What David Leonhardt Neglects to Consider in Tuesday’s Column Endorsing Charter Schools

In a column on Tuesday, David Leonhardt, the NY Times columnist, asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a long and devoted advocate of the expansion of school vouchers, to consider Mark Dynarski’s new study—sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education itself— of the voucher program in Washington, D.C. along with the Thomas Fordham Institute’s most recent study of vouchers in Ohio.  This and other research has shown that students carrying vouchers to private schools don’t do as well in math as their public school counterparts, and don’t do significantly better in general.  Based on these studies, Leonhardt, argues that vouchers are not a good alternative to public schools, and he suggests Betsy DeVos should pay attention to the evidence.

But although Leonhardt believes vouchers don’t work, he is a big fan of school choice and charter schools. Leonhardt buys into the idea that competition through privatization is a good idea and that society’s best chance for helping students in struggling schools is to help them escape from traditional public schools to charter schools chosen by their parents.  There are, however, a number of problems with Leonhardt’s argument for charter schools. And there are many reasons to believe that investing in the public schools—especially those in our poorest neighborhoods where meager and uneven school funding has left the schools unable to meet the enormous needs their students present—would likely better serve the students and their communities.

Leonhardt’s first mistake is his belief that charter schools take all comers.  He writes: “Crucially, many charters are open to all comers, which means their success doesn’t stem from skimming off the best.”  The Network for Public Education (NPE) disagrees: “Unlike public schools, charters can define the number of enrollment slots they wish to make available. They do not have to take students mid-year and they do not have to ‘backfill’ seats; that is to accept students to fill open spots when students leave.” NPE continues: “Charter schools can appear to outperform public schools when they don’t enroll the same types of students. Because charters tend to serve far fewer students with disabilities and fewer who don’t speak English as their first language, they can appear to be higher preforming.  Many charters do not ‘backfill’ when students leave or take older students.  Charter schools keep only the students they want. Through various methods, charter schools shed their most problematic students who must then return to local public schools that accept all students. ‘Higher-performing’ charter schools are an illusion. Even the best performing charter schools can trace some or all of their advantages to differences in the students they reach. They do not have to take… (all) students like publics do—regardless of space, grade or time of the year.”

A second problem is that in defense of charter schools Leonhardt cites academic research conducted in the District of Columbia, Boston, Denver, New Orleans, NYC, Florida and Texas. All of the studies he cites, except for the one in Florida which measured high school graduation and subsequent college matriculation, are based solely on comparison of students’ standardized test scores in charter and public schools. And even in Florida, Leonhardt selects a study that evaluates charter schools based on their capacity to raise achievement among the students in the charter schools. But studies that generalize about charter school test scores are flawed by their very premise, as charter schools are designed to be as different as can be—with a mass of different strategies and policies.  Broad brush studies of charters overall miss the distinctions in school quality. And certainly the online charter schools where students study at home on their computers have been shown to be ineffective across the states.

A third problem is that  Leonhard fails to consider that charters serve only a tiny percentage of our nation’s K-12 students. Charter schools are only 6.6 percent of the nation’s publicly funded schools; traditional public schools continue to make up 93.4 percent of all publicly funded schools across the United States. Leonhardt neglects to consider the studies that examine the consequences of charter school expansion on the public school districts in which the charters are situated. Economists use the term “negative externalities” to describe the unwanted side-effects of a particular public policy. Recent large studies of charters in cities, where most charter growth has occurred, have begun documenting very serious negative externalities affecting the traditional public schools that continue to the majority of American students.

In a report published last November by the Economic Policy Institute, Bruce Baker, a school finance expert at Rutgers University, concluded that a primary problem with charter schools is that their rapid growth in urban school districts is destabilizing the big city school districts in which they are expanding.  He shows, “that charters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic model… one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. Some of the more dispersed multiple authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid unfettered, under-regulated growth.”

Then, in mid-April, In the Public Interest published a study by Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon describing problems caused for public school districts in California by the rapid growth of the charter school sector: “Unfortunately, the central conclusion of this analysis is that funding for charter facilities is almost completely disconnected from educational policy objectives, and the results are, in turn, scattershot and haphazard… Far too much of these public funds are spent on schools built in neighborhoods that have no additional need for classroom space, and which offer no improvement over the quality of education already available in nearby public schools.”  Lafer continues: “The most fundamental question to ask about any type of school construction is: how many schools are needed for the number of students we have?”  In California, he writes, “(N)early 450 charter schools have opened in places that already had enough classroom space for all students—and this overproduction of schools was made possible by generous public support….”

In Chicago and Detroit the growth of a competitive charter school marketplace has resulted in the closure of neighborhood public schools.  Charter operators open schools according to where they believe there is a market for their services and where they can find a space in an office building or a closed public or parochial school. Intense competition driven by aggressive marketing may draw students from neighboring public schools.  Eventually school districts close the emptying buildings, but again Bruce Baker warns about a dangerous negative externality: “Capital stock—publicly owned land and buildings—should not be sold off to private entities for lease to charter operators, but rather, centrally managed both to ensure flexibility (options to change course) and to protect the public’s assets (taxpayer interests). Increasingly, districts… have sold land and building to charter operators and related business entities, and now lack sufficient space to serve all children should the charter sector, or any significant portion of it, fail  Districts and state policymakers should not put themselves in a position where the costs of repurchasing land and buildings to serve all eligible children far exceed fiscal capacity and debt limits.”

Baker describes the dry subject of “taxpayer assets,” but charters forcing out traditional public schools have also had human and personal consequences. In September of 2015 in Chicago, parents and community advocates saved neighborhood Dyett High School only after mounting a 34 day hunger strike in a South Side neighborhood where charter school competition had shuttered the only public high school. Finally the Chicago Public Schools agreed to reopen Dyett and once again ensure that the community is anchored by a public high school zoned to accept all students residing in the neighborhood.

Even the bond agencies have been warning school districts that their bond ratings may suffer if charter schools are rapidly expanded when school districts’ fixed costs cannot be reduced to accommodate the loss of students.  When Question 2 to lift the cap on the startup of new charters was considered in Massachusetts in last November’s election,  Moody’s, the bond rating agency, sent a letter to the school districts in Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, and Fall River warning that their school district credit ratings could be lowered if charter schools were to be rapidly expanded, thereby undermining the public school districts’ fiscal viability.

Bruce Baker concludes: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide…. Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Ironically a huge warning about an out-of-control school marketplace comes from Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a supporter of education markets and charter schools. After visiting Detroit in the summer of 2014, Lake reflected: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit? Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer. It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers. It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school. ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

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2 thoughts on “What David Leonhardt Neglects to Consider in Tuesday’s Column Endorsing Charter Schools

  1. Thanks, Jan. I’ve been waiting for your critique of David Leonhardt’s column. One sign of hope in the charter mess is the emergence of a charter school union movement. The Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) here in Chicago is slowly organizing charter networks. While they face an uphill battle given the high turn over rates of charter teachers and the inherent vulnerability most face from charter principals and networks ever vigilant against organizing efforts, this movement has the potential to provide a countervailing voice to the marketing departments of networks, revealing unpleasant truths about the treatment of staff and teachers and how charters manipulate their outcomes by relentlessly weeding out and not replacing low performers through a military type disciplinary process. One network in Chicago touts – and is known for – its rate of seniors going to college. (We don’t hear about how successful they are once they get to college.) But their high college admission rate is only possible because of the large number of students that arrived as high school freshmen who are long gone well before they are juniors taking advantage of the network’s aggressive college entrance program. Organizing charter teachers and staff will not solve all the problems of charter schools, but it will install some balance in a system currently weighted toward the interests of investors, ideological board members, and operators. Groups like ACTS deserve the support of community partners.

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