School Choice & Charters Opinion

Destabilize & Replace

By Nancy Flanagan — July 15, 2016 3 min read
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A tweet from Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten), after the DFER vs. actual progressives dust-up over the education plank of the Democratic platform:

#DemPlatform on charters: oppose 4 profits, accountable, transparent, teach all kids & they neither destabilize nor --not replace--pub schls

Lots of folks have written cogent and thoughtful analyses on the issue of how both parties should be re-thinking federal education policy in their platform documents, instead of offering up sanctimonious blah-blah around “fixes” that end up lining someone’s pocket. Here, here, here and here, for example--all worth perusing as we consider what it means for a political party to resist “destabilizing and replacing” public schools. (And yes, I do realize that political platforms are not policy, and often have hope-and-change value equivalent to toilet paper: flimsy and disposable.)

But the phrase keeps coming back to me. The rest of the tweet and platform language consists of weasel words that have lost their original meanings in intra-party ed reform debates.

The education community is thoroughly--depressingly-- familiar with the term “accountable.” It’s about being constrained to account for easily measured outcomes. It’s evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It’s shutdowns and turnarounds and pick a bale of cotton, because taxpayers are unhappy about funding the distasteful results of deep and ugly poverty.

So--we’re encouraged to hold educators accountable--a different descriptor entirely from the one teachers and school leaders prefer: responsible. All schoolteachers know, intimately, what accountability means, in practice. Plus--the media consistently bungles the reporting.

We also know how easy it is for non-profit organizations, even those with good intentions, to take what they need to self-perpetuate, all while wearing white hats as a nominal do-gooders. For-profit charters are just a bit more...transparent about their bottom-line goals.

And speaking of transparency--does that mean we’ll be getting more information on how charters are formed, funded and held accountable themselves? In Michigan, charter authorizers get 3% off the top, from taxpayer dollars, simply for saying they’ll authorize, then monitor charters. That’s a huge disincentive for universities, community colleges, intermediate and local districts to bring the hammer down on an obviously failing charter.

Not having democratically elected school boards? The antithesis of transparency. Does this mean there will be a push to tighten and delineate tougher charter policy, a state-by-state proposition? Doubtful.

Still--the obvious, flashing bit of cognitive dissonance here is the phrase “destabilize and replace.” The very heart and soul of opening charter schools is the word school marketeers build their fortunes on: Disruption.

Disruption is sexy and rebellious. Those old factory-model schools with their desks in rows and hidebound veteran teachers! Let’s do something new! And digital! Something that will appeal to the public’s better nature while making a buck for us-- something we can cleverly advertise with heart-warming pictures of little kids in plaid jumpers and neckties. Something that (to quote Whitney Tilson) will “insanely leverage” modest private investment, using public dollars as the financial foundation. All good, no?

It seems--again--patently obvious that opening a glitzy new school will automatically change the education market (whether you call that disruption or destabilization) surrounding it. Every child that previously attended a public school will become a unit of displacement. How soon does this negatively impact public systems? After all, kids do come and go, and traditional public schools have perennially had to cope with ups and downs in demographics and funding.

In a superb post that gives us good data about the very questions of destabilization and replacement, Michigan State University Professor David Arsen explains to EduShyster just how devastating this potent combination can be. Because he’s an economist, Arsen provides well-researched numbers to support what widespread destabilization does.

There’s plenty of hard information about how the percentage of (expensive to educate) special education students left behind rises as charters penetrate urban districts. The entire ecology--curriculum, assessment, staffing, instruction--is negatively impacted.

Is this something that a political party can and should address? How did things get so screwed up in Michigan? Arsen:

Michigan has a very strong charter constituency and lobby, and we've made a series of policy choices that put districts that are obliged to educate low-income children, especially urban kids, at a disadvantage. If you have an education system with a lot of choice, it has to be well structured and regulated. We have a situation in Michigan where the charter interests are very influential in the state legislature. It makes it much harder in this state to reach consensus not only on coherent choice and finance policies, but also on policy relating to all sorts of education issues.

So, yes. Please read The Cost of Choice. Then weep.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.