the U.S. Postal Servicebut only up to a point. When it's time to deliver a package to some place out in the boonies, where delivery costs too much to be truly profitable, the private delivery companies hand the packages off to the USPS which then finishes the job for them

In many urban areas, we have inched toward that model. Some charter schools work with the students who can be profitably taken on as customers, while others work at the fringes, going out of business as they discover they didn't have a business model that worked. Meanwhile, some students who will never be attractive customers to private operators (too many special needs, special problems, special burdens) are left in the public school.
But when legislators are backing charters, it makes business sense to keep public schools underfunded and undersupported so that they can't be serious competition. And when that formula is miscalculated (just enough, but no more than that), then the public schools also collapse, and suddenly we have an education desertan area where there are no easily available education options for residents.
The free market is not evil, but no business has ever made it its mission to provide services to every single potential customer in the country. We can't allow the free market to run education without changing our national mission, because no private charter chain will ever appear with a mission to educate every single student in the country. If we let a thousand charter schools bloom, we must be prepared for education deserts to bloom as well.

Originally published at   

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