Education Opinion

The Great Charter Debate: Part Three

By Anthony Cody — March 20, 2010 7 min read
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Over the past month I have carried several posts offering the perspective of a colleague involved in philanthropy who is seeking to improve schools. After posting his perspective, I offered my own, somewhat critical of the emphasis on charter schools in Obama’s reform plans. Here is my colleague’s rebuttal. Please join in the discussion below.

My colleague’s rebuttal:

I think we have several areas of agreement. Not all charters are good and far too many are bad. This often has to do with bad charter authorizers who let anyone put up a shingle and call themselves a charter school, despite little evidence that they can be successful. Anyone who cares about the vitality of the charter movement, or schools in general, should want to fix or close these schools. If they can’t be fixed, they should be closed. But, to be fair, we also have to fix or close the poorly performing traditional schools. What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander.

As far as the studies you cite, I’ll save others to debate which study is more accurate. But, I will say this. I think they are both accurate to some degree. The CREDO study is much more expansive and thus took data from across the country. I think it points out what anyone who really knows charters understands: there are a select number of really high-performing charter schools and there are a bunch of others, some marginally better or worse than their traditional counterparts and some far worse than traditional schools. As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m not in favor of charters, I’m in favor of high-quality schools, be they charter or traditional. As far as the Hoxby study, please note the fact that you felt compelled to note the “conservative Hoover Institute’s Caroline Hoxby.” Why no qualifier for the Stanford CREDO study? But, can you argue with Ms. Hoxby’s methods or her findings? Tell me some flaws in her research methods, but let’s not use labels to discredit her work. (By the way, I’m a card carrying Liberal Democrat, even though some assume I’m some type of capitalist pig out to destroy union jobs.) Ms. Hoxby pointed out specific problems with the CREDO study which appears to not use as reliable data as Hoxby’s study. You can download a discussion of these issues here.

One of the reasons I think Caroline Hoxby’s study found dramatically different results is the fact that she was only looking at New York City. New York State has generally strong charter school authorizers and there are many high-performing CMOs in New York City: KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools and several others. These schools are focused on the poorest neighborhoods in NYC and they are doing really well and they’d all be the first to admit that they are still not satisfied with their results yet. I’ve been to many of these schools and have been inspired, just as I’ve been inspired in high-performing traditional schools.

Anthony, now let’s get to some of my biggest frustrations with charter critics. You “believe” that there are significant differences between the populations of many charter schools from the regular public schools with which they compete. Please tell me how you’ve come up with this belief. Because, other than some behavior rules on one charter school’s website, I see no evidence to back up your beliefs. So, rather than consider that “some” charters might actually be doing things right, let’s discount everything they might be doing and chalk it up to the fact that these kids are just better from the beginning. Come on. Trust me, those schools deal with the same kids as the neighborhood schools and Ms. Hoxby’s study only took into account kids whose parents who applied to the lottery and won vs. those that applied and lost. So, if your theory holds true, those kids whose parents cared enough to get them into the lottery, should have done just as well, even if they didn’t get a spot in the charter school, right? Unfortunately, the results of the study did not show that.

Now, we get to the most ridiculous of your arguments. UCLA’s Civil Rights Project’s report. So, let me give you one example. Charter X is founded on the belief that kids in a particular low-income community (or perhaps in several low-income communities) do not have access to high-quality schools. So, the founders open a school in a low-income community that happens to have a high population of Green people. In fact, over 95% of the community is Green. So, Charter X attracts all the kids from the neighborhood, but they’re almost all Green. Perhaps Charter X is fantastic and all of the Green parents want their kids to go there, but they can only accept 300 kids so not all Green kids get in. So, this ridiculous report would say that, by offering a fantastic opportunity to go to Charter X, the Charter was segregating all Green kids in the school. Trust me, the Green parents are sick of their crappy schools and they’re happy for the choice. They care much more about whether their kids can read, write, perform science experiments and have enriching arts classes than whether there are Purple and Blue kids in their classroom. Plus, to compare them to schools elsewhere in the state is ludicrous. I would love to see a rainbow of colors in every classroom, but that’s not reality in traditional schools or charters.

To the degree that charters are not serving their share of ELLs or students with disabilities, they should change their recruiting practices to ensure they do. Harlem Success Academy (HSA) serves far more students with disabilities than the neighborhood traditional schools. But, I can’t speak for what they do in Boston. After all, they like the Red Sox and they cannot be trusted! But seriously, let’s not use one study of Boston to assume that charters everywhere have the same problems.

Anthony, I agree with you that desirable transformations should not be deemed impossible at regular public schools. In fact, I think this is what all charter proponents dream of...traditional schools taking on some of their practices to reform the entire system. The obstacles are indeed many, but the institution of public education, of which charters are a part, (lest we forget), is definitely worth fighting for.

One of the things I’ve been thinking seriously about is the need to tear down the walls between traditional and charter schools. How do we get beyond the accusations and myths from both sides and learn from each other? I think the only way to do this effectively is to get teams of charter and traditional teachers to work together on a common goal. Perhaps it could be some degree of sharing between schools on curriculum, classroom management, organization of the school day, etc. But, I’m convinced that we all have a lot to learn from high-quality schools and I’m thinking through some ideas of how to make that happen. It’s much harder to discount someone if you haven’t seen them face-to-face. I appreciate the debate and the sharing of ideas and want to reiterate that I’m in support of all high-quality schools (regardless of their wrapper) and hope to do more for all in the future.

I forgot to respond to one of your criticisms: the fact that HSA raises money from outside sources and has a heavy dose of investment industry professionals on its board. Unfortunately, under New York state law, every individual charter school must have its own board of directors. This is especially taxing for Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) and they’d much prefer to have one board for all of their schools, but this is not allowed.

Harlem Success Academy was founded by two investment professionals and they have brought along their friends and colleagues to serve on their boards. This is atypical even for most CMOs. However, they are forced to raise money for their schools because the state gives charters far less per pupil than traditional schools. In fact, the difference in funding can be dramatically lower for charters, especially for kids with special needs that the serve.

I’ve met the founders and they are incredibly passionate about their belief in equity in schools for low-income schoolchildren. They are also extremely focused on performance. So, we’d all prefer if charters weren’t required to raise the difference
between what traditional schools get and what charters get for serving the same pupil.

Harlem Success Academy has stated that they will not raise more money per pupil than what a traditional school spends. They do have the flexibility to spend the money differently than a traditional school, but don’t believe the myth that they are getting these fantastic results to do more money, because it’s not true. They are getting it due to very committed teachers and principals, parents, longer school days, an innovative curriculum, etc. They are not a panacea, but one beacon of hope.

What do you think? Are charter schools a real beacon of hope?

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