New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait Is Bragging Again About Charter Schools

Last week, New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait published another of his long rants about the failure of public schools, the glories of charter schools, and all the reasons he disdains teachers unions.  Chait begins:

“In the dozen years since Barack Obama undertook the most dramatic education reform in half a century—prodding local governments to measure how they serve their poorest students and to create alternatives, especially charter schools, for those who lack decent neighborhood options—two unexpected things have happened.  The first is that charter schools have produced dramatic learning gains for low-income minority students… What was ten years ago merely an experiment has become a proven means to develop the potential of children whose minds had been neglected for generations. And yet the second outcome of the charter-school breakthrough has been a bitter backlash within the Democratic Party.  The political standing of the idea has moved in the opposite direction of the data, as two powerful forces—unions and progressive activists—have come to regard charter schools as a plutocratic assault on public education… ‘I am not a charter school fan because it takes the options available and money for public schools,’ Biden told a crowd in South Carolina during the Democratic primary, as the field competed to prove its hostility toward education reform in general and charters in particular.”

Chait is honest about his personal connection with the charter school sector—through his wife, Robin Chait, a Senior Policy Advisor at WestEd, whose website describes her work: “Chait’s primary responsibility is to manage WestEd’s work on the National Charter School Resource Center.  She also provides technical assistance and develops publications, tools, and resources for charter authorizers, state education agencies and charter management organizations.”

Jonathan Chait has been writing about the glories of charter schools for years, and— in this new article as in the past—he emphasizes his distrust of teachers unions and his aversion to tenure, which Chait believes is responsible for mediocrity or worse in the public schools: “The final element of charters’ formula is inescapably controversial.  They prioritize the welfare of their students over those of their employees, which means paying teachers based on effectiveness rather than how long they’ve been on the job—and being able to fire the worst ones… Today, teachers unions have adopted a militant defense of the tenure prerogatives of their least effective members, equating that stance with a defense of the teaching profession as a whole.”

Six years ago, the chair of the education department at Seton Hall University, Dr. Daniel Katz published a scathing critique of another of Chait’s rants at New York Magazine.  Katz’s critique precisely captures the problems in Chait’s new rant: “He doesn’t examine how the ‘accountability’ measures favored by reformers come from statistical models that are not accepted as valid measures of teachers’ impact on student learning.  He doesn’t look at the impact on students, teachers and schools of the constant drive for more testing of students, nor does he look at the corporations that are eager to monetize the results of those tests.  He does not consider the ways in which the rich and influential have used charter school expansion to line their own investment portfolios, nor does he consider the corrupting influence on Democratic politicians of hedge fund manager created political action committees that use campaign donations to ensure charter schools keep expanding. He does not examine that many charter school ‘successes’ come at the expense of their appalling attrition rates, nor does he reference the new reports of widespread fraud and abuse of public money in the rapidly growing and poorly regulated charter sector.  He mentions the Vergara decision in California and opines that it ’embarrasses’ teacher unions by highlighting the ‘least-defensible aspect of their agenda and its most sympathetic victims,’ but he does not mention the extremely questionable research that was used to support the case, nor does he mention that the victims in question could not name a single teacher who was ‘grossly ineffective’… Jonathan Chait is an experienced journalist and editor. He had it entirely within his power to write an interesting piece on the potential of a rift between Democrats and one of their traditionally reliable constituencies, and to examine, fairly, the different sides of the issues. Instead, he took it as a given that charter schools are successful alternatives and only union absolutists have any qualms about accountability and tenure reforms.”  (For citations, please see Katz’s original post.  His citations are embedded in his own report but would not copy into this post.)

The Dean and a Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky College of Education, Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig castigates Chait’s new article.  Vasquez Heilig provides links to peer-reviewed educational research to dispute Chait’s arguments:  “Charter schools do not deliver extraordinary results—in fact on average their results are quite limited. Contrary to Chait’s argument, as an academic I can assuredly tell you that ‘education researchers’ HAVE NOT been shocked by charter school gains—I think unimpressed is probably a better word.  Check out this extensive list of more than 30 National Education Policy Center ‘top experts’ whose peer reviewed research findings are largely contrary to Chait’s grandiose claims about school choice.”

Vasquez Heilig questions Chait’s arguments about charter schools’ admissions and push-out policies—policies Vasquez Heilig believes skew the data Chait cites to prove charter schools’ academic superiority: “Charter school admissions and student retention is not as simple as ‘lotteries’ and ‘voting with your feet.’ Thus due to widespread access and inclusion issues, charters are NOT a perfect laboratory for research…  While students may enter charters via lottery, student attrition is an extensive problem for charter schools. For example, we conducted an analysis of state data and published the work as a peer reviewed study in the Berkeley Review of Education. We found that approximately 40% of Black students left KIPP before graduation and identified a similar problem in other independent and network charters.”  “It is well known in the peer reviewed research literature that ‘no excuses’ charter schools serially crop and suspend students of color which creates a creamed population of students. Scholars of color such as Laura Hernández (Learning Policy Institute), Janelle Scott (University of Pennsylvania), Terrenda White (University of Colorado), Kevin Lawrence Henry (University of Wisconsin), Chris Torres (Michigan State University), Joanne Golann (Vanderbilt University), and Chezare Warren (Vanderbilt University) have extensively studied the ‘carceral’ practices, pedagogies and experiences of parents/students of color in no excuses charters…. A quick Google search of any of these scholars will reveal their important and critical work about charter access and inclusion (and) the incorrect framing of the issue by Chait.”

Vasquez Heilig corrects Chait’s allegation that teachers unions are the primary opponent of charter schools: “Another common argument from Chait is that the teachers’ unions are the primary opponents of market-based school choice. But union leadership has been historically sidelined on charters because of an apparent strategy to organize charter schools.”  So… who is supporting charter schools? “What Chait didn’t discuss is where the money is coming from to support charter school advocacy. Betsy DeVos is the most influential supporter and now probably the easiest proponent to identify. However, a peer reviewed article with Jameson Brewer (University of North Georgia) and Frank Adamson (California State University Sacramento) extensively documented that in the shadows is hundreds of millions of dollars spent to promote privately managed schools from foundations of billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Smaller organizations including the Libre initiative and the Democrats for Education Reform— and many, many other Astroturf organizations at the local level—have accepted tens of millions of dollars over the years from billionaires and their foundations to press for market-based school choice.”

Here are three other primary problems with charter schools that Chait neglects to consider.

First:     Research widely demonstrates that charter schools rarely serve the same student populations as their traditional public school counterparts.  Research by Mark Weber and Julia Sass Rubin at Rutgers University demonstrates, for example, that: “New Jersey charter schools continue to enroll proportionally fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students than their sending district public schools. The special education students enrolled in charter schools tend to have less costly disabilities compared to special education students in the district public schools…  (D)ata…  show that many charter schools continue to enroll fewer at-risk students than their sending district public schools.”  Public schools in New Jersey and other states are left with concentrations of students with high needs for expensive services.

Second:     In last year’s Asleep at the Wheel reports (here and here), the Network for Public Education condemned the waste of billions of federal Charter Schools Program dollars on schools that never opened or subsequently shut down, many times mid-year without warning. These reports document failed oversight of charter schools not only by the federal government which provides start-up dollars but also by the states under whose governments charters are authorized.  In his new article, Chait explains the theory behind the charter school marketplace where competition is supposed to ensure that the best schools survive and the weakest schools shut down. Chait admits that parents—who often have too little real information to correct for fancy advertising—cannot be sure to discern school quality, but he argues that, “Education researchers have found that what has worked, instead, is an enhanced role for entities known as charter authorizers—the official public agencies that decide which charter schools are allowed to open and which ones are forced to close.”  Here are some examples from Ohio, however, which ought to undermine Chait’s faith in charter school authorizers.  I remember when the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, the body charged with managing Cleveland’s portfolio school plan, tried to ban the Cincinnati St. Aloysius Orphanage from authorizing charter schools in Cleveland.  St Aloysius Orphanage was known to provide little oversight of the charter schools it had authorized and was thought by the board of the Transformation Alliance to have failed in its role as authorizer.  But the Ohio Legislature, to whom the Transformation Alliance reports, prevented the Transformation Alliance from firing St. Aloysius Orphanage as a charter authorizer in Cleveland.  Or, there is the 17 year history of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Its authorizer, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, did not pull its charter until it had been repeatedly proven that the school had been overpaid nearly $200 million by the state of Ohio for masses of students who had not been attending the school.

Third:     Charter schools, which very often are given the power by their states and authorizers to open anywhere they can find a building, are sucking essential budget dollars out of the public school districts where they are located. The most definitive research was conducted by political economist Gordon Lafer in California’s Oakland Unified School District, but Lafer’s conclusions apply across the more than forty states which permit charter schools. Lafer documented that the Oakland Unified School District loses a net amount of $57.3 million each year to the charter schools located within its boundaries:

“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…  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.” “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.”

After Months-Long Battle, California Finally Enacts Modest Oversight of Charter School Sector

There’s an old cliche that almost perfectly describes the struggle to regulate an out-of-control charter school sector from state to state:  You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

In late August, in a presentation at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, former Ohio Governor Bob Taft named lack of effective regulations in the Ohio laws that enabled charter schools as one of the things he regrets about his tenure as Ohio governor.  Taft, a Republican, served for two terms as governor, from 1999-2007. In his remarks last week Taft explained that during his term, “We were not as observant as we should have been with regard to the early development of charter schools. We didn’t have the quality control we should have had, and as a result, we have a lot of low-quality charter schools. We should have done a better job—making sure operators were good; quality was high.”  (You can listen to Taft’s comments here—at minute 53 in the broadcast.)

This year, the enormous difficulty of regulating charter schools in the public interest has centered in California. California’s original charter school enabling legislation, like the Ohio charter school legislation which Bob Taft now regrets, emphasized innovation and launched a new experiment. But it neglected strict oversight.  Los Angeles Times reporter Taryn Luna explains: “Charter schools in California are publicly funded and independently operated. Originally authorized in 1992 legislation to promote educational innovation, charter schools have evolved from an experiment to a system that enrolls more than 600,000 students across the state.  California ties education funding to enrollment, and charters have often been pitted against traditional neighborhood schools in a competition for students.”

Capital & Main‘s Bill Raden is more blunt.  He sees this year’s battle to regulate California’s out-of-control charter sector as an attempt to correct laws that, “created a California-sized test bed for the never proved, and now largely debunked ‘pure market’ education theories of radical libertarian economist Milton Friedman.”

After months of fierce debate pitting school teachers and public school supporters against the lavishly funded California Charter Schools Association and an even more conservative group, the Charter Schools Development Center, a deal for modestly improved oversight of the charter school sector was reached at the end of August. The deal was formally enacted by California’s state legislature last week. Governor Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond personally brought the two sides together to broker the deal.  The deal won’t rein in some of the most outrageous California charter school authorization practices,  described in the Network for Public Education’s 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, but at least it will provide  local school districts some control over the charters which elect to operate there.

The Los Angeles Times and EdSource report the details of the new regulations. The agreement provides that school boards can reject new charter school petitions based on the fiscal impact the new school will likely have on district public schools. The plan requires all teachers at charter schools to be fully credentialed. Until now California law has required full credentialing only for teachers of core subjects—language arts, math, science and social studies—but districts could hire non-credentialed teachers for the arts and foreign languages.  Under the new agreement, if a proposed charter is refused by the local school district, the charter sponsor may appeal to the county board of education, but appeals may no longer be made for the state to overrule the local school district, except in cases where the local school board is said to have abused its discretion or acted arbitrarily. Charter schools in California will now be evaluated according to the same rating system as the state’s public schools, and the new law makes it at least somewhat easier to shut down academically or financially unsound schools.

There remains concern that the new plan incorporates broad principles, but that it may spawn litigation as it is implemented.

Impetus for the new regulations grew intense this year, especially during teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, where teachers exposed the dire conditions in their public schools, conditions created to a significant extent by the fiscal impact of charters on the public schools. In an academic study, political economist Gordon Lafer demonstrated conclusively that the growing charter school sector sucks essential dollars from the public schools—students carrying so much revenue out of the public system that the public districts can no longer maintain core functions required by law without increasing class sizes to unmanageable levels and slashing the number of nurses, counselors, librarians, and enrichment programs.

Demonstrating that in Oakland, charter schools suck $57.3 million from the public system each year, Lafer explains: “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…  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.” “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.”

A new study, State of Denial: California Charter Schools and Special Education Students, also demonstrates that in addition, charter schools in California—just as in other states—educate fewer special education students and far fewer students with severe disabilities.  Diane Ravitch summarizes the conclusions of the study: “The study found that charters enroll fewer students with disabilities than public schools. Charter enrollment (of disabled students) is 11% compared to more than 14% in public schools.  Furthermore, charters enroll fewer students with severe disabilities. They avoid the students who are most expensive to educate…  In some of the charter networks, fewer than 10% of students are entitled to special education services.  One celebrated charter in Oakland… known for its high test scores, has fewer than 3%.  The 12 Rocketship charter schools enroll only 7.34% students with disabilities. The two charters created by former Governor Jerry Brown in Oakland enroll fewer than 10% students with disabilities.”

While California has now taken steps to establish minimal oversight of its charter school sector, nobody believes the fight is over. The Los Angeles Times‘ education reporter Howard Blume predicts that the new regulations will only continue to fuel what has been a long and lavishly funded political battle: “A major agreement aimed at setting stronger standards for charter schools stands to intensify power struggles for seats on the Board of Education in Los Angeles, setting the stage for more contentious and costly election battles between charter advocates and allies of the teachers union, a cross section of education leaders and experts said… In Los Angeles, school board elections already were the most expensive in the country—as the influential teachers union went head-to-head against better funded pro-charter school groups seeking a controlling majority on the seven-member body. A record breaking $17 million was spent on three 2017 board races, including nearly $10 million in District 4, where charter-backed Nick Melvoin defeated union-backed school board president Steve Zimmer… The stakes are especially high in Los Angeles, where close to 20% of public school students attend 224 charters, more than any other school system in the nation.  Currently, the board is closely divided on many issues affecting charters, but leans toward tighter restrictions… The agreement between the teachers unions and charter organizations announced by Newsom…represents the biggest revision to state charter law since it was first enacted in 1992, when charters were widely viewed as a niche experiment to foster innovation. They have since become a central education reform strategy, often with wealthy backers and foundations propelling their growth. In Sacramento, there’s been a decades-long stalemate over charter regulations….”

While I agree with Howard Blume that the battle will continue, I am concerned about his and other reporters’ framing of the fight as a simple political battle between lavish backers of charters and teachers unions. Charter schools were created everywhere without any real understanding of the urgent need for public regulation in a system where millions of tax dollars would be flowing into the coffers of entrepreneurs. There is a lot of money sloshing around in the charter sector, including the for-profit charter management companies making big profits from the non-profit charters they are paid to manage. Across the states, this money has flowed generously into the campaign coffers of the state legislators—the very people responsible for public oversight.  California has also seen huge investments in this battle from neoliberal ideologues—Eli Broad, a California native, and additional out-of-state money from the likes of Michael Bloomberg.

In California and across the states, teachers unions represent the people closest to the students in the public schools. Their members provide the primary source of funding to support and promote public education.  On the unions’ side in this battle are also the researchers like Gordon Lafer in the report described above, and Rutgers University’s Bruce Baker, who has also demonstrated that out-of-control charter school expansion is catastrophically undermining the public schools not only in Los Angeles and Oakland, but also across the United States.

California demonstrates all the reasons why it is impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube.