White Elephant Students and Charters: A Proposal

I was re-reading a barely started essay (you don’t want to know how many I have) on reform’s bait and switch, in which I quoted Jersey Jazzman on reformers finally admitting they cream the easy to educate. This reminded me of white elephants.

Our faculty holiday party had a white elephant gift exchange . Everyone brought an item of questionable value, nicely wrapped, and turned it in for a ticket number. The person who got ticket #1 opened a present of his choice. Oh, look, it’s a mug gift with some hot cocoa mix! Oooh, ahh. Then the person with ticket #2 could either “steal” the mug gift with hot cocoa mix, or select a new present, open it, and oh, look, it’s coal in the stocking! (a joke gift, it’s candy.) Then person with ticket #3 could “steal” one of the previous gifts, and so on.

Each person could steal a previous gift or take a new present. But once a gift has been stolen, it’s off limits.

I very much enjoyed this game because my proffered white elephant, a 9 year old digital photo frame that sat in my trunk for six years before I finally needed the room and stuck it in a closet through three moves until I happened to be cleaning out the closet 3 days before the party, was stolen! Someone wanted it! I felt very high status, I can tell you. Plus, I stole a gift when my turn came. All this and lumpia, too. A great party.

And so the white elephant metaphor stood fresh in my mind, ready to hand when I reviewed that draft essay. I’ve been trying to write about this topic forever, specifically about the restraints public schools face with disruptive students. (Charters aren’t public schools. They just use public money. ) But like many issues I feel strongly about, the essay began life as a cranky rant. I do better with humorous rants, so I abandoned delayed the effort.

But thanks to the faculty party, I’m ready to take this on.

Charter advocates’ constraint: caps. They want more schools.

Public school constraint: laws. They are bound by laws that charters can ignore or game, and bound by law to hand their district kids and associated monies over to charters, who aren’t bound by those law when they kick some students back, with no feds chasing after them for racially imbalanced rejects.

So publics can’t reduce their unmotivated misbehaving population; charters want more room to grow because, after all, they provide a superior education.

And it came to me: let public schools create white elephant students, by making a “gift” of a disruptive, unmotivated student, something the public school has and doesn’t really want.

Give public schools the right to involuntarily transfer up to 1-3% of their students to charter schools in their geography, with the limit set by the number of available charters. “Involuntary” to both the students and the charters, neither of whom are given any say in the matter.

In exchange, charter caps are significantly increased.

Involuntary transfer, not an expulsion. Students have rights in an expulsion hearing. White elephant students have no say in an involuntary transfer. Parents couldn’t appeal. They can accept the assigned school or try to convince another public school or charter to take their student, now identified as difficult.

But remember the other condition of white elephants gifts: they can’t be handed about indefinitely. Parents “gifted” the public schools, public schools “gift” charters. Game ends. The receiving charter has no involuntary transfer rights for that student. The transfer occurs without regard to the charter population limits or backfilling preferences.

Moreover, the transferred students maintain their public school protections. The charters can’t refuse admission in subsequent years. Unless the students can be expelled, the charters are stuck until the transfers age out or graduate. This restriction means that some kids at charter schools would have more rights than others. Welcome to public education, folks. Public schools have been dealing with this tension for decades.

So public schools would continue to have no choice on incoming students within their districts, but would win a (limited) choice to send students away. Charters would continue to have considerable selection benefits on incoming and outgoing students, but would lose those benefits with a few students.

Logistical issues would need ironing out. Transportation comes immediately to mind, as do actual numbers on transfer limits, but I’m sure others would show up.

Ironically, given the name, the white elephant students would be almost entirely black and Hispanic. Literally and figuratively, that’s where the money is. White and Asian districts aren’t facing heavy competition for their students. Billionaire philanthropists don’t give a damn about poor white kids, which is one big reason why West Virginia’s charter ban doesn’t attract a lot of interest. We could speculate why (perhaps they aren’t really interested in educating kids, just killing teacher unions), but never mind that.

Parents of white elephant kids would lose any real sense of school choice. Sorry about that. But at least the kids will be at a charter, with far fewer peers to help them get in trouble.

On the other hand, the white elephant kids would have a real incentive to behave better in public school. They’d see charters as a real threat. “Behave or I’ll send you to a school that makes you SLANT!

Public schools would see this purely as win-win. They’d still lose money on the transferred students. This incentive, coupled with the involuntary transfer cap, will limit their desire to cavalierly toss out kids for minor offenses. But even if publics did act capriciously, what would the feds say? “I’m sorry, but you are dooming these children by sending them to a charter school, trapped with well-behaved children in smaller classes!”

Never mind whether or not it could be enacted as policy; consider the white elephant proposal purely as a thought experiment, because everyone knows this is true: Charter operators, the highly regarded “lottery” schools, would reject this proposal out of hand.

Why? Because KIPP failed miserably the one time it tried to turn around an existing school. Because to get the results that reformers brag about, charter schools have to control their student population: selection bias at the start, sculpting as needed, uniform learning schedule.

But this proposal on the surface makes perfect sense, based solely on the reform and choice rhetoric over the past decades. Charters have absolutely no grounds for bitching. They want the caps lifted, they want to end charter bans. They’ve been bragging about their superior schools for twenty years. They swear they aren’t creaming, aren’t selecting, aren’t cherrypicking. Great. This policy gives charters everything they want, in exchange for educating students they claim they could educate in the first place. What do they have to lose?

As Jersey Jazzman and countless others have pointed out, this makes a lie out of their boasts. They aren’t getting better results than public schools; they just have better kids and fewer laws to follow.

Now, just for fun, pretend that charter operators took the deal: the occasional mandated student in exchange for additional growth.

Motivated students are desirable, but without the guarantee of high scores, they aren’t in and of themselves a competitive strategy. White elephant students, in contrast, are ideal for horsetrading.

Public schools can designate white elephants only to the extent that charters exist to receive them, and based on the number of public schools affected. So, imagine a district with three elementary schools: one high poverty, two low poverty. When a new elementary charter opens, the state declares that three white elephants per grade per school are allocated for dumping transferring to the charter. The charter primarily skims from the high poverty school. But the other two elementary schools don’t want charters popping up, and see an advantage in a hostile environment, so they “gift” their allocations to the high poverty school, which can now move nine white elephants per grade.

The “lottery” charters will naturally want to opt out of this involuntary transfer program. Sure! For a small fee, of course. How about shaving off 50% of per-student fees charters get for their willing transfers? In that case, the charter would be doing less damage to the public schools by creaming. Moreover, any charter that publicly opted out of the involuntary transfer program has revealed its Achilles heel. Choice advocates couldn’t maunder on endlessly about the superior education charters offered if all the best ones paid to cherrypick.

To recap:

  1. Public schools restricted from selecting their students can use an involuntary transfer mechanism to move troublesome students creating disruptive learning environments to charters.
  2. The maximum number of students subject to involuntary transfer depends on school and charter populations.
  3. Public schools can trade or gift their transfer vouchers to other district schools.
  4. Charter growth caps are significantly increased.
  5. Charters required to give full weight of education law to white elephant students.
  6. Charters can opt out of involuntary transfer program by accepting substantially reduced per-student fee for voluntary charter attendees.

How would this play out, given some time?

Long term, the white elephant program could ironically limit charter growth. The fewer the charters, the fewer involuntary transfers possible. One charter could probably handle 3-4 white elephants per grade without sacrificing too much control and wouldn’t take too many motivated students to damage the public schools in the area. Additional charters, each taking 5-6 troublemakers? Suddenly the charters are struggling with difficult students while the public schools have considerably improved environments, potentially enabling them to lure many prospective charter students back. The fewer charters, the less likely the public schools can dump all their white elephants.

But then, many charters aren’t choosy and don’t have lotteries. They need butts in seats, and could use the white elephant students as a growth strategy. Hire teachers who specialize in handling tough kids, advertise for desperate parents, take the public school white elephants and expulsions. Win win for everyone. Collaboration, not competition. In fact, districts would probably set up their own white elephant charter school, in absence of an outside enterprise for their own schools to use as an outlet. Alternative high schools, you ask?Best avoided.

In an environment where white elephant charters work synergistically (oooh! Big word) with district public schools, any other charters would have to compete with public schools on merits, without the added appeal of “no knuckleheads”. That, too, is going to limit growth.

And of course, it’s entirely possible that typical charters–no excuses, discipline oriented, progressive, whatever–accept white elephants and the disruptive kids thrive. In many cases, disruptive, unmotivated kids with no other options improve in a stricter environment, or perhaps one with a higher percentage of motivated students.

However, this outcome is only likely in a district not drowning with white elephants—that is, a suburban district. Suburban charters operate under entirely different premises, geared towards a progressive curriculum and a “diverse” student population. Suburban districts consider charters an annoyance and an aggravation, not a threat. So if they can dump some white elephants on the earnest do-gooders, it’s all good.

I could go on, but the New Year approaches and this piece is long enough. One final point, for any new reader who comes across this piece: I am kind of the go-to math teacher for low ability and/or poorly motivated kids. This isn’t personal; I don’t have a gift list of white elephants.

But I’ve said before now that I stick with the suburban poor, because when Ta Nahesi Coates casually describes the disruption he routinely inflicted on his high school classes, threatening substitutes, disrespecting teachers while getting violent at any hint of disrespect (and remember, none of his friends or family considered him a “thug”), I get slightly ill at the utter chaos that must have reigned in his school. So I work in Title I suburbs, where my daily tales shock my friends with the disrespect and disruption my students dole out daily, while I know full well it ain’t all that.

Meanwhile, all the signals are pointing in the opposite direction, what with federal discipline “guidelines” and that god awful spare me restorative justice nonsense.

So let’s try gifting. After all, it’s the thought that counts.

About educationrealist

31 responses to “White Elephant Students and Charters: A Proposal

  • anonymousse

    It struck me as I read your proposal, how the real issue is being ignored.

    Here is how the world worked (at least in theory) when I was growing up.
    1) Public schools provided education. The required a certain level of discipline from the students. If students misbehaved too much, they were sent to ‘reform school’ (or whatever it was called-the juvenile delinquents’ school).

    Here’s how the world works today (at least in theory).
    1) Public schools provide education. They don’t require a certain level of discipline from the students (or, at least, not as high a level as in the past). Students that behave well, though, or removed and put in ‘charter schools.’ If students misbehave in ‘charter schools,’ they are sent to the public schools.

    In other words, the same system is in place: reasonable kids go to a somewhat restrictive school, and unreasonable kids are placed in a school which accepts their behavior, and accepts, essentially, that their behavior will be ruining their, and other students’, education.

    The only difference is in the past, the mass of students enjoyed (in theory) the good education, and the misbehaved were warehoused, excluded from the mass, and effectively ruined their own education. Today, the lucky/bright/motivated enjoy the good education, and the mass are warehoused with the misbehaved, effectively ruining their education.
    But the same two-tiered system is in place-its just what once belonged to the mass, now belongs to the wealthy/lucky/hardworking. The masses now suffer in the way that the misbehaving minority once did.

    Your proposal is silly. Its not good for anybody. Its not good for the lucky in charter schools-their education will suffer because of the misbehaving. Its not good for the misbehaving-they are ruining their own lives as well as the lives of others already-in which building they choose to do so is irrelevant. And your proposal doesn’t help the public school kids either. Unless your proposal transfers ALL the misbehaving kids (and creates a good learning environment in the public school), all it does is leave dysfunction in the public schools, and spread dysfunction to the charter schools.

    Hypothetically: you have a public school with 100 students, 10 of which are misbehaving. 30 kids transfer out, to a charter school, and enjoy education (because the public school sucks-because of those 10 miscreants).
    Your proposal simply transfers some of those miscreants to the charter school with 30, and creates two public school equivalents. If that is going to happen, why have the charter schools at all? A dysfunctional school of 100 is replaced with a dysfunctional school of 70, and a dysfunctional school of 30. How is this better, or even different?


    • educationrealist

      Well, it would reveal that the public schools are only dysfunctional because of the kids. That’s not what reformers like to pretend.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Of course, that’s not what un-reformers like to pretend either. Just about everyone concerned with education wants to believe (and I think most do believe) that good schools lead to good students and bad schools lead to bad students. At least publicly, very few are willing to entertain the idea that good students lead to good schools and bad students lead to bad schools.

        Reality is a combination of the two. Since we can’t accept that, we spin our wheels and continue to attempt the impossible. No Child Left Behind. Every Students Succeeds.

  • Jardinero1

    I enjoy your blog.

    I think that public schools, at least in Texas where I live, do a good job of teaching the three R’s. When they fail at this, it is more typically the fault of the student and student’s family than the schools themselves. I believe that most failing students choose to be failing students.

    Traditional public schools are coercive. They exist because the state requires your children to enroll and attend. By extension, they coerce students, who would prefer to fail, to attend. The solution is not to foist failing students on Charter Schools, nor to foist them on traditional Public Schools. The solution is to eliminate compulsory schooling. Let students attend traditional public schools or let them attend charter schools but don’t tell them they must attend. OTOH, schools whether traditional public or charter should be free to choose their students, subject to non-discrimination by race, creed, color or national origin.

    • educationrealist

      Beware of what you ask for in eliminating public schooling. You might think the kids don’t learn anything. But you’re wrong. And cops, prison, and crime are much more expensive than teachers and schools. I don’t mean that in the romantic, “we’ll save them” sense, but literally as in a lot of potential criminals are kept off the street for four more years.

      And again, anyone who thinks that charters should be allowed to keep the “good” kids is kidding themselves. The “bad” kids are fewer. Let charters have them. Cheaper to educate big schools of “good” kids.

      • Jardinero1

        Not advocating for the elimination of public schooling. I am advocating for the elimination of compulsory schooling.

      • educationrealist

        I know. It’s much the same thing for, probably, 30-40% of the population. If they weren’t forced, they wouldn’t come.

      • Jardinero1

        I taught middle school math for a while and I come from a family of school teachers and they all say the same thing. While that is a common refrain from many teachers, I have never, ever met a parent, from any walk of life, who said that they wouldn’t make sure their children were enrolled even if they had a choice not to, homeschoolers excepted.

      • educationrealist

        Yes, because your anecdote base is going to be much larger than a teacher’s, right?

      • Jardinero1

        I can’t attest to size or numbers. My anecdote base is qualitatively different. Our respective outlooks will be tempered by the difference. Teachers spend their day talking to scores of students. I spend my day talking to scores of their parents.

      • Roger Sweeny

        To add to the anecdotes: I taught in a middling, middle-class suburban high school outside of Boston (in Massachusetts, the state that often comes in first in student achievement comparisons). Every year I had some ninth grade parents (or single mothers) who would come in and say of their “struggling” son (usually) or daughter, “I can’t get him to do anything I say.” “She doesn’t listen to me.” “I just can’t get through to him.” “I keep telling him how important education is but …”

        At least some of those young people would not be in school unless they were legally forced to be.

      • anonymousskimmer

        “At least some of those young people would not be in school unless they were legally forced to be.”

        Yes, but would they learn in a non-scholastic environment?

        We’ve evolved (societally, if not always genetically) through thousands of generations of apprentice-like learning roles. Various elites (including the bulk of certain tribes) have experienced 30 to 90+ generations of “academic” (broadly speaking) learning processes, but the vast majority have had maybe a half dozen generations of filtering through the academic process (at best).

        Yet apprenticeships have been elevated and replaced at lower-levels with these ‘academics’ and ‘scholasticism’, forcing people through an unnatural process before they can finally participate in the natural process.


      • educationrealist

        1) be sure to get all those apprenticeships set up first, ok? 2) the way things work these days, kids smart enough for apprenticeships are smart enough for college. We aren’t talking about those kids.

      • anonymousskimmer

        Yep, when you start the apprenticeships at 18 instead of 14, as has historically been the case.

        The thing was is that they (or other child labor practices) were set up first, until the system was abolished with compulsory, same-room education.

        I guess the issue now is what to do years after the fence was torn down and replaced with a gully (to stretch the aphorism). Too late to put the fence back up, but the gully is still inadequate.

      • educationrealist

        No, there were tons of people without the intellect for apprenticeships back then.

      • anonymousskimmer

        And the bulk of those apprenticed as farmers, and some as soldiers.

        I used the term “apprentice” in the context of thousands of generations which implies more than the formal trades-based apprenticeships of the the last 4-5000 years.

      • educationrealist

        Well, you can’t. Because such jobs don’t exist today.

      • anonymousskimmer

        I recall that student of yours who was so happy to get the job at Subway.

      • educationrealist

        Yeah. How is that an apprenticeship job? That’s the kind of job taken over by immigrants and network hiring. Which is how he got the job.

      • anonymousskimmer

        Of course it’s not an apprenticeship job, as we’ve both agreed that those sorts of apprenticeships no longer exist.

        That in no way says that it couldn’t have been an apprenticeship job (and was in the past) if such things still existed (and they do to a limited extent in companies where restaurant management is taught to, and promoted from, the ranks.).

      • educationrealist

        No. There are apprenticeship jobs today. But by and large, they are available to people smart enough to go to today’s college. And no, Subway or MacDonalds were ever apprentice jobs.

      • anonymousskimmer

        Again, I’m defining “apprenticeship” as the way of teaching skills to the young that has been practiced for thousands of generations in all societies. As I wrote in the original post.

      • educationrealist

        So “getting a job” is an apprenticeship? That certainly hasn’t been true forever. An apprenticeship is a tacit investment, much more than just paying a salary.

      • anonymousskimmer

        No. Learning by doing real world tasks in a real-world timeline is an apprenticeship-style of learning. As opposed to the more abstracted and artificially chunked methods of learning that happen in the greater portion of modern school-based learning.

        I genuinely am sorry I didn’t make that explicit earlier (verbal expression is not my forte, though I should have been better at making predicates explicit).

        There are indeed other investments, from both the Master and the Apprentice, in historical and prehistorical apprenticeships and apprenticeship-like arrangements, but for my argument here the teaching and learnings modes are paramount.

        Thinking more on this I guess the best equivalents we have today (outside of getting an entry-level job) are “take your child to work” days and high school internships.

      • educationrealist

        I know what you are talking about. I’ve said this some fifty fricking times. I’m saying that the kids at issue are not ones that are deemed worthy of any investment. Nothing you’ve said changes that.

      • anonymousskimmer

        And I say that is because of formative experiences.

        And the second greatest formative impact on children is their formal schooling.

        I was not initially replying to you.

  • Roger Sweeny

    I’m not sure “apprentice” is the right word here. Certainly, in the past there was much more learning by doing, working with someone who already “knew how” and then doing it yourself. But most of that was not what we would call “apprenticeship” today.

    In a hunter-gatherer society, it was being taught by the tribe’s adults how to hunt or gather. In agricultural societies, it was helping on the family farm and learning what the grown-ups did. The reason those particular fences were torn down is that nobody in America wants to be a hunter-gatherer or a peasant farmer–and couldn’t do it here if they wanted to anyway.

    Once the Industrial Revolution happened, there was again a fair amount of “learning by doing” but it was mostly “learning on the job”–informally or in some sort of training program run by the employer. Outside of certain skilled trades, there weren’t many full-blown apprenticeship programs.

    Now, if you mean that having a job while young can teach you important general job skills like getting up even when you don’t want to, making yourself presentable, showing up on time, etc., I completely agree. One of the happinesses of my existence is to see kids who screwed around in my class and didn’t take things seriously at 14, now at 16 or 17 trying (and succeeding) at doing a good job at McDonalds or some place similar. They are probably getting more from minimum wage work than they got from 9th grade physical science.

  • roger mortimer

    This blog is fantastic.

    I have long been a Voldemortean, born from anecdotal experience at a top of the line law school thirty years ago. Entry into the school required LSAT scores at 97% or higher, and I saw first hand what admitting people with 70% percentile meant in that environment. Those admitted with such preferences could not catch up – the LSAT – a surrogate for IQ if there ever is one – meant something. Cognitive ability matters. The bottom ten percent was virtually all from one group, and I was not certain they learned anything more than one would in an undergraduate political science course of study. I can’t tell how horrified I was seeing what this elitist snobby institution was doing to these kids – and the kids were going into deep debt to do it? It is far worse today.

    I am not sure of your proposal. Is it more difficult to ever persuade the education charter complex that their success is due to, as you suggest, creaming? It strikes me that one salutary element of your proposal is that indeed we would verify that charters succeed only when they engage in student selection, but I wonder how much damage your proposal would cause, making an already dismal state of affairs worse. Just food for thought.

    I am not sure what to do with the low cognitive population. I assume some form of tracking is what is needed, with an emphasis on building life skills and basic literacy and computation skills. This is not to say that quality instruction does not matter with the low cognitive kids – I am sure it does – but killing and drilling for NCLB tests seems senseless. Preparing everyone for college is even more senseless. I assume that this is what you mean when you state that there would be a benefit to everyone in the education/industrial complex to grasp things Voldemortean – we would ask different questions and come up with different solutions.

    Thanks for your work.

  • 2016: Five Years On….and then Trump | educationrealist

    […] White Elephant Students and Charters: A Proposal (written on last day of 2015) […]

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