Ten Years After Katrina: Lessons from Charleston, SC

Mention a coastal city notable for both its diverse cultural history and the twin scars of natural disasters as well as the human-made cancers of racism and generational poverty, and most people across the U.S. will think New Orleans, especially now as we confront the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the decade of a city rebuilding itself.

However, South Carolina’s Charleston fits that same complicated and troubling profile.

Charleston also shares with New Orleans the historical failure of public schools to serve poor and black children and families, which has resulted in both cities being the target of wide-scale and often reckless education reform driven mostly by political and ideological forces.

While I have regularly criticized mainstream media for covering education and education reform carelessly, I was genuinely impressed with The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) publishing an extensive and detailed examination of education reform in the large school district serving the city: Left Behind: The unintended consequences of school choice.

This news account and the related data are actually not new for those of us having taught in SC for decades. It takes very little effort to recognize that both traditional public schools (how they are funded, how teachers are assigned, how students are tracked, etc.) and education reform driven by accountability and market forces over the past three decades have not served well vulnerable populations of students, black and high-poverty children.

Charleston is just one example of the Corridor of Shame that has been highlighted in SC for decades, in fact, through the legal system and a widely heralded documentary.

It also isn’t news that the political leadership and even the public in SC have failed to acknowledge the problems of racial and socioeconomic inequity in any real ways that address public policy.

Nonetheless, the P&C‘s Left Behind series is a rare and fertile opportunity to change all that because the coverage does, despite some flaws, present the complicated challenges that face both public education and society, challenges that are inextricable from confronting racism and poverty.

Regretfully, one of the responses to this series is also nothing new—and entirely predictable: a South Carolina Policy Council (SCPC) Op-Ed titled School choice is a solution, not a problem.

First, I must emphasize that reducing the lessons of Charleston public schools to a narrow debate about school choice is a fatal distraction that will never serve students, families, and the community well.

Next, as I have examined on far too many occasions, free market think tanks (and think tanks masquerading as university departments) will never represent accurately school choice because they have committed entirely to one ideological focus that trumps any different or larger goals—such as educational equity for black and poor children.

On the SCPC’s web site, they clearly express their one and only position:

The South Carolina Policy Council was founded in 1986 as an independent, private, non-partisan research organization to promote the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty and responsibility in the state of South Carolina.

The Op-Ed response to Left Behind, then, is peppered with cherry-picking, overstatements, and loaded nods to “gold-standard research,” but the claims are advocacy, and not credible conclusions about either the results or promise of school choice in its many and shifting forms (vouchers, tuition tax credits, public school choice, charter schools).

Having spent more than a year doing a book-length examination of school choice, I regret that the debate remains trapped in ideological and political squabbles while children are in fact left behind.

So what do we know about school choice? (See Bruce Baker, The Shanker Blog, and the National Education Policy Center for extensive reviews of the research on choice and charter schools.)

  • Private, public, and charter schools have about the same range of measurable student outcomes, regardless of the school type and strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of the child’s home. (See this discussion of “charterness.”)
  • Research on school choice has shown mixed results at best, but even when some choice has shown promise of, for example, raising test scores for black, brown, and poor students, those increased scores are linked to selectivity, attrition, greater funding, and extended school days/years—none of which have anything to do with the consequences of choice and all of which expose those “gains” as false success.
  • School choice, notably charter schools, has been strongly linked with increasing racial and socioeconomic inequity: increased segregation, inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes.
  • SC advocacy for charter schools as the newest school choice commitment fails to acknowledge that charter schools in the state are overwhelmingly about the same and often worse than comparable public schools (see analysis of 2011 and 2013 data here), and the South Carolina Public Charter School District is among the top four worst districts in the state for racially inequitable discipline with blacks constituting about 19% of the enrollment but over 50% of suspensions/expulsions.

The research on school choice does not support the claims made by SCPC, and the rhetoric is also deeply flawed.

School choice advocates often fall back on “poor children deserve the same choices that rich children enjoy.”

However, several problems exist within this seemingly logical assertion.

The greatest flaw is suggesting that affluent and mostly white affluent children are thriving because of choice is itself a lie, a mask for the reality that the key to their success is their wealth and privilege. Being born into a wealthy family trumps educational attainment, and white privilege trumps educational attainment by blacks (see here and here).

In its most disturbing form, then, school choice advocacy is a distraction from the consequences of racism and poverty, both of which are reflected in and perpetuated by the education system.

Further, arguing that we must see school choice as a solution fails for essential conditions in a democracy.

For example, no one should have to wait for the Invisible Hand of the market so they have access to health care, justice, safety, or education. The great irony is that for the free market to work, a people must first secure the foundations of public institutions.

As Martin Luther King Jr. stressed in 1967: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

A full and robust commitment to public institutions, specifically universal public education, is essential to the concurrent commitment to the free market.The paradox is thus: In order for choice of most kinds to work in a free society, some essential institutions must render choice unnecessary in terms of health care, justice, safety, or education.

As we can witness in New Orleans, the lessons of education and education reform in Charleston are two-fold: (1) historically and currently, traditional public schools have failed/do fail vulnerable populations, specifically black and poor children, and (2) accountability-based and free-market education reform has also not alleviated the burdens of racism and poverty, but has too often exacerbated the devastating consequences of both.

The Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public

Late in 2013, I shared my own experience with the disaster capitalism tactics employed by the Walton-funded Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas), asking: For the Record: Should We Trust Advocates of “No Excuses”?

I detailed reasons why the answer is clearly “No”: the funding determines the claims in the so-called reports (see Pulling a Greene: Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform [Redux]), the nasty and unmerited swipes misrepresenting my view of children and parents in poverty (swipes I directly refuted but were allowed to remain in print; see For the Record noted above), and the racist/classist underpinnings of the practices practiced among “no excuses” charters (see Criticizing KIPP Critics).

But billionaires buying the appearance of credible scholarly research on education reform would not go very far without the blind allegiance of press release journalism (see HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE).

And all of those factors combined reveal the Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public.

That formula is business as usual, regretfully, and one of the most recent and egregious examples can be found at The Post and Courier (Charleston), a frequent contributor to misinforming the public due to a failure to examine the credibility of reports: A bigger bang for school bucks:

An increasing number of parents who shop around before choosing a school for their children are opting for charter schools because they like the academic environment. But they might not be aware that those same schools also are giving the public a bigger bang for their buck than traditional schools.

Research at the University of Arkansas shows that charter schools in 30 states are neck-and-neck with traditional schools on eighth grade standardized tests. But they achieve those scores for significantly less money.

Imagine what they might do if charter schools were funded equitably.

Or better yet, imagine what we could do in our public schools if the mainstream media didn’t continue to follow blindly the lead of billionaires determined to dismantle those schools.

About that “Research at the University of Arkansas,” which the P&C could have easily found by just googling, let’s consider a critique by Bruce Baker, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, who first notes the flaws in similar claims found in an earlier report about charter schools from the same source:

The University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform has just produced a follow up to their previous analysis in which they proclaimed boldly that charter schools are desperately uniformly everywhere and anywhere deprived of thousands of dollars per pupil when compared with their bloated overfunded public district counterparts (yes… that’s a bit of a mis-characterization of their claims… but closer than their bizarre characterization of my critique).

I wrote a critique of that report pointing out how they had made numerous bogus assumptions and ill-conceived, technically inept comparisons which in most cases dramatically overstated their predetermined, handsomely paid for, but shamelessly wrong claims.

That critique is here: http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/ttruarkcharterfunding.pdf

The previous report proclaiming dreadful underfunding of charter schools leads to the low hanging fruit opportunity to point out that even if charter schools have close to the same test scores as district schools – and do so for so00000 much less money – they are therefore far more efficient. And thus, the nifty new follow up report on charter school productivity – or on how it’s plainly obvious that policymakers get far more for the buck from charters than from those bloated, inefficient public bureaucracies – district schools.

After detailing the repeated flaws in the report cited as credible by the P&C, Baker concludes:

Yes – that’s right – either this is an egregious display of complete ignorance and methodological ineptitude, or this new report is a blatant and intentional misrepresentation of data. So which is it? I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I guess either is possible.

Oh… and separately, in this earlier report, Kevin Welner and I discuss appropriate methods for evaluating relative efficiency (the appropriate framework for such comparisons)…. And to no surprise the methods in this new UARK report regarding relative efficiency are also complete junk. Put simply, and perhaps I’ll get to more detail at a later point, a simple “dollars per NAEP score” comparison, or the silly ROI method used in their report are entirely insufficient (especially as some state aggregate endeavor???).

And it doesn’t take too much of a literature search to turn up the rather large body of literature on relative efficiency analysis in education – and the methodological difficulties in estimating relative efficiency. So, even setting aside the fact that the spending measures in this study are complete junk, the cost effectiveness and ROI approaches used are intellectually flaccid and methodologically ham-fisted.

But if the measures of inputs suck to begin with, then the methods applied to those measures really don’t matter so much.

To say this new UARK charter productivity study is built on a foundation of sand would be offensive… to sand.

And I like sand.

No, charter schools are not offering a bigger bang for school bucks. In fact, charter schools are often nearly identical to public schools in both strengths and weaknesses (including the return of resegregation in both).

What is getting a bigger bang for the bucks? The Walton family and a wide assortment of other billionaire/edu-reformers.

What is providing that bang? The mainstream media that have chosen press release journalism because googling* is simply too much to expect, I suppose.

* Or just follow Bruce Baker (@SchlFinance101), Shanker Institute (@shankerinst), and NEPC (@NEPCtweet) on Twitter.

NOTE: See how corrosive these reports are as they become part of how the public responds to critical examinations of education and education reform: comment at AlterNet.

Charter Schools: A Primer

Stakeholders in education include virtually everyone in a democracy—students, parents, teachers, politicians, business leaders, the media, and more.

Historically, public education in the U.S. has experienced two continual popular narratives: (1) public schools are failing, and (2) [insert reform here] is needed to overhaul schools for (a) international competitiveness and (b) a stronger workforce.

Recently, charter schools have seen a significant rise in advocacy and implementation as a complex mechanism for reform. Along with that rise has come a new wave of research on the effectiveness of those charter schools, particularly as they compare with traditional public schools (TPS).

Most stakeholders in education receive their information about charter schools from the media; thus, when the media covers the charter school debate and research, the influence of those media accounts can be disproportional to the quality.

For example, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken a strong position for charter schools in SC: “But there is one area where the state has taken bold steps to improve education: charter schools.” However, an analysis of charter schools in SC that compares state report card data between those charter schools and  TPS using the state metric of “Schools with Students Like Ours” revealed in 2012:

Charter schools in SC have produced outcomes below and occasionally typical of outcomes of public schools; thus, claims of exceptional outcomes for charter schools in SC are unsupported by the data (3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical).

Since the pattern of advocacy and implementation of charter schools includes a significant amount of support from political leaders, business leaders, the media, and advocates (such as charter-based organizations and think tanks), most stakeholders need a clear and accurate primer addressing what we currently know about charter school effectiveness, and that must be guided by this caution from Matthew Di Carlo:

There’s a constant barrage of data, reports and papers flying around, and sifting through it with a quality filter, as well as synthesizing large bodies of usually mixed evidence into policy conclusions, are massive challenges. Moreover, we all bring our pre-existing beliefs, as well as other differences, to the table. There are no easy solutions here.

But, one useful first step, at least in education, would be to stop pointing fingers and acknowledge two things. First, neither ‘side’ has anything resembling a monopoly on the misuse of evidence. And, second, such misuse has zero power if enough people can identify it as such.

One overarching point needs to be made about the charter school debate first. Charter advocacy and criticism both too often fail in their use of data, as Di Carlo warns, but both also make another mistake, ignoring the evidence base entirely.

What, then, is the current state of evidence on charter school effectiveness? [1] And, how do charter schools address, or not, clearly identified problems and goals of TPS—including what questions and concerns remain in the context of what the evidence suggests about charter school effectiveness?

• Research has repeatedly shown that measurable outcomes (test scores, graduation rates, college admissions rates, etc.) from charter schools produce about the same range of quality as TPS (and private schools) and that the type of school structure (charter v. TPS) appears not to be a determining factor in the outcomes with the demographics of the students and the community remaining powerful correlations with those outcomes.

• Claims of “miracle” schools fail to stand up under close scrutiny, but even if outliers exist in charter schools, outliers exist in TPS and private schools as well, and thus, outliers may prove to be ineffective models for scaling any success.

• Charter schools do not appear to address and often seem to mirror or increase key problems with TPS: (a) teacher assignment (high-needs students assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers), (b) class and racial segregation, (c) selectivity and attrition of students, (d) teacher turnover and retention [“churn”], (e) concerns about excluding the most difficult sub-categories of high-needs students [English language learners, special needs students, highest-poverty students, students from home that cannot or will not pursue choices].

• Charter school student outcomes are often complicated by issues of selectivity, attrition, and scalability.

• Some charter school ideologies—notably “no excuses” policies—trigger concerns about classism and racism that are rarely weighed against data.

• Charter schools (along with school choice and home schooling) introduce problems concerning athletic participation as well as a wide range of extracurricular participation in TPS.

• Charter schools also complicate already stressed and controversial TPS funding policies and agendas.

The charter school debate seems to warrant a similar caution that many other reforms now deserve, including VAM-style teacher evaluation. As Di Carlo explains:

As discussed in a previous post, there is a fairly well-developed body of evidence showing that charter and regular public schools vary widely in their impacts on achievement growth. This research finds that, on the whole, there is usually not much of a difference between them, and when there are differences, they tend to be very modest. In other words, there is nothing about “charterness” that leads to strong results.

With commitments to charter schools, many policy makers are moving too quickly and failing to examine the evidence so far along with weighing that evidence against clearly defined problems with TPS and specifically identified goals for the reforms.


[1] A number of studies inform the list above. Readers are invited to examine a wide array of research and reports listed below, but also urged to search for new evidence:

Charter Schools Not the Answer, Especially if We Fail to Identify the Question, P. L. Thomas

Comparing Teacher Turnover In Charter And Regular Public Schools, Matthew Di Carlo

Charter Schools posts at The Shanker Blog

Search “charter schools” at NEPC

Charter Schools posts at School Finance 101 (Bruce Baker)

Charter Schools research at NCSPE

Search “charter schools” at EPAA