SIX TALKING POINTS ON THE PROBLEMS WITH CHARTER SCHOOLS
Is Replacing Neighborhood Schools with Charters Worth the Risk?
- The question of charter expansion becomes critical when a neighborhood school is slated for closure to be replaced by a charter. The trade-off should be framed as follows: based on the evidence, closing a public school for a charter will improve performance about one-fourth of the time and will make it worse about one-fourth of the time. Thus, the one-in-four chance of an improved school must be weighed against the massive dislocations local school closures cause families, students (e.g., long bus rides or walking through alien turf), and communities. In addition, the very real chance of worsening school performance one-quarter of the time must be factored in. Further, widespread charter expansion can reach a financial tipping point crippling the school district’s ability to improve the remaining open public schools. One underreported consequence of charter expansion is that the remaining schools must rely increasingly on late placements and substitutes, which substantially harms student performance. So even if some students are able to attend a successful charter school, many more are stranded in the remaining starved public ones. The experience in Newark exemplifies this tragedy:
What parent would agree to a policy that benefits one of her children but seriously damages one or two of her other kids? The Prize [a recently published book about Newark] does an invaluable service in helping to explain how true believers in top-down reform may or may not have benefitted many of the 30 percent of students headed for charters. They did so, however, by harming the schools serving the majority of poor children. They created even more intense concentrations of children from extreme poverty and trauma; they took failing schools and made them worse.
Stated that way, the widely advocated policy prescription of replacing low-performing schools with charters looks horribly off the mark. Of course, if there are stringent controls to assure that only the better performing charters (determined by legitimate measures and practices) can replace a low-performing public school, then the odds of increased student achievement improve. Whether the increased benefit to the individual student who qualifies for a high-performing charter justifies the larger number of students who are left behind and neglected is a tough question each community must address.
No or Trivial Gains
2. Most studies find no or trivial gains from charters. CREDO effect sizes are in the .01 SD range (.05 for some ethnic groups). (Charter advocates keep saying the CREDO studies show significant advantage for of charters. Statistical significance is different than whether the effect is worthwhile.) Where there are gains, they are very small and are 1/10-1/20 of the gains of effective interventions as chronicled by John Hattie such as building teams for continuous improvement, reciprocal teaching, strong curriculum, etc. Also the evaluations matching charters to traditional public schools never take into account the several thousand charters which were forced to close (which would substantially lower charter results) and that on the natural with active parents and a receptive student body charters should be scoring substantially higher. Also all the evidence that many charters don’t backfill (it’s not attrition rates which are similar but schools such as Success Academy start with say 100 children and end up with a rarified group of 40 which they then use for comparison purposes or use other methods to now enroll or to get rid of low performing students.
How About Giving Parents the Choice to Improve Their Neighborhood School?
3. One powerful argument on choice is what about giving parents who want to choose their neighborhood school and for it to be improved that choice. Several studies have shown around 70% of parents want that option over charters. Closing a neighborhood school and offering enrolling in a charter robs them of that choice. Often public schools are starved and offered limited support causing low performance and then closed to make way for charters. . Under the Parent Empowerment Act in California which gives a majority of parents the right to convert their neighborhood school to a charter, only a handful have actually approved the conversion.
Competition Forces Marketing Pressure Which Leads to Harmful Educational Practices
4. Contrary to the charter argument that charters would be innovative most are no different than their traditional public school counterparts. In fact the pressure for marketing leads them to narrow the curriculum and emphasize test prep or, even worse, the widespread anti-child, harsh, no excuses policies which may get better short term test results at the expense of deeper learning and emotional harm. Many of these schools are dreadful places to attend.
Charter Expansion Is Used As an Excuse to Privatize and Reduce Funds for Traditional Public Schools
5. Many conservative governors and legislatures have used charter expansion as an excuse to make massive cuts in traditional public schools driven by a privatization anti-public school philosophy. In Indiana, for example, from 2009 to 2013 traditional public school funding was cut by more than $3 billion. During the same period, charter funding was increased by $539 million, vouchers by $248 million, and virtual schools by $143 million. Students who attend public schools account for 94% of Indiana students and took a huge hit. The remaining six percent gained more than $900 million. Similar policies were adopted in North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Lack of Accountability Leads to Fraud, Self-Dealing, and Low-Performance
6. For-profit organizations often offer stripped down education to maximize profit and by clever marketing mislead parents. In states with unregulated charters, vouchers, or on-line virtual academies there have been significant examples of fraud, self-dealing, and low performance. There are nearly 7000 charter schools existing today. But over 1000 other charters have failed causing massive disruption to the children enrolled. Even charter advocates estimate that over 1000 existing charters should be closed for low performance. Even non-profits often mask self-dealing by promoters paying themselves high salaries, setting up dummy corporations to sell stuff to the schools at outrageous prices, making money from floating bonds, and buying property which the owners get to keep.
The New Charter School and Voucher Debate
Some charter school and voucher advocates have shifted their arguments in the face of a large number of studies which show trivial or negative results of choice and privatization schemes as well as evidence that such policies causing substantial harm to traditional public schools and their communities. http://www.buildingbetterschools.com/charter-schools-are-not-the-key-to-improving-public-education/
These advocates now argue that the performance of charters and vouchers is not the primary issue. Instead, enshrining parental choice should be the driving value in education and developing a pluralistic delivery system (traditional public schools, magnet schools, charters, for-profit schools, online schools, schools funded by tax credits and vouchers, religious schools, etc.), of publically funded education to maximize choice should be the policy goal. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/articles/2017-03-06/test-based-evidence-alone-doesnt-tell-us-whether-school-choice-works?platform=hootsuite If that means abandoning the central role of traditional public schools, so be it.
There are several fatal flaws in this argument. First of all, why start with maximizing parental choice as the main aim of our publically funded educational system. Aren’t there much more important educational goals such as broadly educating each generation to be prepared for work, citizenship, and reaching individual potential? Parents and their desires are important, but so is broadening their children’s perspectives so that they gain the ability to choose, and since the public, not just parents, is paying for schools, there are key public interests involved. Then the question becomes which structure can best deliver these goals which does raise the issue of performance and impact.
Before the country entertains radical policies to devalue our public education system we need to answer two questions. Will choice and market-driven strategies improve overall performance? So far they haven’t but have caused considerable damage to public education in decreased state and local funding, significant levels of fraud and self-dealing, and the elimination of neighborhood schools. And are we willing to risk severely undermining our existing public schools by undertaking questionable large-scale choice strategies? That is what happened in Chile and Sweden when they initiated a choice and market-driven system. Performance plummeted and income segregation increased dramatically in what became a two-tiered system.
It seems to me that the burden of proof is on those who want to scuttle our nearly 200 year commitment to locally and democratically governed public schools—an institution which has served this democracy so well. If the objective is improving performance there are much many successful build and support strategies which have delivered much greater improvement than choice, market-based policies, and privatization without the collateral damage.
Often, parental values conflict with the public goal of broadly educating students and expanding their horizons through democratically developed educational policies. Some parents have problems with current scientific knowledge but our democracy needs a scientifically literate population and the proper education of scientific personnel. Schools teaching science based on creationism won’t deliver that. Some have strong prejudices or bigotry, are conspiracy cranks, or have a skewed view of our history. Should schools cater to those beliefs even if they run counter to our democratic ideals?
Here is Robert Pondiscio’s argument for the primacy of choice. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values. If diversity is a core value of yours, for example, you might seek out a school where your child can learn alongside peers from different backgrounds. If your child is a budding artist, actor or musician, the “evidence” that might persuade you is whether he or she will have the opportunity to study with a working sculptor or to pound the boards in a strong theater or dance program. If your child is an athlete, the number of state titles won by the lacrosse team or sports scholarships earned by graduates might be compelling evidence. If faith is central to your family, you will want a school that allows your child to grow and be guided by your religious beliefs. There can be no doubt that, if you are fortunate enough to select a school based on your child’s talents or interests or your family’s values and traditions, the question of whether school choice “works” has already been answered. It’s working perfectly for you. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/articles/2017-03-06/test-based-evidence-alone-doesnt-tell-us-whether-school-choice-works?platform=hootsuite
Fair enough. But what if parents choose a racist black panther or white nationalist school. A school with an anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim curriculum. An extreme Christian academy teaching erroneous science or hostility to religious pluralism. An anarchist or communist or fascist school. A fanatical Sharia school. A Koch sponsored school which is organized around an Ayn Rand view of history. All these are antithetical to our democratic ideas and values.
Or what if for-profit organizations offer stripped down education to maximize profit and by clever marketing mislead parents. In states with unregulated charters, vouchers, or on-line virtual academies there have been significant examples of fraud, self-dealing, and low performance. There are nearly 7000 charter schools existing today. But over 1000 other charters have failed causing massive disruption to the children enrolled. Even charter advocates estimate that over 1000 existing charters should be closed for low performance.
Second, the debate is about how to organize publically funded education. Currently nothing prevents parents from sending their child to any specialized school of their choice if they are willing to pay for it. If public funds are used, then the public interest should be paramount.
Third, there is a significant cost issue. Money matters in educational results. Who will pay for the 10% of students attending private schools currently funded by their parents. Currently about 90% of students attend public schools (6% of these are charters) and 10% are in private schools. Shifting to a pluralistic delivery system with vouchers for private schools would mean that educational spending would need to increase by over 10% just to cover the funds for those currently in private institutions. However, private schools wouldn’t get the benefit of these funds. These expenditures would mainly be a subsidy to wealthy parents of private and religious school students . State legislatures have the unfortunate habit of making existing public school budgets pay for expanded support for private school parents In Indiana, for example, from 2009 to 2013 traditional public school funding was cut by more than $3 billion. During the same period, charter funding was increased by $539 million, vouchers by $248 million, and virtual schools by $143 million. Students who attend public schools account for 94% of Indiana students and took a huge hit. The remaining seven percent gained more than $900 million. Similar policies were adopted in North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
As for charters, often extensive charter expansion puts the traditional public school sector at financial risk or replaces a neighborhood’s public school with the right to attend a school far away such as happened in Chicago or New Orleans. Dual delivery systems of public goods cost more but our representatives have been unwilling to pay for the extra costs of dual systems.
One major choice that is never discussed is the desire of most parents to improve their neighborhood school. In many cases that choice is off the table. Local schools are starved for funds and effective support, performance suffers, the school is closed, and parents are offered space in a distant school or a voucher. That is not what they wanted.
Many of the most vociferous advocates of choice such as our present Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos also strongly resist any financial and academic performance accountability. As a result many states with lax accountability such as Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida have suffered numerous incidences of embezzlement, high administrative salaries, self-dealing in procurement and property, and weak educational programs. We restrict individual’s choice of buying tainted meat, dangerous drugs, and unsafe cars by legislative protections. Why should our students not be similarly protected?
For more information on this topic see http://www.buildingbetterschools.com/charter-schools-are-not-the-key-to-improving-public-education/ and the talking-points on charters http://www.buildingbetterschools.com/talking-points/