Education Opinion

If Charters Work, What Is the Reason?

By Jack Schneider — December 04, 2014 9 min read
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Andy Smarick and I continue our conversation about charter schools, this time focusing on what the movement’s boosters think charters will do.

Schneider: We ended our previous conversation with some skepticism on my part—about whether the charter model itself (rather than particular charter schools) would be any better than district governance. I’m wondering if you can articulate the theory of action there.

Smarick: My theory of action began with a hypothesis about the problem. The more I studied urban districts, the more I became convinced that there must be a systemic explanation for why none of these entities could muster the results we wanted. A number of books helped me piece together an initial answer, including Kolderie’s Creating the Capacity for Change; Hill’s Reinventing Public Education; Chubb and Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools; and New Schools for a New Century, which Diane Ravitch edited with Joe Viteritti.

I also looked outside of education, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the same themes surfacing. I found Osborne and Gaebler’s Reinventing Government, Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, and Foster and Kaplan’s Creative Destruction to be invaluable.

Here’s where I landed: The urban district was designed as a monopoly, the sole public-school provider that assigned kids to schools based not on their needs or interests but their home addresses. Research tells us, however, that monopolies are inefficient, unresponsive to consumer demands, and resistant to diversifying offerings. Add to this the burdens of the district’s being a public-sector monopoly, which means constraining labor contracts and toxic school-board politics.

Over time, our cities changed, schooling changed, families wanted more education options, and the public demanded better results. You can easily see how urban districts were preternaturally ill-suited to navigate these massive shifts.

Chartering, on the other hand, facilitates the continuous creation of new schools, enables great schools to grow, causes failing schools to close, and enables the portfolio of schools to match the ever-changing demands of an ever-changing city. Chartering empowers families to choose the schools that best fit their kids’ needs and enables educators to choose the work environments that fit their skills and interests. The choice-based system of autonomous and accountable public schools that results prioritizes performance while catering to families and making space for innovation. Implemented smartly, this produces a portfolio of public schools that, as a whole, will be dynamic, responsive, and continuously improving.

Schneider: It seems like there are two separate theories of action here.

The first is guided by the concept of fit. If you provide schools with more autonomy and flexibility around issues like curriculum, staffing, budget, schedule, etc.—something charters do—then schools will become more innovative and unique places. And insofar as that is the case, some will be more likely to match the particular needs and values of some families; the idea being—in an ideal world, at least—that there will be a “right” school for every family.

This actually makes a lot of sense. Teachers and school leaders are often desperate for more freedom to govern their own schools. And those who aren’t are either in tremendously high-functioning districts, or something has gone wrong in the culture of the school’s adult community.

But I see two problems. The first is that, if such a system “prioritizes performance,” you’re immediately going to see less innovation. This is what we see in the charter sector today, where the pursuit of high standardized test scores has led to the emergence of a “one best model.” We don’t see a thousand flowers blooming. We don’t see lots of radically different choices.

The second problem is that you don’t actually need charters to do this. In Massachusetts, for instance, the state has empowered “Innovation Schools” to implement new strategies without removing funding from districts. New autonomies, along with intra-district school choice, gets you just as far on the issue of “fit.”

But there’s a second theory of action here, too—one grounded in market logic—that I find far less compelling. The idea is that schools should be operated like businesses, with lots of new ones opening up, and many of them eventually being shut down. Constantly closing schools would be unbelievably disruptive for children. It would demand far more capacity than currently exists—in terms of governance—to determine which schools should stay open and which should be shuttered. It would channel tremendous resources into starting-up and shutting down schools, rather than into building their capacity. It would create unbelievably high levels of teacher turnover, driving many out of the profession. And it would require very high levels of parental knowledge and activity to locate “good” schools and move there collectively—in order to send a clear market signal.

Smarick: The charter sector has produced a wide variety of schools. Look at the states with old charter laws, non-district authorizers, and a significant number of schools, and you’ll find Core Knowledge programs, project-based learning schools, language-immersion schools, schools serving students with specific significant needs, and more.

But I also don’t want to undersell the value of the charter community’s coalescing around the “no-excuses” approach in low-income areas. Not long ago, many people thought it impossible to create networks of public schools that could reliably develop and sustain high-performing high-poverty urban schools. Now we have a significant and growing numbers of such organizations. They are changing kids’ lives for the better and showing that public schools can help disadvantaged kids succeed at the highest levels. And while many of the networks (e.g. Success, Uncommon, KIPP, YES, Aspire) have a good bit in common, you’ll find nontrivial differences in their models.

With that said, I want to acknowledge that two accountability-related forces do serve to limit variation within the charter sector. The first is NCLB, which required that charters take the same assessments and be held accountable in the same ways as district-run schools. So while a charter could have an individualized performance contract with an authorizer (reflecting school-specific goals and metrics), it would also have to meet uniform state benchmarks. Had NCLB allowed states to exempt charters from their unitary statewide accountability system, authorizers might’ve developed accountability practices that encouraged very different models.

I say “might’ve” because this isn’t certain. In recent years, charter authorizers have developed “performance frameworks” that hold all charters accountable using identical academics, finance, governance, and operations metrics. Authorizers have learned that standardizing accountability makes it easier to monitor schools and facilitates high-stakes decision, like closures.

I understand the rationale behind both NCLB’s charter decision and authorizer’s performance-framework approach. But I think we should reconsider both.

Your second point--that districts can do innovation and improvement via “autonomous” district schools just as well as charters--is, I think, refuted by more than a decade of experience. Countless districts have tried to co-opt chartering by creating ostensibly autonomous schools, or, as I like to call them, “faux charters.” You can see this in Baltimore, Boston, Denver, New York, Philadelphia, and many more large urban districts. These schools are never as autonomous as we’re promised and when a new superintendent or school board comes into power, these schools can go away. Most importantly, research shows district-run “innovation” schools don’t get very good results. For example, charters in Boston far outperform the district’s “Pilot” schools, and the results of such autonomous district schools in Denver were similarly underwhelming.

Finally, closing persistently failing schools doesn’t require believing “schools should be operated like businesses.” Just about every healthy field I can think of has processes for exiting persistent low-performers. Failing lawyers are disbarred, failing doctors lose their licenses, failing nonprofits lose funding, and on and on. Failing district-run urban schools are the outliers. We stubbornly keep them open and at great cost to low-income kids.

Schneider: You’re right that NCLB has played a big part in the homogenization of the charter sector. And I agree that if you were to exempt charters from state accountability benchmarks, we would see a lot more diversity among schools. But that begs the question: why would you give charters this kind of autonomy without giving it to district-run schools?

I have a feeling you’ll say something about past performance. And you’re right that traditional public schools have historically failed to solve the problems of urban education. But that’s because the effects of inequality can’t be solved by schools alone. I’m not saying that great schools can’t make a difference. They certainly can. Yet blaming schools for factors outside their control seems to me less than logical. And I just don’t see compelling evidence that charters are systematiclly doing it much better. A select number of them: Sure. But on the whole? The evidence doesn’t really hold up.

Even if we set aside some of the more disturbing evidence about particular charters, looking only at the difference between average charter and district schools, we still have to ask the question of whether we’re seeing a real phenomenon or just a sampling issue. Any time you have an opt-in set of charter schools alongside traditional public schools that other students will default into, you’re going to have a selection bias problem&mdashhighly engaged parents exercising choice and bringing their various forms of capital to whatever school they’ve chosen. Researchers have tried to address this in their analyses of charter school performance by finding “natural experiments” in which students are admitted or denied to a charter school through a lottery. Yet that still doesn’t do the trick. Because what they claim is an “effective school” result is, at least in part, due to the lottery itself. It produces feelings of being admitted someplace special; it allows a school to set higher standards (because it has a waiting list); and it results in different peer effects.

Now, could school autonomy be promoted in a more robust manner within districts? Absolutely. And perhaps district schools can never be as autonomous as charters. But I don’t really have a problem with that. Because the evidence tells us that lots of charters have too much autonomy. Many abysmal schools keep operating because of weak authorization systems (a challenge that we can’t simply ignore).

Is there a place for charters in the public education system? I think there might be. But I think we can both agree that this would entail figuring out what, exactly, to hold them accountable for; and it would require a governance model that would actually shut down the worst charters. Additionally, I think it’s important to continue to think about how we ensure that charters aren’t exacerbating segregation through self-selection. These are complex issues that won’t be easily solved. And I hope charter supporters see that.

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.