School Choice Versus A Public System of Education: The Big Picture

Cass Sunstein, in an opinion piece in Monday’s NY Times, explores the role of choice in people’s lives.  Does choice work better if we are allowed to assume full responsibility by choosing to opt into something or is it better if the choice is made by others and if we don’t agree, we can merely opt out?  For me the important question emerges about two-thirds of the way through Sunstein’s reflection: Are there times when it’s better not to have a choice?  “In ordinary life, most of us delegate a certain amount of choice-making authority to spouses, doctors, lawyers, engineers and financial advisers.  We do so when and because we do not want to take the time and trouble to make decisions ourselves, and when and because we know that we lack important information… A fundamental reason is that it frees us to focus on our deepest concerns.”  As a mother, for example, I was glad to be able to take my children to the public school to which our school district assigned them. I didn’t have to worry about being an education consumer; I could focus on being a parent and, as a citizen, ensuring support for our community’s strong and diverse public schools.

Sunstein’s article is about the broad issue of choice in human life.  As I read it, I found myself disturbed, as a citizen who cares about attacks on public schools by advocates of market choice, that Sunstein—like too many commentators who could potentially weave the consequences for public schools into consideration of a broader topic—just omits to think about the relevance of his topic—choice—to our education system where choice has recently become a primary issue of concern.  I found myself wondering if education has slipped off the radar because all the far right Republicans seeking the nomination for President are, by their very numbers, setting the terms of our public conversation.  Or maybe the problem is that, while those on the far-right are relentlessly re-defining the civil right to education as a parents’ right to choose, we supporters of schools as public institutions have forgotten about the big picture as we have focused on what are, admittedly, important details—the Common Core—too much testing—the evaluation of teachers.  We need to continue to proclaim the broader vision: the importance of public schools for expanding the rights of children in the institutions we have some power to control because they are public. Why? Because education organized around school choice presents insurmountable problems for our society and for the children and families schools are intended to serve.

Consider charter schools.  Expansion of school choice through charters sucks money out of public school budgets across the states (and in states like Pennsylvania directly out of local school budgets).  While public schools across the United States enroll roughly 50 million children and adolescents, charter schools enrolled 2.1 million students by the end of 2012.  Cyberschools, the largest on-line, for-profit charters, alone suck billions of tax dollars out of the state education budgets responsible for paying for the mass of children in public schools.  According to David Berliner and Gene Glass: “Cyberschooling at the K-12 level is a big business.  K12Inc., one of the largest companies in cyberschooling and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, reported revenues of approximately three-quarters of a billion dollars in fiscal year 2012.  The industry is projected to have revenues of approximately $25 billion by 2015.”  (50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 34)

Besides taking money from the public schools that serve the majority of children, school choice is driving racial segregation, as this blog described yesterday.  And there is evidence in study after study that charter schools engage in obvious and subtle forms of cream skimming—attracting children of parents who are engaged enough to complete sometimes complex applications—lacking specialized services for autistic or blind or deaf children—serving fewer extremely poor children and homeless children—lacking the services to help immigrant children learn English—finding ways to push out students with behavior problems—neglecting to replace students who drop out and hence building a smaller and smaller cohort of high scorers as children move through the grades. Across America’s big cities where the experiment in charter school choice is primarily located, all of these factors concentrate the children with the greatest needs in what are becoming public school systems of last resort for the children who are least attractive to the charters, which are themselves highly engaged in “choice” through subtle and frequently invisible selection screens.

Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike.  But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools.  Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings.  Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)

Enormous and widespread problems are arising from poor regulation of charter schools.  Part of this is by design; charter schools were originally conceptualized as places where educators would be free to experiment, without the rules that are part of large school systems. Lack of regulation is also part of the way the charter movement spread across the states. While the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan required states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools as a condition for qualifying for Race to the Top grants and while the Department of Education has been making federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has never dealt with the need for academic or financial oversight of charter schools.  Charter schools are regulated in state law, with enormous variation in the quality and quantity of oversight.   Robin Lake, a pro-charter promoter of “portfolio school reform”at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, acknowledged the urgent need for more oversight after she visited Detroit: “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….’”

Schools in the public sector are far from perfect. Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, acknowledges the need for public school improvement, but she points out that only in a system accountable to the public is such reform possible: “There is an urgent need to transform public institutions, starting with a thoroughgoing critique of the racism, inequity, bureaucratic intransigence, reproduction of social inequality, reactionary ideologies, disrespect, and toxic culture that pervades many public schools and school districts…. This critique was long made by progressive critics of public education.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 45) “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p.11)

But what claims for any kind of control can be made on a marketplace that is the mere aggregate of private choices?  And who ultimately does drive the choices made available in the market?  Here we must turn to the political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.”  (Consumed, p, 139)  A serious problem is that the school choice marketplace emerged as a sort of experiment patched together from place to place.  It is a marketplace where charter operators are making huge private profits which they are investing in political contributions to prevent public regulation of the marketplace after the fact.  The biggest and frequently the most unscrupulous charter operators are the people with the power to set the menu.

A traditional system of public schools owned by the public and accountable to the public is more likely to meet the needs of our nation’s 50 million children and to protect their rights.  Barber explains: “Private choices rest on individual power…. 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.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Another Pro-“Ed Reform” Group Deplores Charter Marketplace

The number of charter schools has grown rapidly since the U.S. Department of Education required in 2009 that, to qualify to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states would need to remove any caps on the number of new charter schools that can be opened each year. While until recently the debate about the expansion and performance of charter schools has been relatively ideological, now even supporters of competition and school choice have begun raising serious questions about the lack of oversight of charter schools that suck billions of dollars out of public education budgets across the states and too often fail academically or financially.

In the fall of 2014, two pro-charter advocates began to raise serious questions about our new charter landscape.   Margaret Raymond of Stanford’s Hoover Institution announced that marketplace school choice through charter schools is not working in Ohio.  And Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the inventor of “portfolio school reform,” wrote a  scathing condemnation in Education Next of the situation in Detroit:  “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 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….’”

Now the Education Trust-Midwest has condemned lack of regulation of the charter sector in Michigan.  Education Trust-Midwest declares itself pro-accountability, pro-test-and-punish, and “agnostic about school governance.” But how to get some kind of oversight of charters in Michigan is a question Education Trust-Midwest cannot answer, though the organization makes an excellent case for increased regulation: “Charter school authorizers, in particular, are arguably accountable to no one—not even our state’s governor—though almost one billion Michigan taxpayer dollars are spent on charter schools each year.  Charter authorizers are getting a free pass, despite being responsible for nearly 380 charter schools (and counting) and being the only entities in the state with the power to approve new charters and expand existing charter operators. While the state superintendent has recently threatened to use his limited authority to suspend authorizers, he cannot revoke an authorizer’s authority entirely for chronic low performance.”

The report describes the charter school sector in Michigan today: “Since the cap on charter schools was lifted in 2011, authorizers oversaw the largest single-year charter growth in state history.  In 2013, roughly 40 schools opened their doors.  In 2014, just under 39 new charters have opened, with many more expected in 2015.  Many of these new schools are run by operators with terrible track records of performance, such as Leona and Education Management Networks….”  “Without the cap, which once exerted at least some pressure on authorizers to be selective about new charter schools, today there is little incentive for authorizers to put students’ academic interests before that of some operators.  Indeed, the incentives run in the opposite direction: authorizers receive 3 percent of the public funding for each school they authorize, regardless of performance.  That amounted to about $30 million that went to Michigan’s charter authorizers last year.”

According to the new report, 40 different entities authorize charter schools in Michigan.  They include public higher education institutions, traditional pubic school districts, and intermediate districts. In a sidebar of the report, Sunil Joy explains how current law speaks to the issue of oversight of charter schools:  “According to the Michigan Revised School Code, the state superintendent has the ability to ‘suspend the power of the authorizing body’ for not engaging in ‘appropriate continuing oversight.’  The law goes on to say that any new contracts issued during a suspension period are void.  This process is vague and contested; some universities contend they are constitutionally autonomous.  Constitutional autonomy means that the Michigan constitution gives public university boards full authority to supervise their institutions to control and direct how they spend money… In August of 2014, the Michigan Department of Education put 11 authorizers on an ‘at-risk of suspension’ list for not engaging in proper transparency…. What is clear is that no one, including the state superintendent, can revoke an authorizer’s power.”

The Education Trust-Midwest suggests several needed reforms.  Authorizers whose schools don’t perform should be sanctioned. Authorizers should not be permitted to approve new contracts with companies that already have poorly performing charters.  Authorizers should be required to hold public meetings and accept community input as new schools are considered.  The Education Trust-Midwest does not, however, provide suggestions for building the political will in Michigan’s General Assembly for the passage of such regulations.  In a climate where many people are benefiting financially from the current scheme that lacks regulation, presumably charter authorizers and charter operators are making their influence felt by legislators.

Although nobody seems to know how to put the lid back on the Pandora’s Box of sins and evils that have come with unregulated school choice, more and more proponents of corporate reform have begun declaring that competition alone is not, as many have suggested in the past, an effective way to address achievement gaps and inequality. The Education Trust-Midwest has now gone on-record with Robin Lake, the proponent of “portfolio school reform” and with Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institution.  The Education Trust-Midwest declares: “Clearly school choice alone will not close Michigan’s unforgivable achievement gaps. Twenty years of data prove it. Simply opening the door for the rapid expansion of new charter schools isn’t enough to ensure our state actually provides better public schools for students.”

When Choosing Schools, Parents Often Pick Close-to-Home Over Test Scores

School choice is framed on the idea that if our society provides parents with enough choices, they will select the schools said to be excellent and their choices will drive up the academic quality of all schools because schools will compete to achieve excellence in order to be chosen by consumers.  The mark of excellence for which parents are assumed to compete these days is the school’s rating as defined by standardized test scores.

Last fall, however, some of the most prominent proponents of school choice as the driver of school quality began to express some skepticism.  Maybe marketplace school choice that has been so rapidly expanded across America’s big cities isn’t working the way it was supposed to.

First Robin Lake, executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—creator of the “portfolio school reform model” that purports to deliver a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods—and that encourages city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—went to Detroit. In early November, Lake and the Center for Reinventing Public Education published a scathing analysis in Education Next:  “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….’”

Then in mid-December Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) shocked listeners at the Cleveland City Club by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

Now in January we have two new academic reports that suggest one primary reason why school choice does not seem to be driving up school quality as measured by standardized test scores. Parents are more discerning than anyone expected, and they are looking at other factors besides a school’s test score ranking when they choose a school for their children.  (One can, of course, explore a whole range of other possible reasons why competition doesn’t work—including whether schools can control the factors that drive test scores and whether uneven financial support for schools limits any real capacity for competition.)

In a major new study, the Consortium on Chicago School Research reports that when Chicago closed nearly 50 schools in 2013, children were assigned to a “welcoming” school, but families could make another choice if they wished.  Of the families who opted out of their assigned “welcoming” school, some parents chose schools with higher test scores, but many chose lower rated schools.  Why?  “Overwhelmingly, families that enrolled in lower-rated CPS schools did so because of proximity to home… Although these parents also talked about wanting schools that met their children’s academic needs, distance was prioritized over other considerations—oftentimes because of safety concerns.” “Access to transportation and the cost of transportation to and from welcoming schools was prohibitive for many of the families.”

The Chicago researchers list several other factors that influenced parents as well: “Some parents relied on their social networks for information…. A few families had prior experiences with school staff or students and either strongly considered or ruled out schools based on these prior experiences… Simply knowing about a school through a personal or family connection often put that school into consideration… Some children needed very specific kinds of supports or programs that were not offered at every school…. Families with multiple children had more complicated choice sets because these families often prioritized keeping their children together…. Some parents wanted their children to move to a more racially diverse school because they wanted their children to be exposed to multiple cultures.  Others ruled out some schools if they believed their child would be in the racial minority… Parents not only wanted their children to have a safe commute to and from school, but they also wanted them to feel safe while at school.”

The Chicago researchers conclude: “Academic quality for these families meant anything from schools having after-school programs, to having certain curricula and courses, small class sizes, and one-on-one attention from teachers in classes.  In addition, several parents stressed the importance of enrolling their children into schools that were not overcrowded… Many of these same parents expressed concern over larger class sizes at the welcoming schools and wondered whether their children would be able to get what they needed from their teachers.”

In another study released this month, Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen at Tulane University examine the reasons parents choose schools in New Orleans, a district where school choice among charter schools has become almost universal because the school district has undergone massive charterization since the hurricane in the fall of 2005.   The school’s published academic rating is one of the factors parents consider but not the only factor: “Distance from home to school, academic performance of schools, and extracurricular activities predict school choices at all grade levels  Also, even after controlling for other school differences, families typically prefer schools that have ‘legacy’ names that were used pre-Katrina.  For families of children going to elementary schools, practical considerations such as distance and availability of extended school days and after-care seem especially important… For families with children going to high schools, extracurricular activities such as band and football seem especially important.” Factors that discouraged families from applying to particular schools include longer driving distances and a longer school year.

What these reports document is that parents are considering the needs of their children through the lens of a far more complex set of factors than mere test score rankings.  Parents are valuing and carefully considering a range of factors that will affect their family life and the needs of their children. One must wonder, considering that distance from home and transportation problems seem to be the biggest issues for parents in Chicago and New Orleans, whether our society needs to take another look at the importance of investing in and improving the neighborhood public schools that parents seem to value.