School Choice & Charters Opinion

School Choice & Social Capital

By Justin Baeder — August 13, 2012 4 min read
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Over the past few months, I’ve met many fantastic educators who work in charter schools, and I certainly have no gripe with them. Charter schools are great labs for innovation, and I’m glad they exist. Having a small number of charter schools is probably a good thing.

Too often, though, complex policy issues tend to get reduced to simplistic “think of the children!” arguments, and charters are no exception. In Washington State, for example, we’re hearing that we supposedly need charter schools because we have students stuck in “failing” schools and we need to give them another option. While charters may not be a bad thing, this hope that charters will be the savior of underserved children is misplaced.

Historian, teacher advocate, and author Diane Ravitch wrote yesterday that charter schools are a threat to American society. I don’t see this scenario actually unfolding, but I think she’s right about the consequences of expanding charters into every neighborhood: we would end up with a two-tier system that ensures that the students with the least-engaged families are concentrated into one set of schools, while everyone else goes to different (and no doubt “better”) schools.

The most popular argument for charters says, “Too many students are trapped in failing public schools, so we must give them a choice!” From a social capital standpoint, this argument makes no sense. It’s like saying “We believe that some boats are unfit for carrying passengers, so rather than fix the boats or rescue all of the passengers and scuttle the boats, we’ll provide boat choice. That way, the market will sort out which boats are getting the job done and which aren’t. Giving passengers boat choice is desperately needed in this climate of unfit boats, which has become a national crisis.”

“Boat choice” is a cynical response. There may be good reasons to have charter schools, but this isn’t one of them.

Charters do provide school choice for the families that are accepted, but this is a zero-sum game. For every student whose life is improved by their admission to a better school, another student is harmed by the shifting of social capital from one school to another.

School quality is heavily dependent on social capital. When families flee their neighborhood schools for charters, magnets, private schools, or other “choice” schools, they are essentially seeking out a greater concentration of social capital. Shifting it from a “failing” neighborhood school to a charter or other choice school only exacerbates the problems that a lack of social capital can cause.

In some charters, this capital comes largely from the outside. I’m all for drumming up more social (and financial) capital to infuse into our schools, and the charters that have done this most successfully are doing a net good for education. In too many cases, though, charters are just skimming off the students who are most likely to be successful, as Ravitch notes, causing the traditional public schools to decline in social capital.

Social capital is of course heavily dependent on geography. If you live in a rich part of town, it’s likely that your child will attend school with children from wealthy families, and your school is probably going to have plenty of bake sales, enrichment activities, and academic support for struggling students. In an impoverished neighborhood, it’s unlikely that schools will be able to provide the same opportunities.

Once upon a time, we embarked on an ambitious, controversial, and partially successful effort to desegregate schools by eliminating choice—even choice based on zip code—called busing. Very little forced busing remains in effect today, but addressing housing patterns is perhaps the only way to ensure that the 25% of our nation’s students who live in poverty do not attend high-poverty schools.

Busing is probably never coming back, so it’s no surprise that choice is today’s preferred workaround to the constraints of geography. But given how many students it leaves behind, it’s not a viable solution to the unequal distribution of social capital.

It’s at this point that someone will counter with the argument that it’s not just about social capital, but that many of our public schools are “failing.” I’m not sure we can really say with any confidence which schools are failing. As I said in my previous post, we don’t actually measure the efficiency of schools in terms of how effectively they use the resources at their disposal to educate students. Lacking this information, we’re left with test scores that mainly reflect demographics—or more accurately, social capital—rather than the actual performance of the school. When the public judges a school as “failing,” they are essentially saying “There isn’t enough social capital left in this school to make it viable.”

We need to think more broadly about residential segregation and social capital, and not treat charters as a systemic solution.

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