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Off the charters!

The New York Times reveals that, according to AFT analysis of NAEP data, charter schools are not actually doing a better job at teaching reading and math than non-charter schools.

Now, I’m agin charter schools, but I always expected them to have better test results. My complaint wasn’t about the children who were in them, but about the children who weren’t. I want the whole public school system to be good, not to have a few escape pods.

And, of course, there’s the problem I didn’t expect, but should have, that the charter schools are a breeding ground for embezzlement and financial incompetence. Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times reported that California Charter Academy, which ran dozens of schools and received over a hundred million dollars in state funding over five years, is shutting its doors. No more teachers, no more books. I suspect that founder C. Stephen Cox has done rather well out of it; I wonder how many of those teachers will find classrooms and rent money before Labor Day.

And now, the much-vaunted educational success turns out to be, at best, inconsistent. Urban charter schools don’t score better than ordinary urban public schools. By the way, I don’t mean to rely on test scores as a measure of education; I don’t trust ’em but they’re all we’ve got at present.

Of course, the whole charter-school shenanigan was a way of failing to address two things. First, that our public school system is on the whole terrific, and the only serious structural problem is the distribution of wealth in our country, also known as concentrated poverty. Second, that elementary education is expensive, and that teaching on the cheap is a bad idea, particularly if you don’t trust the people you’ve hired to do it and therefore want some proof that it’s being done well. If we want to address those issues, fine, but charter schools just let a few people escape from the consequences of not addressing them.



As this New York Post op/ed points out, schools are supposed to close when they don't do a good job of educating their students. Lousy schools getting shut down is cause for celebration; lousy schools getting handed sacks of cash is a terrible idea.

The article also points out that "The gap disappears when you take into account that charter schools are educating more hard-to-serve students." The NYT article mentions that too, a ways down the page.

I'm of two minds about the "charter school" business, probably because of contradictions within the charter school movement.

On the one hand, I'm very much in favor of giving teachers more control over their teaching. Bureaucratic control of pedagogy and content has a deadening effect on the classroom, and rigid conformity in educational practice has a deadening effect on our culture. Therefore, I like some of the changes for which charter schools are touted.

On the other hand, I don't believe that the "charter school" model and the rhetoric of privatization goes with it is in any way necessary to bring about the kinds of real changes in education that charter schools often put into place.

To bring in terminology from the _Better Together_ discussion, turning to charter school replaces a public institution designed to create connections that bridge gaps in the social fabric with private institutions that gain some of their strength by replacing the challenge of bridging gaps with the easier task of creating bonding relationships among a more cohesive group.

I trust the AFT and the NY Post about equally as sources on what's happening in charter schools . . .

As I understand it from the LA Times story, the California Charter Academy schools closed, not because the education was weak, but because the finances were. I have no idea whether they were considered good or bad, but I don't think that had anything to do with it. And, of course, I don't think lousy schools getting shut down is cause for celebration at all; it means that students got shafted again. Lousy schools getting better would be nice, or even lousy schools getting radical shifts that are the equivalent of closing and reopening under new management.
Also, there isn't any actual evidence, I'm told, that charter schools are educating more hard-to-serve students than the public schools those students were taken from. The anecdotal evidence is that the students whose parents seek charter schools are those whose parents provided help at home (and occasionally volunteer hours at school), and were therefore more likely to succeed in whatever school they were in. However, I don't have quantitative evidence for that, either.
Still and all, my main argument against the charter school movement isn't dependent on the test scores, or on the instances of embezzlement and mismanagement. My point is that it is not helping the 90% of students not in charter schools at all, and there is reason to expect that it will hurt them. Now, if you want to balance that against what good it's doing the other 10%, there had better be more to it than weak test scores, embezzlement and mismanagement.


Oh, and good point, Chris, about the AFT and the NYPost op-ed page as sources. And good morning.


I think Josh's point was that bad public schools should be shut down too, rather than being given money.

So here's a question: how do we fix public schools? (One possible answer (which Josh and the Post would presumably disagree with) might simply be "throw money at the problem"; another might be "change society in such a way that we value education more"; I'm wondering if there are other answers.)

It's a tough one, because a chief reason that bad schools are bad is that they're not being given enough money.

So to start a policy of, "hey, you suck -- we're not going to throw away our money on you" will not solve the problem, but intensify it.

If the NY Post editorial is to be trusted in its account of the Chicago schools, it sounds like what Chicago is doing is promising. If a school has become dysfunctional and dilapidated, they shut it down and then restart it a year later (presumably with repairs if they keep the same building) as a new school. This would provide the necessary institutional break to make a clean start, but acknowledges the fact that a school system can't (and shouldn't) act like Wal-Mart, building cheap buildings and then abandoning them.

The unexamined issue in this model, of course, is the disruption faced by the children who have to be relocated as a result of a school being shut down, surely significant. If the school can be restored without being closed, surely that would be a better way to go, but disrupting children's experience somewhat to get them better schooling is better than leaving them in bad schools.

Part of the challenge is that two separate questions have to be answered: "How do we fix this school?" and "How do we fix public schools?" Many public schools become dysfunctional due to factors over which they have no control: who the students are, how the schools are funded, what counterproductive mandates are placed upon them by ideologues in high places, paralyzing bureacracy. However, once a school becomes dysfunctional, simply addressing the causes of dysfunction may not be enough to restore the school: dysfunction becomes self-perpetuating in its culture, so it needs social repair as well as systemic changes to support a better culture. Charter schools, therefore, offer some good ideas about how to redress the dysfunction of some schools. But the charter model doesn't offer a complete solution, and its application may exacerbate some systemic problems that affect many schools in a district.

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