Time to End the Charter School Distraction

The 21st century charter school movement in the U.S. has been at least a deeply flawed solution for a misunderstood problem. But charter advocacy has also suffered from a serious contradictory pair of arguments aimed simultaneously at traditional public schools (TPS) and charter schools.

As stringent high-stakes accountability gradually ramped up for TPS from the early 1980s and through both the George W. Bush No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era and the even more intense (and volatile) Obama administration, charter school advocacy increased, and those schools expanded across the U.S. driven by the argument that charter schools flourish because of their independence from bureaucratic mandates.

TPS suffered a series of ever-new standards and high-stakes tests, persistent narratives that they were “failing,” and a recalcitrant public and political leadership that refused to acknowledge the nearly crippling impact of social inequity on any school’s ability to effectively teach children.

Yet, at the same time, charter schools were routinely hailed falsely as “miracles” and neither the public nor political leadership seemed to care that research repeatedly revealed that charter schools simply did not outperform TPS (just as private schools do not outperform TPS). In short, charter schools have continued to float on advocacy and magical thinking even when we can clearly show that school type has nearly no impact on student outcomes—since those outcomes are far more significantly driven by out-of-school factors (home and community economic status, parental education levels, home security, access to food, medical care access, etc.).

Just as the Bush/Paige Texas “miracle” that spurred NCLB was soundly debunked, the Harlem “miracle” often cited by Obama/Duncan proved directly and indirectly (the many copy-cat charter “miracles” across the U.S., such as KIPP charter schools) to be mirages.

Like KIPP advocacy, however, the all-charter-school reality that has occurred in New Orleans after Katrina has also flourished on political and media misrepresentations.

An editorial in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has now offered one step in the right direction on charter schools in SC—but it fails to offer the only logical end-game concerning charter funding in this high-poverty state.

Yes, as the editorial notes after citing a Tulane study on charters [1]:

Closing failing charter schools is important because they receive millions of dollars in taxpayer funding that could otherwise be used to improve regular public schools. It’s essential because parents are led to believe that charter schools are superior to public schools, when in some cases they’re taking their kids out of traditional public schools that are better than the charter schools.

As I have detailed dozens of times directly about comparing charter schools and TPS in SC, most charter schools are about the same or worse than TPS that are serving similar populations of students. When charter schools appear to be outperforming, typically those gains are mirages that distract us from the real causal differences—under-serving special needs students, under-serving English language learners, expanded school days and/or years that account for the “growth” being measured, private funding, relief from accountability that comparable TPS must follow.

A simple dictum here is that if we allowed TPS those same caveats, we would see absolutely no surface differences in test scores; a more complicated dictum is that if charter schools had to function under the nearly paralyzing spectrum of obligations that TPS have always addressed, those charter schools would be seen as failures also.

The harsh truth no one wants to confront is that formal schooling, regardless of the type, has a very small measurable impact on student achievement when compared to the relatively larger influence of out-of-school factors. Related to that harsh truth is that once vulnerable students enter formal schooling, they far too often experience even greater inequities because all school models (TPS, charter schools, private schools) both reflect and perpetuate inequities in their policies (teacher assignment, tracking, disciplinary policies, class size and course access inequity, etc.).

As some of us in education have been arguing for decades, education reform must be grounded in equity and in-school reform can succeed only as a companion to significant social and economic reform that addresses food insecurity, work stability, health care, and safety (what I have called social context reform).

Again, the P&C editorial has offered an important charge that “South Carolina was never great at enforcing the responsibility requirement” for charter schools. But simply closing failing charter schools is not enough since we should not be creating charter schools to begin with.

In fact, we should close all charter schools because the charter churn (and all school choice) is a wasteful and politically cowardly indirect approach to reform.

SC is a historically high-poverty state that simultaneously clings to self-defeating conservative politics. Neither social/economic nor education policy in the state serves well the very large vulnerable populations of the state, not the adults or the children.

The political rhetoric and the ideology it spreads are themselves mirages at best, and cruel lies at worst.

New Orleans since 2005 has erased and replaced a TPS system with a charter system, and still the narrative remains about the exact same—schools need reform.

Formal schools regardless of the type reflect the children and communities they serve. Formal schools are rarely change agents.

If SC or any state genuinely wants education reform that serves all students, we will first invest in our entire state in ways that meet the needs of the most vulnerable among us and then we will re-invest in a public school system that fulfills the promise that every child has the greatest opportunity to learn that we can imagine.

Leaving equity in our society and our schools to the Invisible Hand is nothing more than a slap to the faces of the people and children who need us the most.


[1] This Tulane study has been repeatedly misrepresented by charter advocates; please see the following for a fuller and more complex picture of what that study can suggest, and what it does not:

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