Education Opinion

Charter Schools and the Most Disadvantaged

By Jack Schneider — March 24, 2015 12 min read
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In my final conversation with former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville, I noted that charter schools can often hurt the most disadvantaged students. In my words: “They’re the ones who end up at the worst charter schools. They’re the ones left behind at traditional public schools that have been stripped of their resources. And they’re the ones who will end up at the weakest charter schools.” (Click here to read the whole post.)

Charter school supporter Travis Pillow took issue with this claim, and particularly with a related soundbite on Twitter. And he took the time to write an email, which I have his permission to reproduce here.

Below, you will find Travis’s email. And below that you will find my response. Together, I think they offer a relatively clear picture of a complicated issue—offering more nuance than either of us would be able to convey in 140 characters.

Travis Pillow: Here’s where I take issue with some of what you wrote about charters recently: A common theory among charter school critics is that charters “cream” high-achieving students out of traditional public schools, thereby harming the students who remain in traditional schools, who tend to be those who need the most help. In reality, though, I think the evidence on every part of that claim is mixed, and there really isn’t solid evidence to support the contention that charters are harming the most disadvantaged students. More importantly, under the right conditions, they can help those students.

The record on charter school creaming, I think it’s fair to say, varies. The Rand Corporation in 2009 found charters generally are not creaming, whilethe US DOE in 2010 found charters did tend to draw students with higher achievement levels. As for the idea that they’re harming the students left behind: Studies supporting that conclusion generally look at inputs or student population, not student outcomes. Rand in 2009 found charters didn’t much help or hurt student achievement in traditional schools. Studies of competition from private school choice generally find slightly positive-to-neutral “competitive effects” on surrounding public schools, and there’s evidence that public charters have had even more significant positive competitive effects in some places.

Really, the honest answer to just about any sweeping generalization about charter schools helping or harming student achievement is, “It depends.”

But there’s also reason to believe that charters are getting better over time, and can get better still if the right policies are in place. That was one of the headline findings of the new CREDO study of urban charters released this week.

To me, the variations CREDO uncovered between cities are even more interesting than the nationwide conclusions. The study shows charters in Miami are serving about the same rate of students in poverty as surrounding district schools, and having clear positive effects on achievement of those students, especially those who are still learning to read and write English. Yet just up the road in West Palm Beach, the results for urban charters are disturbingly bad.

The main conclusion I think we can draw about charter schools after more than two decades is that their impact varies a lot between cities, and between individual schools. So charters in Florida should be trying to learn from charters in Miami, and we should all be looking at places like Washington D.C.—where charter schools are clearly raising student achievement while coexisting with an improving system of traditional public schools—and trying to figure out how we can replicate that success in more places.

Jack Schneider: The claim that charter schools serve the most disadvantaged students is one that needs unpacking.

Let’s begin with what we know about charter schools and who they serve. It appears that charter schools with the explicit mission of serving low-income and minority students, and which focus primarily on raising academic achievement as measured by standardized test scores, can be quite successful. You note that above. And this makes sense. Any school that focuses on a particular population and that sets a clear and specific goal will be at an advantage.

This is one great affordance of school choice. If schools can articulate a clear mission and attract families interested in that mission, they can pursue a less disparate set of aims. They can focus on what really matters to their stakeholders. No less importantly, choice can also produce significant buy-in from students and families. Instead of feeling like they are getting something generic—or worse, being forced to attend a school they wouldn’t have chosen—students can feel special.

Insofar as this is the case, I am a supporter of school choice. And it is worth noting that these benefits theoretically extend not just to low-income students of color, but to all students. Clearer missions, stronger buy-in, and better school “fit” can benefit any population.

But there are also some challenges presented by school choice, at least with regard to the most disadvantaged.

We know that students with more engaged parents are more likely to achieve at higher levels. We know that they are more likely to attend school and see school as important in their lives. And we know that engaged parents are the most likely to exercise school choice.

We can conclude, then, that among disadvantaged students, those with engaged parents are more likely to leave a district school. And we can reason that the school will then have a higher concentration of historically marginalized students who have the double disadvantage of having less engaged parents. Richard Kahlenberg has summed up a few other complications that you can read about here.

Combine this with the fact that peer effects matter tremendously in education, as well as with the fact that parents play a powerful role in driving school improvement, and I worry. I worry about what happens to the kids left behind.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we need to oppose school choice. But it does mean that we need to be really careful in how we pursue it.

First, we need to be aware of the impact of school choice rhetoric. When the message out there is that the public education system is broken, and that charters are a solution, we are driving a certain segment of parents out of traditional public schools. Many parents aren’t opting for charters because they are attracted to a particular mission; they are opting for charters because they have been swayed by pro-charter rhetoric.

Second, any system with choice needs to include heroic levels of outreach to parents, at least if the concern is serving the least advantaged. I live in a district where we have intra-district school choice, and even in such a system—where all parents have to choose—we still have many parents who have no idea how to go about making that decision. They love their kids, certainly; but they don’t have access to good information. And I would add here that this is a bigger challenge than getting a pamphlet into everyone’s hands. Because parents need far more than a rundown of a school’s test scores and a picture of its facilities. So to do this right, it’s going to take a much more robust approach to educational data.

Third, any system with choice needs to include safeguards protecting schools from being stripped of key resources. This, obviously, is controversial, because it means paying attention to things like racial and economic balance—and the Supreme Court has made the former of those tasks impossible. But it also means ensuring a balance of resources, teachers, etc. This is easier to manage through intra-district school choice than through a free market system, but certainly there are multiple ways to manage this challenge.

Finally, systems with choice need to cultivate an understanding that schools are not in competition with one another. This, of course, runs completely counter to some of the theories of action behind school choice—free market perspectives that see competition as an inherent good, that frame traditional public schools as monopolies, etc. Schools, however, aren’t like a lot of products in which markets really work. Selecting a cereal to eat, for instance, is really easy—you know you like it or not as soon as you open the box, switching brands is uncomplicated, scale is achieved with perfect replicability. But schools aren’t like cereal. So when we subject them to the same market forces, we encourage some troubling practices. Is a little competition good? Sure. But more kids will benefit if schools support each other and learn from each other.

Do charters have a place in the system? Yes. As do other manifestations of school choice.

But if we are truly concerned with serving the disadvantaged, we can’t simply say that charters are a solution. And I think we need to remain skeptical about the effect that more charters can have on the most disadvantaged.

Travis Pillow: I would like to respond to a couple points you made based on what we’ve seen in Florida.

People can be skeptical of charters or other forms of school choice. But I think we should be just as skeptical of those who say we should deny parents options they seek. If there are waiting lists for charters, as there are in many cities, shouldn’t their opponents be required to demonstrate that meeting that unmet demand would somehow cause harm? Generally, I don’t think that burden is being met. Charter schools have been around long enough that their effects are not a complete a mystery, and we have evidence that shows they can and do help students. While that hasn’t been equally true everywhere, does that justify limiting what some parents truly want?

There is a stereotype that low-income or disadvantaged families are less likely to be engaged in their children’s education, and therefore less likely to participate in school choice. Participation data from the Florida tax credit scholarship program (Disclosure: My employer helps administer this program)—which is open only to low-income families—suggest it’s not true. We’re seeing the opposite. Students who actually use the scholarships to attend private schools tend to be from families with even lower incomes than the overall pool of low-income families who qualify, and annual program evaluations show that tendency is getting stronger over time. Their test scores also tend to be lower than their peers. Yet their parents are engaged enough to actively choose to send them to other schools.

This is a means-tested private school choice program, so the experience of those parents might be different from those who enroll in charters. But there’s also evidence to suggest that school choice is fungible for at least some families. That is to say, some families who accept private school scholarships might just as well opt for charters, career academies, or other district-operated schools of choice when those are accessible to them. Parents choose schools for a number of reasons, from specialized academic programs, to safety, to factors like “fit” that are hard to pin down. In a complex choice ecosystem like we have in Florida, it’s not uncommon for children in the same family to attend different schools of choice, based on their individual needs or predilections.

For that reason, I don’t think we can simply assume that disadvantaged families are inherently less likely to take advantage of charters or other options. I also don’t think we can conclude that some broad, abstract narrative about failing public schools is what’s driving parents to seek other options. School choice advocates are so big on individual stories and synecdoche because these decisions are often deeply personal.

That said, there are real information and transportation barriers, which organizations like the Center on Reinventing Public Education have documented, and which tend to place the greatest burdens on low-income parents. If privileged students are participating in school choice at higher levels, these factors might explain why. Figuring out ways to lower those barriers is an under-appreciated task, which, as you suggest, is essential to creating a truly equitable system.

I would argue a system in which sought-after schools are scarce is also inherently inequitable. There are very few places in America where the supply of charter schools meets the demand. That’s especially hard to stomach in cities like Boston or Newark, where charters are helping student achievement—by a lot, according to CREDO.

The idea that someone needs to be mindful of the system as a whole is, I think, the argument for a portfolio strategy where districts oversee charters proactively, so they steer the ship and use charters, along with neighborhood schools and other options, to help achieve their aims—and the aims of the parents they serve.

Jack Schneider: Parents want successful schools. Period. So yes, we should give them what they want. But we shouldn’t assume that, just because parents are currently convinced by charter school hype, that they are actually charter school advocates.

Now, to be fair, yes—many parents are engaged by the concept of choice and like the idea of finding a school that fits. That’s fair. Additionally, I’m not foolish enough to say that parents with kids currently enrolled in charter schools don’t know whether or not they’re satisfied. Of course they do.

But I there’s also a lot of marketing, as well as a lot of misinformation about charters—and that has led to an inflated public faith in charters. Roughly 70 percent of Americans think that charters are more effective than traditional public schools, yet only a tiny fraction of Americans actually have any direct experience with charters. So what is that opinion really grounded in? And, as I noted earlier in our conversation, the opposite is true when it comes to perceptions of traditional public schools.

I’d also like to point out that even though using standardized test scores to document the success of schools is standard practice, it isn’t a particularly robust measure of school quality. Standardized tests are only a very narrow snapshot of school performance. And it’s quite possible to produce high standardized test scores and deliver a low-quality education to students (though, to be clear: the reverse might not be true, and it is clear that standardized tests do measure something). So all of the pointing to standardized test scores among charter school advocates fails to really inspire me.

I doubt we’ll ever see this issue the same way. But I do appreciate your willingness to engage in dialogue. And I also think if we kept talking we could probably find lots to agree on. Certainly we could agree on one thing: it’s complicated.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.