But as I mentioned in the previous piece, charters live! Choice is good! Even the Trumpster, who clearly doesn’t much care, offers up choice like puppy chow and–wisely–using it in his appeals to black voters, as a contrast to Hillary’s doubling down on teacher unions.
Why, in the face of so much rejection, do charters still have such great numbers?1
I offer this up as opinion/assertion, without a lot of evidence to back me: most parents know intuitively that bad teachers aren’t a huge problem. What they care about, from top to bottom of the income scale, is environment. Suburban white parents don’t want poor black and Hispanic kids around. Poor black and Hispanic parents don’t want bad kids around. (Yes, this means suburban parents see poor kids as mostly bad kids.) Asian parents don’t want white kids around to corrupt their little tigers, much less black or Hispanic. (White parents don’t really want too many Asians around, either, but that’s the opposite of the “bad kids” problem.)
Parents don’t care much about teacher quality. They care a lot about peer group quality.
They are right to worry. Before I became a teacher, I’d read other teachers talk about how just a few kids can really disrupt a classroom, moving management from a no-brainer to the primary focus of the day. Now I am one of those teachers. I’ve worked in several schools in which the overwhelming presence of low income students who didn’t care about their grades has utterly removed the “stigma of an F” from the entire population, causing panic in the upper middle income white parents who can’t quite afford private school yet live in a district that worries about lawsuits if they track by ability. Their kids, particularly the boy kids, start to adopt this opinion, and white failure rates start rising.
So charters become a way for parents to sculpt their school environments. White parents stuck in majority/minority districts start progressive charters that brag about their minority population but are really a way to keep the brown kids limited to the well-behaved ones. Low income black and Hispanic parents want safe schools. Many of them apply for charter school lotteries because they know charters can kick out the “bad kids” without fear of lawsuits. But they still blame the “bad kids”, not the teachers, which is why they might send their kids to charter schools while still ejecting Adrian Fenty for Michelle Rhee’s sins.
As I’ve mentioned before, education reformers are now pushing suburban charters with strong academic focus, which are nothing more than tracking for parents who can’t get their public schools to do it for them.
I really can’t stress this point enough: charters have succeeded because of their ability to control students, not teachers. 1
Most people disagree with me on the purpose of public education. The entire discourse of education reform begins with the conceit that public education is offered to parents instead of taxpayers. I think we need to do more to support parenting, particularly in two couple, employed families, but public education is what we do to try, at least, to ensure that the subsequent generation is functional, while minimizing the impact on taxpayers.
Ultimately, charters will be bad for taxpayers. Yes, yes. I know that right now, they’re cheaper than public schools, because they use a lot of philanthropist dollars and teach cheaper students. They also save money by using and discarding new teachers, so salaries stay low. Many charters use the same pay scale as the local district, despite all their talk of merit pay.
But bet on charter teachers unionizing, despite best efforts to stop the efforts. Along with LA, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and other cities, more charter schools are organizing. It’s going to be very difficult to stop charters from unionizing. What do charters offer? Maybe more pay if the principal likes you. But definitely longer hours. Moreover, if a charter school is short on teachers, it can just take away preps, add more classes to schedules without being the need for more pay. It’s no surprise that the charter union movement starts in urban environments. But it will spread, almost certainly.
And over time, charters will almost certainly be forced to provide more access, take more students who require mainstreaming, face legal action over expulsions. All the perks they now have will slowly siphon away, particularly in those areas that achieve their dream of total charter domination. Just ask the charter advocates in New Orleans, the first all-charter city. At first, charters were able to reject special ed students, or counsel them out. But a major lawsuit has set up some specialized schools and also required more of charters. Expulsions are down, too, once the process became centralized. More and more, New Orleans is facing questions about its “opportunity youth” (aka dropouts) and whether an entirely charter district makes it easier to lose track of students.
Charters simply can’t scale. Their success relies on traditional public schools picking up the slack. But their proponents are determined to kill those traditional public schools.
So urban public schools will continue to bleed the strongest students to charters, but will still face the higher costs associated with the most expensive students and the salaries that come along with teachers who stay put, rather than leave after a couple years. States will continue to foot the bill for both charters and district schools. So a state has X kids that used to be covered by A schools, B teachers, and C administrators. Now, the state will still have X kids, but M new schools, which means that B and C go up as well. Right now, some of those costs are covered by philanthropists, but that will change. Right now, some of those teachers are cheaper, but that will change. (The administrators get paid more than district schools.) Busing kids to their “choice” schools will cost more money if choice is required.
The lawsuits on special ed access and expulsions will continue. Data tracking on dropouts and “lost” kids will improve. Ultimately, the abuses will be curbed. And of course, despite carefully massaged talk about improved test scores, the public will realize that black and Hispanic kids are still doing poorly on college admissions tests.
All choice won’t offer any cost or quality improvements unless a) teachers are banned from unionizing, b) parents and advocacy organizations are barred from lawsuits, and c) schools are allowed to let unmotivated, low-skill kids drop out.
Yeah, good luck with that.
New Orleans is a decent indicator of the future “all-charter” paradise. Once all the schools are charters, the charters are forced to acknowledge that their secret was “better” students, not “better” teachers. Autonomy, decentralization, higher standards, parental contact, “firing bad teachers”–none of those close the achievement gap.
In fact, “bad schools” exist because black and Hispanic kids, on average, get lower scores than white and Asian kids for reasons that don’t involve superior teachers or even superior parents, for reasons that have thus far remained unrelentingly resistant to change. Kids with lower scores, regardless of race, are harder to teach and less interested in education, on average, and more likely to disrupt classes. Therefore, schools with disproportionately black or Hispanic kids are going to have lower scores and more disruptive classrooms.
While the low test score problem isn’t, as yet, fixable, the disruptive student problem is a different story. That’s the problem that charters actually address, while bragging about improving test scores, which they don’t (in any meaningful way).
The entire charter narrative is written by people who realized that public policy wants to ignore reality. The policy makers are pretending that schools can be improved. Charters allow them that pretense.
Meanwhile, the parents are intent on improving their childrens’ peer groups, and, if they can’t afford to use private schools or geography to achieve this aim, they’ll grab happily at charters, even though most are aware that the policy makers are hyping false promises.
One way or another, I don’t see the center holding. I think the end of ed reform will tilt the balance of power to public schools. But if it tilts the other way, if more cities follow New Orleans to all charters, then I expect things to get much more expensive, teacher scarcity to become even more of an issue, and a greater willingness to let kids fall through the cracks.
I’m really fine with being wrong, though.
1This chunk of text through the second subscript was originally written as part of my response on the CTU strike, almost four years ago. The post is prescient, I dare say, in that I was starting to see the failure of the reform movement. But the second half of the post has nothing to do with the strike and is one I refer back to often. But I can never remember where I put it. So since it’s a slow month, I’m giving it its own post with some extra thoughts at the beginning and end.