Why Charters Skim, and Why They Should Stop

Matthew DiCarlo of Shanker Blog deconstructs the larger meaning of the excellent Reuters article on selection practices of charter schools.

So, in the “traditional” model, public schools are supposed to be “general practitioners” – they must accept all students and serve them well. The charter/choice model, on the other hand, takes a somewhat different view – schools must accept those who apply, but different models will work well for different students. If we make schools compete for those students by giving their parents a choice, this will encourage schools to develop varying models, and to attract and retain those students for whom their approach is well-suited.
….For example, the flagship model of the charter movement is the high-cost, high-intensity approach of so-called “no excuses” schools, which rely on practices such as tutoring, extremely long school days and rigid discipline policies. But not all students, regardless of their backgrounds, thrive under these conditions, and so some of them leave (or don’t apply in the first place). Despite all the controversy about this selection and attrition, it is a crucial element of a choice-based system – students who don’t fit in well with a given approach will go elsewhere.
….In other words, one might speculate that the sheer extent to which raw absolute testing outcomes are judge and jury serves as an impediment to the “something for everyone” end goal of school choice. So long as these measures are the coin of the realm, operators will tend to compete and innovate for higher test scores, and there may be less incentive to cater to constituencies or develop/expand models that are not necessarily compatible with this priority. (emphasis mine)

These regular public schools take everyone they get, but there is a de facto screening process of sorts, by which entry into the schools requires income sufficient to live in the area. Put simply, if you can’t afford to live in a “good” school district, your children can’t attend its schools. That is one big reason why regular public schools are heavily segregated by race, ethnicity and income.

In brief: of course charters are selective. As specialists, that’s their job. And in each district, comprehensive schools act as the “general practitioners” who take all comers. But hey, before you get all righteous about it, public comprehensive schools in desirable districts are exercising choice, and this, too, is a bad thing we should fix.

I like DiCarlo’s work, but this line of thinking is disingenuous crap.

First, catch that guilt trip! All you folks opposed to charter schools, remember that public schools are viciously, ruthlessly, sorting by income. Sure, charters are sorting by ability, but only those kids shut out in the cold after geography does the job.

Then there’s diCarlo’s acknowledgement that while, in theory, each charter could specialize in teaching a different category of kids, in practice, they all want to raise test scores.

But hey, sorting’s reasonable—not the probably illegal methods outlined in Reuters, but the behavioral requirements sorting and academic expectations sorting and all the other tacit methods of getting rid of the unmotivated. Don’t get fussed about charter sorting unless you’re going to go nuclear over those dastardly rich folks keeping their schools free of pesky black or Hispanic poor people.

So let’s see. Public schools belong to districts. Any child in that district can attend the school. The public schools are ferociously bound by state, federal, and constitutional law. But because Americans self-segregate by income, these schools are morally equivalent to charter schools that take public funds, limit/select their population—and then brag about their success in raising test scores while pretending they aren’t selecting.

Di Carlo ignores the fact that charter school “success”, achieved by this selection, is used to condemn those “general practitioner” schools required to take the leftovers that none of the charters want. Charter school “success” at educating blacks and Hispanics is further used to pummel all schools, rich or poor, who have an achievement gap. Since charter schools can improve on the achievement gap, slightly (none of them have even come close to closing the gap), their “success” is portrayed as an indictment of all teachers, those lazy, fat, union-dependent slobs who just want to phone it in and teach “easy” kids and pretend that the other kids just can’t be taught. Moreover, the “general practitioner” schools forced to take all comers are portrayed as “failing schools” and face risk of closure for not doing as well as the “specialist” schools—except, remember, we’re pretending they aren’t specialists. But that’s okay, because we can start more charters to take on the kids that no one wants, but of course, those schools will “fail” as well—and, since they aren’t bound by the same rules as the true publics, they’ll be able to get away with all sorts of shenanigans.

It’s all based on a huge lie, but apparently di Carlo is okay with this because if we really wanted to change things, we’d force those rich and middle class districts to take their share of the kids no one wants—that is, “economic desegregation”.

But parents are smarter than edupundits, and far more willing to acknowledge the obvious: school quality is primarily about the peers. Low income parents who compete for charter access do so not to get their kids better teachers, but to get them better classmates. Parents who buy or rent in districts with good schools are paying to keep their kids away from low income black and Hispanic kids—few suburban parents hold their kids’ teachers in particularly high regard (good lord, if they were any good, they’d have been something other than teachers). We tried economic desegregation with busing; it failed. Moreover, the achievement gap holds intact in good school districts; poor white kids still outperform wealthy black kids and tie with wealthy Hispanic kids pretty much everywhere. Not only would economic desegregation be woefully unpopular and drive parents out of public schools, it would fail to close the achievement gap. Bad idea in every way. But until then, apparently, di Carlo is cool with charter selection, dumping the kids no one wants back in the truly public schools.

Does no one find it troubling that charters are using any sort of selection on public funds? Apparently not. This is what bothers me the most. I am repulsed by schools like Bullis Charter suing their local district for public funds to run a quasi-private school, and the only difference betweeen Bullis and KIPP is that all the kids at Bullis are rich.

So what is the answer? I think it starts by accepting that parents want peer effects, and that geographic limits on school districts are natural and normal. Within those limits, public schools (unlike charters) are required to accept all comers.

The answer continues by accepting that some kids have absolutely no desire to be in school, and these kids are disproportionately found in the lowest income communities and schools. While these kids deserve an education, any experienced veteran of low income public schools, whether administrator, teacher, or simple volunteer, can testify that these kids have a profoundly destructive impact on the classroom, on the teacher’s ability to teach and the students’ ability to learn.

So how do we fulfill our commitment to educate all children while still preventing these kids from doing any harm? First, allow public schools to permanently expel incorrigible students. Here, finally, is a legitimate role for charters: let them take the truly difficult kids, the incorrigibles, the willful destroyers. Let them enforce their behavior requirements or their educational agenda or whatever on kids who have no choice but to comply, because they can’t go back to public school.

This agenda, of course, will make it extremely difficult to recruit teachers. Charters will no longer be able to beguile high-achieving do-gooders with romantic tales of helping kids who “just need a chance”, who can pretend, for a few years at least, that they are educating the kids who public teachers just didn’t care about. Instead, they’ll need to pay big bucks to teachers willing to be enforcers to a dangerous population. No takers? Off the kids go to the alternative schools, where they can fill out worksheets.

As for those well-meaning philanthropists who want to give a boutique education to a few select low-income kids, let them start a private school.

What would such a policy entail? Well, the impossible. We would have to accept that permanently expelled students would be disproportionately black, Hispanic, male, and low-income—but that the students who benefit from this policy would also be disproportionately black, Hispanic, male, and low-income. Then we’d have to accept that this policy would not magically improve academic performance of low-income students, and that charter schools educating the toughest kids would have an even more dismal record of academic achievement. And none of that’s happening, which is why the Education Realist’s opinion is not heavily sought in educational circles, be they eduformer or progressive.

But consider what this would achieve. Poor kids would be given a secure and welcoming school environment without the requirement of a parent willing to enter a lottery. The kids who routinely destroy that safety and security would still be educated, but in a tougher and more restrictive environment, losing some rights due to their behavior. Knowledge of this dire fate might—just might—make more kids appreciative of the environment they have, and less likely to act out.

Giving all kids a safe, controlled environment in which they can learn and feel that the larger society cares about them, whether or not their parents do, is no small thing. Couple that with an incentive to behave, because otherwise a much tougher school awaits, and maybe a number of borderline kids will stay and “invest”, as TFA rather tediously puts it.

So what it comes down to, really, is who determines what kids should be expelled for the good of the majority. Right now, charter schools are making this determination and sending these kids back to the genuinely public schools, who have to take everyone. It’s time to look at giving public schools that determination, and leave charter schools to experiment with the genuinely hard to educate, as opposed to skimming the kids who want to learn. It will scale better, if nothing else.

About educationrealist

18 responses to “Why Charters Skim, and Why They Should Stop

  • JSB

    So you think charter schools are somehow advantaged over public schools, which still have to take “everyone.”

    Explain to me how this works when comparing: 1) A KIPP school in a 100% minority 90% poverty neighborhood, vs. 2) a public school in a zone with an average house price of $500,000. So maybe (at worst) the KIPP school gets a slightly “better” pick of the poor black/Hispanic kids. Are you really saying that in terms of having a more selective student body, that KIPP school is better off compared to the rich public school? Explain how that works, specifically.

    It would take a miracle for that public school to see anyone walk through its doors who is even half as disadvantaged as the most advantaged KIPP student in the country. No offense, but whatever “selection” is occurring at KIPP can’t even remotely compare to the selection created by having public school districts/zones.

    • educationrealist

      So you think charter schools are somehow advantaged over public schools, which still have to take “everyone.”

      Public schools do have to take “everyone”. And there are all sorts of districts that have both $500K houses and low income ghettos in them. It’s very normal in California, for example. Those schools can’t close their doors to poor kids. They can’t easily expel them, either. Nor can they track without risking lawsuits.

      I know many wealthy districts that have apartment housing on the edge of town, and low income families that live four-five to an apartment just to get their kids into those schools. Happens all the time. The genuinely rich districts in which there are no low income kids at all (a small group of districts) are extremely rare. Most suburban districts have a few low income kids in them, and they are required to take them. In many cases, over time, the low income district has grown and affected the schools, to the parents’ unhappiness. The schools still took the kids. In some districts, the white parents start charters so that their kids can avoid the low income kids in the comprehensive schools–and I oppose those charters, too.

      All that said, though, those aren’t the schools KIPP is comparing itself to, and you know that. The comparison comes when KIPP is being compared to the similar school in the district.

      No offense, but whatever “selection” is occurring at KIPP can’t even remotely compare to the selection created by having public school districts/zones.

      This is flatly untrue. Public schools in public school districts, including the ones in which KIPP operates, have to take all comers. Charter schools in those same public school districts do not.

  • JSB

    Sure, they do. All charter laws require charters to take anyone who signs up, and even to conduct random lotteries if too many sign up. The only possible exception would be severely disabled kids that a charter school isn’t geared up to serve.

    • educationrealist

      That’s a non-trivial “possible exception”, but of course, your entire response is absurd, considering in your previous comment you granted that KIPP is selective. The Reuter’s article pretty conclusively established that charters are going through all sorts of gyrations to be sure they only get highly motivated parents. And of course, it’s clear that charters can impose different requirements (including donations, in some states) and different expulsion criteria.

      You seem to be bobbing and weaving away from your own arguments. First it’s “Sure they’re selective, but public schools are worse! neener neener!” and now it’s “No, they aren’t selective. They take everyone!”

      Look, they are selective. And they shouldn’t be allowed to do anything different from public schools, from requiring money to requiring applications to requiring behavior codes that can lead to expulsions.

      • JSB

        KIPP gets huge effects, not minimal.

        I’m not sure what has brought on such jealousy/spite against charters. If charters have an advantage by being able to expel more often, why isn’t the answer to make all public schools “charters” (i.e., by giving them more freedom) rather than to try to piss on charters?

      • educationrealist

        It’s neither jealousy nor spite, and I’ve written many posts on the subject.

        “If charters have an advantage by being able to expel more often, why isn’t the answer to make all public schools “charters” (i.e., by giving them more freedom) rather than to try to piss on charters?”

        If you really can’t anticipate the problems with unlimited expulsion, then I’m not sure there’s much reason to continue the conversation. That’s an unserious suggestion by someone who is pushing charters.

        Oh, and please. KIPP’s effects are minimal. Their kids are still doing poorly in high school, or we’d know all about their SAT scores and GPAs.

    • JSB

      No, here’s my consistent position:

      1. Charter schools (in general) are not allowed to be “selective” in any truly meaningful sense–they have to take all applicants.

      2. To some extent, the burden of attending a few charter schools might effectively keep away certain students who are less likely to apply or fit within the behavior guidelines.

      3. Still, whatever “selectivity” is created by (2) (only for some charter schools, not most) cannot even remotely compare to the selectivity created by public school geographic districts/zones.

      Also, what have you got against behavior codes? I’d rather say that all public schools should have them, rather than that charter schools should be disallowed from using them. Unless you like bad behavior in schools, this seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

      • educationrealist

        #2 is exactly why charter schools should stop congratulating themselves on the minimal (and they are minimal) improvements they get over local schools with the same kids. They can require kids to adhere to behavior, and so the kids who won’t adhere don’t go. The very fact that they can do that invalidates their boasts and means they shouldn’t be getting public funds in the current environment.

        As for the problem with behavior codes–You haven’t noticed the spate of investigations into expulsion and suspension rates? The minute public schools try to enforce a behavior code, they will be held accountable for the fact that they are expelling or suspending too many black or Hispanic kids, and that will put an end to any code. Charters have no such problems, particularly majority minority charters, because everyone approves of them booting kids.

        So, as I said, I support switching the impetus. Let the comprehensives, who accept everyone at first, determine who can be legally deemed incorrigible and no longer eligible for comprehensive public school, with all the legal requirements that entails. Charters can only take the kids publics don’t want. I don’t want charters having more control over a kid’s legal rights, especially since it’s clear they don’t care about them.

        And please, spare me the economic injustice bleats. Districts have been around forever, and suddenly they’re unfair because you want anyone to go anywhere? Yeah, right. All you really want to do is kill public schools entirely.

  • Florida resident

    Steve Sailer on “real estate” aspect of charter schools:


    From there:
    ” … And, for me, that raises a fundamental distinction between types of charters schools. Entrepreneurial educators who leave an established campus to hustle together a new charter school against the odds seem admirable. In contrast, educational power players who win control for themselves over giant real estate holdings under the guise of charter school reform might be equally admirable, but they should be viewed more skeptically than the adventurers setting out on their own. I’m not saying that all charter schools that take over elaborate facilities are a scam, just that if you gave me control of a place that might rent for a million dollars per month, there are, let’s just say, opportunities. ”

    Respectfully yours, F.r.

  • philip gahtan

    arne duncan will enforce disparate impact regulations to protect unruly minority students.your sensible proposal will go nowhere. location location location- where a child goes to school determines whom the childs friends will be.
    parents will always be choosy.

  • Der Alte

    Public schools which can only be geographically selective and charters which can be selective in non-geographic ways?

    Or let public schools be behaviorally selective, with charters being the last stop for the hoodlums?

    Let’s not lose track of the fundamental problem, described well by John Derbyshire:


    QUOTE: “Ice People (white and East Asian) parents will simply not send their children to schools with student bodies that are majority Sun People (black and Hispanic),” he writes bluntly. Why? “Because Sun People kids are, in the broad generality, unacademic and unruly.”

    It is a categorical imperative for responsible American parents (including responsible Sun People parents) to insulate their children from the disruptions of the more unacademic and unruly Sun People children.

    During my lifetime, America has acquired a gargantuan and mushrooming population of Hispanic Sun People whom we desperately try to avoid when we choose where to live and where to school our children. What could be more insane? Didn’t we have enough trouble dealing with the Sun People we had before?

  • Edu_hitter

    “But hey, before you get all righteous about it, public comprehensive schools in desirable districts are exercising choice, and this, too, is a bad thing we should fix.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this, but it sounds like you take issue with parents slaving to earn enough to move their families and children into higher income towns specifically for the better school systems. My choice to move my children into a district with a more desirable district is based solely on economics.

    This, of course, brings us to a chicken and egg conundrum. Are the schools better because of the money spent on the schools or because the parents place a higher value on their children’s education? I say that the PARENTS are the drivers of their children’s education and the opportunity exists in this country for anyone to work towards bettering their educational standards, either by moving into better districts or becoming active in their existing school districts and not taking the party line excuses made by teachers and administrators for one more second.

    • educationrealist

      Perhaps you missed the line immediately afterwards: “I like DiCarlo’s work, but this line of thinking is disingenuous crap.”

      What would make you think I agree with it? JSB agrees with it, not me.

  • suburban dad

    What would you think about replacing the charter school movement with a gifted and talented school movement, in which admissions are based on tests but instruction, evaluation and retention is based upon traditional, holistic knowledge and cognition objectives, and pre-SAT and AP standardized testing is largely ignored? The high poverty cities which maintain a large gifted and talented system – most obviously New York City – do it more or less explicitly to maintain middle class / non-URM enrollment and political support, but there’s no inherent reason they couldn’t be tried elsewhere or with a mission to create options for low-income, high-motivated URM populations.

    • educationrealist

      There are relatively few gifted, low income kids. Plus, the entire premise of the charter movement is not “let’s save the kids whose parents care” but “let’s rescue kids from horrible teachers who can’t do a good job and are responsible for the achievement gap”. The minute they start acknowledging that they are a select group, their entire reason for being gets shaky, I think.

  • In the Interim, Your Thoughts? | educationrealist

    […] my response, but anyone just showing up, you may want to check out The Parental Diversity Dilemma, Why Charters Skim, and Why They Should Stop, Charter Hypocrisy, Diversity Dilemma in Action. If anyone has any links or interesting article […]

  • Education Reform with Beer and Bourbon | educationrealist

    […] acceptance of cherrypicking charters. Because charter school attendance isn’t a right linked directly to geography, as it is for public schools, charters can be selective. There are academically selective […]

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