Wednesday, May 14, 2014
by Christopher Lubienski, (@Club_edu) University of Illinois (cross posted from the National Journal)
In the celebratory atmosphere of “National Charter School Week,” there has been much self-congratulation over the remarkable growth of the movement over the last couple of decades. Advocates are proud of the proliferation of these schools, and the accomplishments of some truly remarkable models.
But what has the movement really achieved? A few years ago we looked at the initial expectations of the charter school movement, and found much optimism about the anticipated impacts of these schools in a few areas — specifically: (1) more equitable access to quality education options, especially for disadvantaged children; (2) increased innovation, since autonomous charter schools would serve as “laboratories” or “R & D centers” for the public sector; (3) higher levels of efficiency, as these schools, freed from bureaucratic oversight, could do more with less; and, (4) of course, greater effectiveness or achievement.
Obviously, there has been much debate, but surprisingly little compelling evidence to support the optimistic claims of early supporters, especially in areas such as achievement, where there is a general consensus that charter schools typically perform at about the same level as — and too often below that of — public schools. (Yes, I’m well aware of the tired admonition that charter schools are “public” schools, but am personally more interested in organizational behavior than in legal designations.) In fact, many of these initial promises have largely been ignored in recent years, with the idea of “choice” increasingly seen as a worthy goal in and of itself.
Still, there are some areas where charter schools and their champions have undoubtedly had an impact. So, without diminishing the achievements of charter schools, let’s keep a balanced perspective by noting some of the other results of the charter school movement:
Moving the metrics: Instead of looking at the overall impact of this movement, especially on important social goals such as effectiveness, opportunity and integration, charter advocates are quite often content to simply celebrate the growth of the movement.
De-unionization: Love unions or hate them, there is little arguing the fact that charter schools have been leading the movement to hire non-unionized teachers. (And moves to close public schools and replace them with charters can mean dramatic de-unionization in some cities — like Chicago, for example.) However, a unionized teaching force — like it or not — typically means a certified and better trained teaching force, and that is a positive predictor of higher student achievement, as the evidence we discussed in The Public School Advantage indicates.
Bringing the profit-motive to public education: It’s not just that charter schools introduce market-style competition with other public and private schools, as was intended. Charter schools have also — by design — opened up opportunities for investors and management organizations to seek profits in public education. Some see this as a good thing, bringing new ideas and resources into the public sector. While this country has not yet really engaged in a conversation on the appropriateness of that, there is little doubt that charter schooling has provided the opportunity for these and other new players to enter the policy field, often supplanting school boards and community groups.
Charter schools demonstrate market failure in education: It is often repeated that charter schools are based on the notion of “autonomy in exchange for accountability,” since charters offered the opportunity to supplant bureaucratic-based forms of accountability with accountability not just to charter authorizers, but to the families — the “customers” — that chose charters. Yet, the problem with this logic is glaringly evident every time we see a waiting list for a demonstrably underperforming charter school. When a charter authorizer or state attorney general needs to step in to close a poorly performing charter school, this highlights the need for governmental remedies when assumptions about supply and demand in education markets fail.
“Doing more with less” was a policy ploy: Remember how advocates claimed that charter schools would be more efficient because they didn’t have to support cumbersome district bureaucracies (like Catholic schools!)? That was apparently a very smart strategic move by policy proponents to promote the illusion that charter schools offered a cheaper alternative to costly public schools. Now, all the calls for “parity” or “equity” from charter advocates and associated celebrities only exposes those promises, and highlights the growth in administrative structures (and in some cases the need for profit) in charter schooling, particularly when they serve less-costly students.
Charter schools are too often serving as vehicles for student sorting: While there were initial concerns that charters would lead to segregation through White-flight and self-segregation, proponents countered that charter schools overall served higher proportions of minority and disadvantaged students. However, there is growing evidence that charter schools are, in fact, associated with greater segregation.
The existence of some quality charter schools is great, but not sufficient: The policy proponents pushing charter schools love to point to successful charter schools as proof that this model has the potential to succeed. While the existence of such schools is great for those kids, these cases are too rare, considering the mediocre performance of charter schools overall — more than balanced out by too many atrocious charter schools. While it makes sense to examine the attributes that make some charter schools successful, it’s also important to remember that we have many more high performing public (and private) schools. The reason? One of the most consistent indicators of success is not school governance, but the socioeconomic status of children attending a given school.
Considering all of the debates surrounding charter schools, it’s useful to ask ourselves why there is still so much bi-partisan excitement about these schools despite the amazingly modest results after over two decades of this reform. I happen to think that charter schools can be an important part of the public education system, particularly as they were originally envisioned. And there is reason to celebrate the successes of these schools. But there is certainly also reason for concern that this movement too often less about results for children, and more about reconfiguring public education to align with a market-based vision for schooling promoted by many advocates.
Chris Lubienski is professor of education policy at the University of Illinois. He’s on Twitter at @Club_edu
Posted by T. Jameson Brewer at 2:00 PM