Summary: Charters are gaining ground. High time for public school boards, including Seattle’s, to make their peace, authorize a limited number of charters over time, and harness their creative energy.
Perspective matters a lot in thinking about charter schools.
Here’s a thought exercise. You are a single parent, African American, resident of a large city and beholden to its school system to educate your nine year old son, who has fallen a couple of years behind his expected grade level skills. He was early suspected as having a learning disability, and in fact was last year qualified for special education, but the specialized classes have not kept him from tumbling further behind. He has shown signs of incipient rebellion. You are deeply, quietly, in fear for his future, in dilemma where to turn for trustworthy help. Desperation is an operative word here, and in this frame of mind you are much more likely to take a leap of faith and exit the standard path. You are, in fact, a ready candidate to send your young son to a charter school. Can’t get a whole lot worse, you reason. Well, it might, but not necessarily.
The seminal Stanford (CREDO) study of urban charter schools (2015) found “more than twice as many urban regions show their charter schools outpacing their district school counterparts than regions where charter school results lag behind them.” It’s important to get this clear: predominately black and brown urban kids have a better chance of academic growth in an urban charter school than in a traditional public urban school. Sectioning the data a different way, across the spectrum of urban charters and traditional public schools, charters averaged 40 additional days of learning in math per school year and 28 additional days of reading.
So if I am that mother imagined above, I am going to take a good long look at my local charter school, because I do understand that charter schools also serve kids with learning disabilities.
But wait! Turns out to be crucial where a family lives. Could be home is in a city or state where the authorities have made an inchoate mess of the charter and public school landscape. Betsy DeVos’ home turf, Detroit and Michigan, is the prime example of free market y’all-come-we-ain’t-gonna-regulate-you ideology run amuck. Yes, there are charter options, but a bewildering and extensive array that run the gamut of quality in a largely unregulated setting, with little to no reliable exchange from which our mother can gather information.
She could live in Seattle, where the school board has taken hostile action toward charters authorized in Seattle by the State Charter Commission. In the face of such official discouragement, a parent is less likely to make the jump to a charter school. Seattle has chosen instead to invest in its own programs, nobly enough, but despite bright spots the achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts has widened.
Or our mother and son could live in Spokane (or Denver, or Boston). In these cities, leaders have embraced the innovation that charter schools once promised, and the opportunity to have those laboratories “in house,” as a part of the aggregate reform effort on behalf of local kids, with the status of all schools in house, traditional and charter, publicized regularly.
The fear from districts and resistant teachers’ unions alike is that charters will spread malignantly, suck students and the state cash that follows them out of the traditional public schools and bring local schools to their fiscal knees. The end game, so it is alleged, would be a largely privatized — that is, chartered — school system. In fact, in places like Michigan and Newark, where charters have been given free rein to constitute themselves as they wish, and with the blessing of philanthropic angels, these fears have borne out. As of yet no full end game.
Similar fears about financial disaster arose some years ago in school districts across the state of Washington with the implementation of Running Start, which allowed academically qualified juniors and seniors in high school to attend local community colleges in lieu of high school attendance. Dually enrolled students would finish high school requirements while simultaneously earning up to two years of college credit. Naysayers predicted fiscal disaster (sound familiar?). High school populations would collapse, leaving a trail of riffed educators in the wake and remaining students in a demoralized and underfunded school. Didn’t happen. Running Start rolled out at a gradual pace, and high school staffing levels adjusted naturally, by attrition and new hire, without cataclysm.
The tempo of such an existential change, whether the onset of Running Start or charter expansion, seems key to fiscal and public school stability throughout. The Denver schools and the Boston/Massachusetts educational communities appear to have managed the birthing of charters at a controlled pace that has yielded both change and a steady course, much as the legislation in Washington State that has enabled a limited number of charter schools seems to intend.
It is a model Seattle, for the sake of our mother with her nine year old son, would best note.
There is caution to observe here. Much of the school reform movement, and the charter initiative itself, has evolved out of a wealthy free market context. In Michigan frenzied proliferation of charters was championed by the radical free market thinking of Betsy DeVos, and in Newark by wealthy philanthropists, most notably Marc Zuckerberg, reportedly greatly chastened by the chaotic developments in Newark.
Despite its ubiquity and positive contribution to Americana, there are characteristics of a free market as applied to schools that raise more questions than provide answers, and which appear in both the Michigan and the Newark narratives. Free market types stress the role of “creative destruction,” the recognition that poorly performing businesses cease to exist while more competitive enterprises take their place. However, such destruction may play differently in the lives of kids in a local elementary school that does some things well, can do better, but is still worthy of a buffer from undiluted market realities.
Also, in a free market context, income inequality can become chronic; some people do well while others get left behind. To the extent that charters bring some elements of market competition and the threat of such inequities to the table, public institutions such as school boards rightfully should modify and redirect such tendencies. (With humility, because the original problem is that urban public schools often themselves have failed the most struggling kids.)
In the end I come back to a plea to the Seattle School Board on behalf of our African American mother and her struggling nine year old son. Head out of sand. Eyes open. Learn. Some communities have managed charters to their own advantage, learned from them, insulated their students from the worst of market volatility while benefiting from the implicit competition, and provided viable charter choices within an improving public school scene for their students, as the Stanford CREDO study testifies.
Make no mistake, Seattle School Board, charters are coming to Seattle, sooner or later. If you don’t authorize them, the state has and will, and seems to have done so responsibly. For the sake of our kids, for what charters can bring to the table, and to manage potential liabilities, take up this opportunity. Make charters your business.