Public Agenda and the Spencer Foundation have just published on-line a rich and informative set of resources on charter schools. You will find a comprehensive summary of facts and details about charter schools and questions you should be asking yourself when you hear about or read about them. This is a nonpartisan summary of current research. Because the experiment with charter schools is ideological—charters are the centerpiece of an experiment with marketplace school choice—and because charters are so different from place to place, you won’t find the answer in this publication to the ultimate question: Are charter schools a good idea?
Several shorter pieces accompany the longer report. Two short resources—10 Questions for Journalists and 10 Questions for Policymakers—target specific constituencies. A third, Are Charter Schools a Good Way to Improve Education in Our Community?, is a discussion starter for a parent or civic organization. In a few pages it presents facts about charter schools—that they are largely an urban phenomenon and make up about 6 percent of publicly funded schools today—and broad questions to consider.
Public Agenda’s new publication is fair and comprehensive in its description of the research. Explaining why authoritative research about charter schools is hard to find, the Guide to Research describes serious challenges: “Students, schools and the laws governing them vary considerably across the country… Some charter schools are freestanding, while others are managed by larger organizations. States vary in their regulations, including whether or not they cap the number of charter schools that are allowed to open and the certifications they require for teachers. States, districts and schools differ in many ways, such as school financing and in demographics. And most charter school studies use samples of charter schools and students that are not representative of all charter schools and students. Researchers can therefore generalize their findings only to the specific student population, geographic location or type of charter school that they studied.”
Public Agenda’s resources, filled with facts and the questions policy makers, journalists, and citizens should ask, remind us that we ought to be questioning far more deeply the rapid expansion of charter schools and wondering what all this means for our children, our neighborhoods, our cities, and our society. The longer Guide to Research provides background research summaries and the key questions people ought to ask in a number of areas—such issues as Key Facts about Charter Schools, Reading the Research, Student Achievement, Diversity and Inclusion, Teachers and Teaching, Innovation, Finances, Governance and Regulation, Charter School Operators, Families, Public Opinion, and Questions for Future Research.
Each section is an in-depth, nonpartisan summary of a mass of current research. Many readers will need guidance to begin to digest all this information. Users of the guide will still need to search for journalism by researchers who have key contacts (including whistle blowers) who know some of the answers about how all this is working on the ground: Stephanie Simon’s piece several years ago for Reuters, for example, or last summer’s Detroit Free Press‘s week-long expose on the charter fiasco in Detroit, or some serious questioning by Robin Lake, the promoter of portfolio school reform who has begun raising concerns about her own organization’s strategy as it is playing out in charter schools in Detroit. And, of course, there is all the controversy in New York City about promotion of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters by wealthy hedge fund managers. Finally the Cashing In On Kids website regularly posts investigations of charter schools—answers to some of the questions Public Agenda raises. Cashing In On Kids, for example, has recently posted a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy & Coalition for Community Schools, System Failure: Louisiana’s Broken Charter School Law, an investigation that makes no attempt to disguise the problems with how the New Orleans charter school experiment has failed, from the point of view of the report’s authors: “Underinvestment in oversight leaves Louisiana’s charter schools vulnerable to financial fraud and academic failures.” Such candor about a report’s point of view is regularly present in the pieces posted at Cashing In On Kids.
Public Agenda’s Discussion Starter does ask the essential question: “Are charter schools a good way to improve education in our community?” But because the new publication is nonpartisan, Public Agenda does not answer this essentially political question. The Discussion Starter offers three possible answers to the question—“three broad perspectives to think over and discuss.” They are good prompts, as they define three of the most common frames around charter schools: (1) “Charter schools offer parents more and better choices…. And that should be our goal—giving families the power to choose….” (2) “Charter schools undermine our existing neighborhood schools. They siphon off tax dollars and separate some of the most motivated and knowledgeable parents from our regular schools. (3) Charter schools offer a much-needed chance to try out new ideas and approaches….”
I’ll close by sharing this blog’s point of view: (2) is the correct answer. Charter schools undermine our existing neighborhood schools. Why? Even though public schools in America have never been perfect and our society has historically under-served groups of students who were marginalized—black and brown students, American Indian students, English language learners, disabled students, poor students, girls— democracy itself has enabled advocates to fight for and win reforms. While our society urgently needs to find ways to expand educational opportunity for vulnerable children, a democratically governed system incorporates public engagement and electoral politics as mechanisms for reform. We all benefit from public ownership and oversight by state governments and local school boards. And a comprehensive network of public schools, rather than a fragmented patchwork of privately operated alternatives, creates systemic programming that can ensure services for a mass of children with many needs. As students whose families know how to play the school choice process go to charters, they leave behind in the public schools the students least likely to be acceptable in charters because they are very poor or English learners, or seriously disabled. The rapid growth of charters is turning our big city school districts into places of last resort for the children whose needs are greatest. At the same time, as school choice alternatives siphon off more public dollars, public school districts struggle with fewer resources.
The political philosopher Benjamin Barber says it best: “Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)