Charters Revisited: It’s a Broad Spectrum Out There or, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Summary: Charter horror stories in Newark and Detroit mask a Stanford CREDO report that finds charters outperforming traditional public schools in many areas of the country. That same CREDO report however is critiqued as statistically flawed; in truth charters may benefit kids of better organized low income families, but their selection processes leave the more intractable of the poor languishing in low performing urban schools.

Rational discourse about the benefits or dangers of charter schools gets obscured by the noise of partisanship — lamentably, because the charter organism is still a fledgling one. Though the charter debate among academics is more temperate, the technical jargon employed makes it difficult even for seasoned educators to decipher and form a judgment – are charters relatively successful or not, and if so, to what degree?

Meanwhile on embattled school grounds in places like Newark and Detroit, the wholesale rush to charter schools in reaction to the obduracy of public school failure has worsened the lot of some students in public schools while reportedly fortifying the hopes of others.

Against this complexity, the state of Massachusetts will vote whether or not to expand its existing charter mandate; in contrast the state of Washington remains in the early stages of a battle simply to establish and then sustain charters.

My own dive into charter territory goes something like this: Freed of bureaucratic constraints and wooden pedagogy charters may well serve as laboratories for revitalized intervention in low income student fortunes. Once these new practices are vetted, they can be used to infuse new momentum into substandard public schools.

Alas, as they say, were it so simple. On one end of the spectrum, saddled by a failed public school system also in large part literally obliterated brick by brick by Katrina, the good people of New Orleans went all in, though under a state yoke. 93% of that city’s schools are now charters, not without controversy, but as yet without discovering the Holy Grail.

While the work continues in New Orleans there are other cities where disquieting charter impacts have emerged. Critics of charter schools, among them teachers’ unions, long and loudly have warned that charters would pull funding from public schools and weaken them still further. In Newark and Detroit, both of whom have gone deeply charter, the caution looks to have merit.

In Newark the district and state leadership of education engineered a bald infusion of charter options into the city, in the way of elites sidestepping local parents and leaders and ignoring the niceties of inclusion. Moreover, in this impoverished city the school department functioned as an employer for a significant number of citizens. A bloated bureaucracy, yes, which siphoned substantial sums from those available for educating kids, but a real condition on the ground that remained under recognized and untended to by reformers. When monies began to flow to an increasing number of charters, the public school district began to flounder fiscally. Anger in the neighborhoods at being thus manipulated and betrayed by elites morphed into resistance that might have been alleviated by leadership with a more deft touch.

In Detroit, a marginally different scenario has played out. A romance on the part of once Michigan governor John Engler with market solutions for school failure instigated the introduction of a number of charter schools. In the ways of the market, Engler and reformers argued, the better ideas in the more successful schools would rise to the top. Failed schools would close.

Instead, as Detroit charters struggled to prove their worth, they none the less proliferated and far too many schools were left for too few students. Instead of competition of ideas schools adopted marketing incentives (“chance to win lottery for $50 gift card!”) to lure kids into their classrooms. Poaching of another school’s population became chronic.

In the resulting churn, students have jumped from school to school. Schools themselves struggle with the massive turnover, in some cases on the order of a third of the student body from year to year; consistency is difficult to maintain for both student and school. Rather than creating reform, the Detroit schools are in the words of one observer “replicating failure.”

By the enabling legislation in the Michigan legislature, public school districts, community colleges, and universities were given the power to invest charters. In the climate fostered by the governor that the real hope for reform lay with market mechanisms, these grantors certified 80% of charters to be run as private for profit schools.

The sponsoring institutions also get a 3% cut of the public funds, so are given skin in the economic game. Oddly, only these same granting institutions — community colleges, universities, and school districts — can close a failing charter, thereby setting up a classic conflict of interest. To date new charters continue to enter this bloated bazaar, while apparently few schools close. Whatever one’s position on for profit schools, the Detroit charter market is fraught with poor construction.

So pity the poor parent. Despite the associated stresses of poverty elsewhere in their lives, many are faced with a kaleidoscope of school choices for their kids often with an only a semi-literate perspective or checkered history in their own schooling to guide them. Desperately in need of assistance in navigating what John Hattie calls the “language of schooling,” parents instead get gaudy trinkets that are ultimately insulting rather constructive.

Into this charter chronicle comes a 2015 study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) that found “urban charter schools…..provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in reading and math” for their students than is enjoyed by demographically matched “twins” in traditional public schools.The inaugural CREDO report on charters in 2013 was widely quoted and regarded as the gold standard; the new report puts a favorable imprimatur on charter backs.

Were it ever so easy. Critiques of the recent CREDO study by on-looking academics allege crucial methodological flaws, to which CREDO authors have responded, with neither perspective giving much ground. The statistically challenged in us all comes away wishing someone would tell us the right answer.

To the extent that I understand the discussion, there emerges a picture that confirms some of the ongoing criticisms of charters, namely that by different avenues charters “cherry pick” the more able and motivated students and families, and are therefore predisposed to have better results. For example, those more organized or ambitious show up for planning meetings. Some charters choose students by lotteries, but others have an application process in which candidates can be scrutinized. In other cases, discipline is strict; charters have been criticized for excluding students who pose behavioral problems. Thus, quality in breeds quality out.

Even granting the legitimacy of some of these allegations, it may be that charters still provide a service to those kids of poverty who make the cut and are ready for academic challenges. Not left to flounder with their less fortunate neighborhood mates in a worn public school, perhaps they prosper, at least relatively speaking.

Which leaves the public schools with the even less able, the less resourceful, the more intractable of the poor. The charter movement was conceived to seek solution for all poor students. Despite CREDO’s trumpet it is not at all clear to me that the charter game has yet elevated to that level.

Meanwhile, to the voters of Massachusetts, beware how you vote. Note that the campaign to lift the cap on charters there is funded significantly by market oriented entities reminiscent of Detroit’s troubled scenario.

To the people of Washington State, encourage public non-profit charters to proceed, but in small numbers, with an eye cast eastward toward Detroit and Newark. Behind the curve, hopefully we learn from mistakes out too far ahead of the curve.

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