Why School Choice Ends Up Creating Injustice and Inequality

In his new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, school funding expert, Bruce Baker critiques the rapid expansion of charter schools for siphoning off dollars from state and local public school budgets.  Baker also addresses the philosophical contention frequently offered to justify the rapid expansion of school choice—that justice can be defined by offering more choices for those who have few.

Our society now accepts the essential promise of liberty defined as freedom from enslavement and domination. We also would like to believe that our society provides freedom from want, and many argue that school choice offers opportunity to those who have been disempowered by poverty.  The wealthy can pay for whatever kind of education they want to choose for their children.  So… what about helping poorer people with freedom of choice—at public expense—in an education marketplace? Won’t that result in what the “portfolio school reform” think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, promises: “a great school for every child in every neighborhood”?

Baker argues that more choice will not necessarily result in equal access to quality schooling.  Instead, equal opportunity can be better protected systemically: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Three charter school news reports—this week alone—demonstrate the truth of Baker’s contention that justice can best be served in an education system which protects—by law—students’ rights as well as the public stewardship of tax dollars.

Detroit: Charter School Promises Miracles, Achievement Plummets, School Closes

In the first example, for Chalkbeat, Koby Levin describes the sudden closure of a Detroit charter high school.  In late September, only weeks into the 2018-19 school year, while signs on the grass surrounding Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice declared: “Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy… Now Enrolling 9th-12th Grades,” parents and students were told the school would shut down: “On Wednesday, Sept. 26, the charter school’s board held a meeting with a single item on the agenda: the closure of Delta Prep.  Parents, students, and teachers piled into the auditorium to demand that their school be spared, but their outpouring of tears and grief was not enough. Two days before the homecoming game, the board voted to shut the school down—effective immediately.”

The idea behind charter schools is that the marketplace will regulate. Parents are expected to demand quality, and the schools they don’t choose will eventually close in what is dreamed to be an ever reinforcing spiral of school improvement.  But in Detroit, Levin depicts another reality: “A review of hundreds of pages of documents, and interviews with key leaders involved in the school since its creation, show that the forces arrayed against every school in Detroit had pushed Delta Prep’s chances of survival to nothing within a year if its opening, if not before…”  Delta Prep had recruited students who were left without a school when two other charters failed: “We guaranteed that if they came to Delta Prep, we’d correct the wrong of their school closing and keep them together,” comments one of the school’s original founders.

But running a school was much more difficult than Delta Prep’s founders expected, and the management company the board hired couldn’t fulfill the founders’ promises: “Delta officials had promised that ’90 percent of students will attend every class, on time, every day.’ But in the school’s third year, just 20 percent of students came to class with any regularity. Officials said they would boost student achievement… Their goal: ‘85% of students will demonstrate competency in all core subjects via exit tests.’  But within three years, not a single Delta Prep 11th-grader was deemed proficient in math….  Just 10 percent of 11th-graders posted passing scores in SAT English…. Delta Prep had promised that ‘100% of graduates will be accepted to college.’  But in 2016, the only year the state recorded graduation data for Delta Prep, just over half of the school’s graduates enrolled in college.  Just six students—10 percent of that first graduating class—went on to complete a year’s worth of college credits within a year of graduating.  If the data was concerning, the situation inside the school was even more dire.  When Brandi North was hired as principal in 2017, the first thing she did was hire security. The sprawling school was built during an era when Detroit couldn’t find enough classroom space for all of its students, but now it sat mostly unused, and students tended to disappear into vacant classrooms. Teacher-student relations were antagonistic.”

At fault in Detroit? A complicated mix of good intentions and huge problems promises couldn’t solve. Lack of regulation. Well-intentioned founders who hired a management company that spent too little on instruction. A shortage of state funds in Michigan which has failed adequately to fund traditional public schools and charter schools.  Students whose needs were greater than the school’s founders anticipated. A competitive marketplace where parents and students lured by advertising and promises were misled in every way.  After Delta Prep ended up on the state’s watchlist as a low performing school, only 264 students out of the 350 who were expected showed up this fall. As students and their state funding fell away, the school was forced to close by late September.

Levin concludes: “Delta Prep’s sudden demise added to a two-decade drumbeat of school closures that has left Detroit’s education landscape in turmoil, and has forced thousands of students to endure the serious social and academic consequences of unneccesarily changing schools.”

Perfectly Legal: Arizona Lawmaker Profits from Charter Schools and Helps Make Laws to Enrich Himself

This Arizona story isn’t so much about how charter school expansion has disrupted students’ right to an education.  Instead it is about how unscrupulous charter school operators rip off the tax dollars intended for public education and urgently needed by public schools. For the Arizona Republic, Craig Harris profiles Eddie Farnsworth, a member of the Arizona House, and elected to the Arizona Senate on November 6, 2018: “When the Benjamin Franklin charter chain completes the purchase next month of its four East Valley campuses from founder Eddie Farnsworth, ownership will shift to a newly formed nonprofit company.  But the $569 million deal, from which Farnsworth will pocket $13.9 million, won’t be the state lawmaker’s last payday from the schools he’s owned for decades.  Records show he will loan Benjamin Franklin $2.8 million over seven years, earning himself $478,000 in interest while ensuring the schools have enough cash to keep operating.  He’ll collect another $79,600 a year in rent on the building that currently serves as Benjamin Franklin’s corporate headquarters.  And Farnsworth, who has been a staunch defender of charter schools at the Arizona legislature, will continue to be paid as a consultant to Benjamin Franklin… Meanwhile. the new nonprofit organization formed to buy the schools will have little cash, requiring it to borrow the $2.8 million from Farnsworth in order to have 60 days of working capital…”

Farnsworth understands how to make money from the unregulated charter sector he has helped create through the legislature’s hands-off stance: “Farnsworth defended the sale, which makes him the latest charter-school owner in Arizona’s loosely regulated industry to receive a multimillion-dollar payday. Benjamin Franklin will have more long-term stability by converting from a for-profit business to a nonprofit company, he said.”  There is considerable confusion about whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but always operated by private contractors are private schools or some sort of public schools. It would seem very clear that Arizona legislator, Eddie Farnsworth, best understands the private, marketplace nature of the charter school network he founded.

Advertising, False Promises, and Mythology Too Frequently Distort the Truth in Charter School Marketplace

Finally, there is New Orleans, the city where in 2005, immediately following Hurricane Katrina, school privatizers swooped in to create what they continue to brag is now a model all-charter school district.  But the charters in New Orleans were superimposed after the disaster of the hurricane on an already selective and unequal school district.  Benjamin Franklin High School, for example, was the city’s most selective.  And Fortier High School was transformed from a public high school that served its neighborhood into Lusher Charter High School, where students must submit an application.  We hear all about the myth of rising test scores among New Orleans’ charter high schools, but the fact that the top scoring schools are explicitly selective is usually left out of the story.  Until this week’s report from Jarvis DeBerry for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. DeBerry exposes the irony that several of these selective high schools recently won an equity award from the state of Louisiana: “Equity is the practice of making sure that everybody—no matter their identity, no matter their background, no matter their whatever—can fully access or participate in a particular thing… If you’re familiar with the concept, it will surprise you to learn that some New Orleans schools have… still managed to be named ‘Equity Honorees.’  These include schools that have eschewed oneApp in favor of deliberately byzantine admissions processes, schools that don’t provide buses to pick up and take home students without transportation and/or schools that only admit the most academically talented.”

DeBerry continues: “Lusher Charter School is selective admission and on top of that, has a notoriously complex application process. Lake Forest Elementary Charter School’s application process is also hard by design.  Benjamin Franklin High School is highly selective…  Given that these schools are designed to be difficult to access and are only letting in the most academically prepared students and/or those from families that are more well off, how does the state see fit to praise them for modeling equity?”

Equity and Liberty Conflict When It Comes to the Education Market

The Journey4Justice Alliance’s executive director, Jitu Brown understands that an equitable system of public schools—regulated by law to protect students’ rights and the public interest— is likely to be more adequate, stable, and equitable than what a competitive charter school market provides.  In his Forward to a report,  Failing “Brown v Board,” published in May 2018, Brown addresses Bruce Baker’s concern that in education, the charter school marketplace undermines equity even as it expands freedom of choice:  “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”

School Choice Fails to Create Equity and Justice for Our Society’s Poorest Children

Early this week, in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss published an important reflection on Why It Matters Who Governs America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education. Burris and Ravitch are responding to a major report from the Learning Policy Institute’s Peter Cookson, Linda Darling-Hammond, Robert Rothman, and Patrick Shields, a report which endorses the idea of “portfolio school reform.”

The Learning Policy Institute’s report, The Tapestry of American Public Education, promotes a lovely metaphor, a tapestry of school options woven together—open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, and specialty schools based on distinct educational models. The Learning Policy Institute declares: “The goal and challenge of school choice is to create a system in which all children choose and are chosen by a good school that serves them well and is easily accessible. The central lesson from decades of experience and research is that choice alone does not accomplish this goal.  Simply creating new options does not lead automatically to greater access, quality or equity.”  Here is how the Learning Policy Institute proposes that such fair and equal choice might be accomplished: “Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures. Too often, questions related to the number of charters a district should have address school governance preferences, rather than the needs of children… Work to ensure equity and access for all. Expanding choice can increase opportunities, or it can complicate or restrict access to convenient and appropriate opportunities, most often for the neediest students… Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities, and resources to inform decision making for families, communities, and policymakers… Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.”

The Learning Policy Institute’s recommendations sound familiar. They are the same arguments made by the Center on Reinventing Public Education as it describes its theory of “portfolio school reform.” Portfolio school reform imagines an amicable, collaborative mix of many different schools: “A great school for every child in every neighborhood. The portfolio strategy is a problem-solving framework through which education and civic leaders develop a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools. It moves past the one-size-fits-all approach to education. Portfolio systems place educators directly in charge of their schools, empower parents to choose the right schools for their children, and focus school system leaders—such as school authorizers or those in a district central office—on overseeing school success.”

Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”

This rhetoric is all very nice. But the realities on the ground in the portfolio school districts I know fail to embody equity and justice.  I believe it is a pipe dream to promise a great school choice for every child in every neighborhood.  For one thing, there are the political and economic realities, beginning with the operation of power politics which is always part of the mayoral governance that is at the heart of this theory. There is also the unequal access parents have to information, and the unequal political, economic, and social position of parents.  And finally there is the devastating impact of the ongoing expansion of school choice on the traditional public schools in the school districts where charters are proliferating. CRPE calls its governance theory “portfolio school reform.” Many critics instead describe parasitic school reform.

Fortunately Burris and Ravitch promptly offered their critique of the new Learning Policy Institute report: “What concerns us… (is) the report’s insistence that school governance doesn’t matter. The authors deny the negative impact that charter schools have on the viability of neighborhood public schools, the very schools they acknowledge the vast majority want. We know from experience that charter schools and vouchers drain finances and the students they want from the district public schools, causing budget cuts, teacher layoffs and larger class sizes in the schools that enroll the most children. Yet the report suggests that charter school caps should be removed, which is likely to further destabilize public schools… From the first recommendation of the report: ‘Debates that focus on questions such as how many charters a district should have are focused on adults and their preferences for school governance, rather than on the needs of children.’ This claim is wrong. School governance directly affects the rights and well-being of students… Public governance of our schools matters for the health of our democracy. The public school was designed to serve and promote the common good; it is paid for by the public, and it belongs to the public, not entrepreneurs.”

Burris and Ravitch explain that research confirms the fiscal damage caused by charter school expansion. Here is some of that research:  In a November 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, the Rutgers University school finance professor Bruce Baker outlines the catastrophic consequences of state laws permitting rapid and unregulated expansion of charter schools: “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 the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools….”  “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.”

Confirming Baker’s conclusions, in a May 2018, report for In the Public InterestBreaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how, in California, charter school expansion has been undermining the fiscal capacity of several local school districts: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer continues: “Indeed it is the district’s obligation to serve all children that makes it difficult to close schools in line with failing enrollment… School districts—unlike charter schools—are charged with enabling children to attend nearby neighborhood schools; this too is an obstacle to school closures.  Finally because districts cannot turn students away, they must maintain a large enough school system to accommodate both long-term population growth and sudden influxes of unexpected students—as has happened when charter schools suddenly close down.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

We now also more fully understand that the damage of portfolio school reform reaches deeper into communities and neighborhoods than just the fiscal distress for public school districts. After 14 years, researchers have been able to investigate the meaning of portfolio school reform in Chicago, where Arne Duncan launched Renaissance 2010 portfolio school reform in 2004.  At the end of the school year in May, 2013, fifty traditional neighborhood public schools were shed from the school district’s portfolio of schools—shut down because the District said they were “underutilized” after families experimented with school choice in an ever-growing number of charter schools. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research describes the devastation to neighborhoods and the community mourning that followed the school closures—80 percent in the poorest African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides.  In her stunning new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing explores the personal responses of children, teachers, and parents to the closure of their schools.

Bruce Baker reflects more theoretically in a brand new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, on our foolishness when we conflate of the expansion of school choice with educational justice: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another.  While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same.  Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Baker continues, confronting the argument implicit in school choice, that any school exists to satisfy the desires and the needs of the particular families and children doing the choosing: “The tax dollars collected belong to (are governed or controlled by) the democratically governed community (local, state, federal) that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars, which are to be distributed according to the demands—preferred goods and services—of that community within the constraints of the law. Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (p. 30)

Public schools promise access for all children to a stable network of schools—across poor neighborhoods just as public schools are are maintained as a stable network in wealthy communities.  Jitu Brown, the Chicago community organizer who now leads the national Journey4Justice Alliance, describes how school choice has undermined this promise in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities:  “There is no such thing as ‘school choice’ in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion.”

The public schools are our mutual responsibility through public governance—paid for and operated by government on behalf of he public. We have a lot of work to do to realize this promise for all children.  Bruce Baker describes our responsibility: “More than anything else, our system of public schooling requires renewed emphasis on equitable, adequate, and economically sustainable public financing at a level that will provide all children equal opportunity to achieve the outcomes we, as a society, desire for them.” (p. 31)