Faith in High Stakes Testing Fades, Even Among the Corporate School Reformers

After a recent twenty-fifth anniversary conference at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell—a Gates funded education-reformer think tank, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum summarized presentations by a number of speakers who demonstrate growing skepticism about the high-stakes, standardized testing regime that has dominated American public education for over a quarter of a century.

Because the Center on Reinventing Public Education is known as an advocate for portfolio school reform and corporate accountability, you might expect adherence to the dogma of test-and-punish, but, notes Barnum:  “The pervasiveness of the complaints about testing was striking, given that many education reform advocates have long championed using test scores to measure schools and teachers and then to push them to improve.”

Then at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology School Access and Quality Summit early this month, Paymon Rouhanifard presented a major policy address challenging the use of high stakes testing to rank and rate public schools.  Rouhanifard was until very recently Chris Christy’s appointed, school-reformer superintendent in Camden, New Jersey.  Formerly he was the director in New York City of Joel Klein’s Office of Portfolio Management.  Rouhanifard describes the belief system he brought with him to Camden and describes how his five-year tenure as Camden’s superintendent transformed his thinking: “Our belief was that politics and bureaucracy had inhibited the progress Camden students and families deserved to overcome the steep challenges the city was facing…  We believed it was important for the district to segue out of being a highly political monopoly operator of schools….  This is a story about an evolution of my own thinking during that five-year experience…. What I’m referring to are the math and literacy student achievement data we utilize to drive so many of the critical decisions we make… My realization a few years ago was that I rarely asked questions about what these tests actually told us.  What they didn’t tell us.  And perhaps most importantly, what were the specific behaviors they incentivized, and what were the general trade-offs when we acutely focus on how students do on state tests.”

In 2013, at the beginning of his tenure, Rouhanifard introduced a school report card that rated each school primarily by students’ standardized test scores. Two years ago Rouhanifard eliminated his own school report cards.  He describes his realization: “We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized.  We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education…. I… believe the drawbacks currently outweigh the benefits.  That we haven’t been honest about the trade-offs.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, like Rouhanifard, held a position in Joel Klein’s “reformer” school administration in New York City.  Now the president of Bank Street College of Education, he was formerly Klein’s former deputy schools chancellor. Barnum explains that Polakow-Suransky has become an emphatic critic of the nation’s high-stakes standardized testing regime: “The biggest barrier to student learning and closing the achievement gap is the current system of standardized tests.”

In a piece at The74, the  Thomas Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio quotes Polakow-Suransky: “All of us were well-intentioned in pushing this agenda, but the tools we developed were not effective in raising the bar on a wide scale.”

While the Thomas Fordham Institute has endorsed corporate school reform including high-stakes, test-based accountability, Fordham’s Pondiscio now acknowledges that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, U.S. public schools have become mired in an education culture defined by test-based accountability.  Though he seems unclear on the way forward, Pondiscio now advocates for serious reconsideration: “The challenge is not testing vs. not testing.  It’s not accountability vs. none.  Both bring benefits of different kinds, and both are required by a federal law that’s not going to change anytime soon.  The challenge is to develop a policy vision that supports—not thwarts—the classroom practices and long-term student outcomes we seek… The problem is the reductive culture of testing, which has come to shape and define American education, particularly in the kinds of schools attended by our most disadvantaged children.”

There are some who remain faithful to the school reformer dogma. The Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Robin Lake tries to change the subject: “We need a more productive debate about school accountability, not tired arguments over testing.” And Matt Barnum quotes Sandy Kress—still a tried-and-true believer in the No Child Left Behind regime he helped create: “Research shows clearly that accountability made a real difference in this country in narrowing the achievement gap and lifting student achievement.”

Of course, research does not clearly show that Sandy Kress’s kind of No Child Left Behind accountability made a real difference.  Here is Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, in the authoritative book he published a year ago, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.  It is perhaps this volume by an academic expert on testing that has helped change the minds of some of the corporate school reformers quoted above.  Koretz writes: “It is no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge.  Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale.  Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents.  Cheating has become widespread.  The public has been deceived into thinking that achievement has dramatically improved and that achievement gaps have narrowed.  Many students are subjected to severe stress, not only during testing but also for long periods leading up to it.  Educators have been evaluated in misleading and in some cases utterly absurd ways  Careers have been disrupted and in some cases ended.  Educators, including prominent administrators, have been indicted and even imprisoned.  The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary-school math that don’t persist until graduation.  This is true despite the many variants of test-based accountability the reformers have tried, and there is nothing on the horizon now that suggests that the net effects will be better in the future. On balance, then, the reforms have been a failure.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 191-192)

Introducing readers to Don Campbell, “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation,” Koretz defines the problems inherent in our society’s quarter century of high-stakes, test-and-punish school accountability by quoting Campbell’s Law:  “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intend to monitor.”  Campbell directly addresses the problem of high stakes testing to rank and rate schools:  “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of … achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

How has the testing regime operated perversely to undermine the schools serving our society’s most vulnerable children—the ones we were told No Child Left Behind would catch up academically if only we created incentives and punishments to motivate their teachers to work harder?  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools.  The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others.  Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do.  This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’  It was a deliberate and prominent part of may of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic  The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Besides imposing unreasonable and damaging punishments on the schools and teachers serving our society’s poorest children, Koretz believes our commitment to a regime of punitive testing has distracted our society from developing the commitment to address the real needs of children and schools in places where poverty is concentrated: “We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably, if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” The Testing Charade, p. 131)

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….’”

Are Charter CEOs Being Purely Altruistic in Their Demand for More Federal Support for Public Schools?

What’s happening here?  The leaders of 20 of the nation’s charter school networks, including Achievement First, Aspire, Breakthrough, Green Dot, KIPP, Rocketship Education, Uncommon Schools and YES Prep published a letter in USA Today demanding that the Trump administration must change its budget priorities to be more supportive of traditional public schools.  Trump’s proposed budget expands by 50 percent the funding for the federal Charter Schools Program to stimulate the startup of new charter schools.  So why are these charter school providers complaining and why are they demanding more money for traditional public schools?

Here is some of what they said in their letter: “(W)e see ourselves as partners, not competitors, with traditional school districts… But to make that broader vision work, we need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in ‘choice’ schools… We realize that expressing concerns about a budget that benefits our schools might seem counterintuitive.  But we want to join with all those who are fighting to defend public education as an essential pillar of our democracy.”

What’s behind this attack of altruism?  What has caused the CEOs of some of the biggest and best known charter school networks to become advocates for federal funding for the very public schools we’ve been taught by Milton Friedman and Betsy DeVos to believe charters need to improve by competing with them in an education marketplace?

Well, for one thing, even though they rarely admit it, charter schools depend on their host public school systems to survive. Their mission is to provide escapes for some children from what they call “failing” public schools, but they count on their host school district to provide the special education services and English language instruction for the children they don’t serve. Charter schools don’t have to serve all children; they can “counsel out” the students who are not comfortable in their school culture—students whose behavior they struggle to manage—students who are too often truant—students whose low test scores are undermining their school’s ratings. The public school district provides the escape valve for the children the charters won’t or can’t serve. And in lots of places public schools provide really basic services like school bus transportation to charter schools.

Another reality that has suddenly become a concern for the charter ssector is that, after several years of rapid expansion of the number of charter schools, that growth is slowing.  Robin Lake, a supporter of the expansion of charter schools at the Center on Reinventing Public Education explains: “A recently released annual update from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools included a surprising fact: a mere 329 charter schools opened across the country in the 2016-2017 school year. In no year since the Alliance began tracking new charter openings has the total number of new schools been so low… (I)t appears that it was the early 2000s when we last saw fewer than 350 new charter schools open. When you take closures into consideration, the total additional growth of charter schools last year was just over 100 schools, or nearly 2 percent.”  Lake continues: “Mike DeArmond and I looked back five years and see that, in general, the rate of charter growth has pretty consistently held at 6 to 8 percent until the 2014-2015 school year, when the rate slowed to around 4 percent.  In 2015-2016, it slowed further to just barely over 2 percent, and then down to the current 1.8 percent. This year is not an anomaly. So what is going on?”

Why is growth in the number of charter schools slowing?  In a follow-up article, Lake explores the reasons: “There are several plausible explanations for this slowdown. The politics of the charter school movement have taken an increasingly hostile turn of late… Some states, like Massachusetts, took a cautious but high-quality approach to charter school growth. Other states bent to political winds early on and refused to allow anyone other than a school district to approve charter schools. Still others starved charters of funding or access to facilities… It ‘s also true that bureaucratic hurdles have increased even without hostile political pressure. Charter authorizers, the agencies responsible for charter school approval, oversight, and closing, have been getting increasingly choosier. The goal has been to increase the quality of schools—and rightly so—but the result is a much costlier and sometimes prohibitive process for applicants who lack serious financial backing and connections. In many states, applicants are expected to invest a year or more in planning, have a facility secured, and demonstrate strong community support… CMOs (charter management organizations) have relied on Teach for America as their primary labor source, but that well is running dry… CMOs are increasingly asked to turn around low-performing neighborhood schools and address high expulsion and low special education numbers, all while trying to perform well on tougher new Common Core-aligned tests… In short, well-intentioned efforts to address quality and improve equity may be significantly slowing charter school growth, just as fear of increased growth by opponents intensifies. The combination may soon bring charter growth to a halt unless something changes.”

It is heartening to see that a charter advocate like Robin Lake realizes that growing push-back from advocates for strong public schools is having an impact.  Charter schools were launched by those who said the schools ought to be free from regulation, but over the years, concern has grown in communities watching unscrupulous charter operators enriching themselves while their schools flounder.  States have watched rip-offs on an unprecedented scale as owners of for-profit charter management companies and the e-school charters invest in political contributions to legislators who then fail to provide for urgently needed oversight to prevent fraud and corruption. Public school districts have found themselves trying to catch up students returning to their schools far behind peers who remained in traditional schools. Under pressure, states have been increasing regulation.

And there has been growing push-back against what happens in particular school districts—against the school closures that result when a mass of charters in a neighborhood empty out a neighborhood school while parents try out school choice. The district responds by closing the neighborhood school, but when the charter schools flounder, there is no public alternative to which children can return. Jitu Brown, a Chicago organizer who has watched this process and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (an organization of grassroots community organizations in 24 U.S. cities) delineates in more detail how charter schools undermine neighborhood public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities. Brown writes: “(T)hese privatization supporters speak about the virtues of charters while failing to address how they have increased segregation, sometimes cherry-picked students, taken funding away from underfunded traditional systems, and operated in secrecy.”

Last October, leaders of the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights organization, ratified a resolution that calls for a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until: “charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools; public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system; charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate; and (charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest-performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

Charter schools have now been around for over two decades and academic research has finally begun to catch up with the need to understand the impact of charter school privatization, particularly the effect of these new schools on the public school districts where charter schools have been rapidly opened. Some researchers have noted that rapidly expanding charters may be functioning as parasites killing their host.  In a study released at the end of November, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University challenged policy makers to judge charter schools and other privatized alternatives not merely by the test scores posted by their own students but instead by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to undermine the provision of education by their host public school systems: “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.”

With a mass of evidence published in local newspapers about growing academic and fiscal problems in particular charter schools, with reporting by the national press of academic and fiscal abuses by some of the big charter management organizations and the huge online academies, with resistance from community organizers and the NAACP in the very urban communities where charter schools have rapidly expanded, and with growing pushback from the research community, it is not surprising that charter supporters and the CEOs of the chains of charter schools might be worried.

Their letter this week that endorses more federal funding for traditional public schools probably describes an awareness among charter school leaders that, even though they like to believe their schools are independent, their futures are inextricably connected to their host school districts. It also may reflect their own need to present themselves in a positive light at a time when the public is becoming aware that public schools in many places have been hurt by the rapid growth of charter schools.

Those of us who worry about the threat of privatization to the institution of public education need to keep up the pressure.

Yes! Knowledgeable Charter Supporter Worries that Charter School Growth is Flat-Lining

President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have been down in Florida visiting a Catholic school where 291 of the school’s 340 students use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to pay all or part of their tuition. And on Friday, Diane Ravitch reported on her blog that Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools chain has just rented Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center in New York City for her schools’ annual test-prep rally. What Eva is paying to rent the hall isn’t known, although POLITICO New York reported that Success Academies spent $734,000 on their 2015 test-prep rally.

All this hype about privatization makes it seem that those of us who depend on our local public schools—the families of 90 percent of American children who are enrolled in public schools and the rest of us who count on these institutions as the anchors of our neighborhoods and our communities—have cause for despair. And despite that President Donald Trump has told us that public schools across America are “flush with cash,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities informs us that, “At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008.”

But here is a startling piece of good news from Robin Lake, one of the nation’s biggest supporters of the expansion of charter schools and the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Lake is worried. She and her colleagues have concluded that charter school growth is flat-lining.

Lake introduces her new article published in Education Next, a journal that endorses corporate school reform, with this warning: “A recently released annual update from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools included a surprising fact: a mere 329 charter schools opened across the country in the 2016-2017 school year. In no year since the Alliance began tracking new charter openings has the total number of new schools been so low… (I)t appears that it was the early 2000s when we last saw fewer than 350 new charter schools open. When you take closures into consideration, the total additional growth of charter schools last year was just over 100 schools, or nearly 2 percent.”  Lake continues: “Mike DeArmond and I looked back five years and see that, in general, the rate of charter growth has pretty consistently held at 6 to 8 percent until the 2014-2015 school ear, when the rate slowed to around 4 percent.  In 2015-2016, it slowed further to just barely over 2 percent, and then down to the current 1.8 percent.  This year is not an anomaly.  So what is going on?”

Lake offers a range of explanations: “I have a strong suspicion that the slowdown has a lot to do with the maturation of the movement…. Another explanation is that the barriers to starting a new charter school have been increasing. We hear reports that charter authorizers are getting much choosier and often now expect applicants to have a facility secured before the application is approved. This weeds out less-prepared applicants but also makes it increasingly expensive for well-prepared applicants to start a school… What’s clear, though is that the charter movement really needs to rethink its dominant assumption that the only factor limiting growth is access to start-up funds. Continued growth will require much more authentic and sophisticated engagement in local and state politics.”

Lake is not merely tracing a trend. She is clear that the trend alarms her, a strong supporter of charter school growth: “(S)tates may need to take a look at the financial and other incentives embedded in their laws and policies. An economist might say that the supply of charter schools is simply meeting the logical limit of the current funding and political environment. If we want supply to change, we need to change that environment.” Lake concludes that making those adjustments may not even be possible: “Things could start rebounding, but it seems to me that the days of easy, unfettered charter growth may be gone, at least for the near future. It’s time for honest conversations about what that means, especially given the demand and need for more high-quality choices. Clearly, asking funders to just keep bankrolling charter expansion is not enough.”

These are encouraging words for those of us, unlike Lake, who worry about the seeming impossibility of ever effectively regulating charter schools in a state legislative political system awash with money.  Encouraging words for those of us who worry about the outrageous tax dollar ripoffs of the online schools—including the Walton Foundation that has withdrawn support for the online sector after research reports funded by the Walton Foundation itself, reports that confirmed that online schools are not educating their students.

These are encouraging words for reporters and bloggers who have doggedly exposed one example after another of charter schools pushing out vulnerable students or closing suddenly and abandoned their students or paying high salaries to administrators and low salaries to teachers. Encouraging words for those who have pointed out that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has repeatedly warned that the Department’s own Charter Schools Program has not provided oversight of the charter school startup grants it has made to states.

These are encouraging words for the citizens of Massachusetts who voted overwhelmingly last November to defeat Question 2, that would have lifted the cap on the authorization of new charter schools.  Encouraging words as well for the voters of Georgia, who turned down Governor Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity District that would have replaced public schools with charters in the poorest urban neighborhoods. Encouraging words for families in Detroit and Chicago, where rapid expansion of charter schools has undermined the public schools but where, for example in Chicago, the Dyett Hunger Strike brought these concerns into the public consciousness.

Dogged advocacy and reporting have alerted the public to problems in an education sector that was designed to be unregulated—to lack what charter proponents call the bureaucratic straightjacket of public oversight.  Little by little the public has begun to recognize that public regulation is necessary to protect the rights of students and to impose some kind of stewardship of public dollars.

In a study released at the end of November, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University challenged policy makers to judge charter schools and other privatized alternatives not merely by the performance of their own students but by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to function as parasites on their host school systems: “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.”

Despite the rhetoric of President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Robin Lake reports a slowing down of the expansion of charter schools. Those of us who believe strongly in the mission of public education must keep on keeping up the pressure.

Emergency Managers Burden Detroit Public Schools with Staggering Deficit

What is happening most notably in Detroit but also in Philadelphia and Chicago would not be possible in your public schools if you live in a prosperous community or a middle income suburb, or a small city or town with a mix of rich and middle income and poor families.  The plight of the public schools and their teachers and their students in these big cities and others scattered across the states is the result of structural poverty and powerlessness and the unwillingness of local and state officials to find a way fairly to serve the children.  As is happening right now in Detroit and Chicago, everybody is blaming the teachers’ pension funds and by extension blaming the teachers.

Here is what has actually been happening.  In Chicago the school district pays into the state teachers’ pension when required to do so, but then the school district borrows the money right back out.  In Detroit, the school district has pretty often over the years failed to pay in what is required.  It has not only withheld its own contributions, but according to a recent report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, it has sometimes missed contributing each teacher’s own share—the part withheld from each teacher’s paycheck. The financial morass is so convoluted and arcane that nobody can really understand the details.  The fact is that these school districts—and in Detroit the state emergency managers who were supposedly appointed to deal with the district’s financial crisis—have put the school districts so far in debt that nobody knows how to dig them out.

This week Detroit’s teachers have been staging a sick-out to bring attention to the problems in the schools where they work.  The Associated Press reports that on Tuesday the mayor of Detroit (whose city, by Michigan law, is a separate jurisdiction from the school district) visited some of the schools across the city.  He found a dead mouse in one school; in others he found children shivering in their coats all morning as the poorly heated buildings warmed up after a cold night.  Neither his visit nor the protests of the city’s teachers have speeded up any kind of solution coming from Lansing.  Reporting for The Guardian, Ryan Felton explains: “Teachers say students are already devastated by conditions in the district, which is facing financial calamity with liabilities of $3 billion.”

The district currently serves 47,000 students, and Republican Governor Rick Snyder has proposed splitting the district, turning more schools into charters, and using property taxes to pay off the debt instead of for educating the children.  Felton explains that nearly half the state’s per-pupil funding currently pays for debt servicing instead of educating the children.  One of teachers’ primary complaints is that class sizes are astronomical, a not-surprising situation in a district neglecting to hire more teachers it says it cannot afford.  Last April, John Eligon of the NY Times explained how Governor Snyder proposes to revamp the system and its finances: “The current district, with the emergency manager and current school board, will take on the operating debt and make sure it is paid off through a tax levy that collects about $72 million a year.  Meanwhile, under the plan, a new district called the City of Detroit Education District would be created and would rely on additional funding from the state of up to $72 million a year to operate.  The bond debt would go to the new district, to be paid down by a tax that is currently collected.”  It’s not hard to see why the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Steve Conn, commented: “It’s just layer after layer of bureaucracy and playing funny with the money.”

The merits of Snyder’s proposal and its deficiencies are meaningless to date because Snyder, a Republican, has been unable to get his all-Republican legislature to weigh in on the plan.  Detroit’s problems are complicated by a declining population and an over-built, mostly for-profit, and largely unregulated charter sector.  As charter schools have rapidly expanded, they have sucked students and state funding out of the public schools.  Even Robin Lake, of the pro-charter, pro-choice Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, questioned her previous assumptions about the expansion of school choice after she observed the problems 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 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….’”

Here is the conclusion of the new report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan: “Detroit Public Schools has $3.5 billion in outstanding debt.  Nearly half of this amount, $1.67 billion, is capital liabilities payable with a dedicated millage… The balance of DPS’s liabilities are related to legacy costs and repaying short-term borrowings converted to long-term debt by state-appointed emergency managers.  This includes $1.3 billion that represents DPS’s estimated share of the unfunded actuarial accrued liabilities for retiree pension and health care costs…. A plan that solves the district’s money problems without addressing what is taking place in the classroom will not set the district up for future success.  Similarly, any financial plan that only deals with the district’s near-term fiscal woes (cash flow for example) will not prove lasting and will not support student learning over the long haul if current financial problems are shifted to future students.”

In Michigan’s poorest urban areas it has been pretty clear that Governor Snyder’s appointed emergency managers—people whose power is not constrained by checks and balances as they can override locally elected city councils and school boards and are given the power to abrogate union contracts—have been neglecting the needs of children. The lead poisoning of Flint’s public water supply, under Darnell Earley, Snyder’s appointed emergency manager of that city, has been widely reported. Now we learn that Governor Snyder has appointed Darnell Earley as the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. While the schools’ financial crisis predates Earley, Snyder’s appointment of Earley to lead Detroit’s public schools ironically highlights how absolutely Michigan is failing to protect the basic rights of the state’s poorest children.

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.

Charter School Promoters Discover School Choice Catastrophe in Detroit

Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.  Here is how the Center describes itself: “CRPE’s research and policy analysis is focused on the complex systemic challenges affecting public education. We develop, test, and support evidence-based solutions to create new possibilities for the parents, educators, and public officials who strive to improve America’s schools… CRPE is based in Seattle and affiliated with the University of Washington Bothell. Our work is funded through private philanthropic dollars, federal grants, and contracts.”  CRPE is the founder of a school reform theory based on the expansion of school choice.  The CRPE web page declares: “In portfolio cities, families have the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child.” In other words, CRPE and its “portfolio school reform model” feature school choice for parents as the key to improving urban education in America.  CRPE has endorsed the concept of the growth of charter schools through its Charter-District Collaboration Compact.

It is therefore pretty shocking to see Robin Lake, in the pages of Education Next, condemning school choice as it is operating in Detroit.  Lake and her team from CRPE visited Detroit earlier this year to assess how portfolio school reform has been working.  She first publicly expressed deep concerns in comments reported in a week long, Detroit Free Press expose on the city’s charters.  Earlier this week, an extensive analysis, Fixing Detroit’s Broken School System, to appear in the Winter 2015 issue of Education Next, went on-line.  It is a scathing condemnation of unregulated charter expansion 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 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 chidren 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…'”

Lake and her co-authors paraphrase the critique by a community leader: “Detroit’s marketplace is as unregulated and unmanaged as any in the country, and tilts strongly toward favoring the supply side. It’s like a flea market… anyone can set up a table to sell their magic, and anyone can come shopping and make a deal, but buyer beware.  In Detroit, more parents exercising choice has not resulted in better schools, and more charter schools has not resulted in better choices.”

Lake and her colleagues identify specific problems in today’s Detroit school marketplace.

  • “For parents… a lack of information, confusing paperwork,and transportation gaps all make it hard to find a school that will work for their child.”
  • “With a dwindling student population and an expanding array of education options, Detroit’s schools are in an all-out battle for students… Some estimate there are currently 20,000 to 30,000 more seats than students in the city’s traditional and charter schools.”
  • “Poor performance plagues schools in both DPS and the city’s large charter sector.”
  • “Parents with the least education are much less likely than parents with college degrees to say their child is in a school that was their first or second choice…”
  • “The proportion of IEP-eligible students in DPS is growing rapidly in large part because a number of Detroit charter schools simply don’t offer many special-education supports.”

However, Lake and her colleagues do not suggest that school choice be eliminated in Detroit.  They advocate that thoughtful community activists and parents should engage in “strong civic leadership” and create “a plan for investment and action, and creative problem solving.  It will need to be strategic about what’s required to solve these complex problems, but also opportunistic about when and how they are solved.”   Advocates will need to “address negligent charter authorizers and persistently low-performing charter schools,” “develop a strong core of high-quality schools in the charter sector,” help “parents and communities to push authorizers and the district to increase performance accountability,” “double down on recruiting talented school leaders and teachers (Teach for America is the example provided.), engage leaders “like the mayor and local developers,” and “develop a plan to replace DPS (Detroit Public Schools) with a community ‘portfolio manager’ board and superintendent who will see their role as overseeing a citywide system of high-quality schools rather than operating schools directly.  This would likely mean sharing district facilities and special education services with charter schools, and coordinated information and enrollment systems.”

The conclusion here is troubling:  “Given that there seems to be little appetite from the state legislature and governor for legislative action on these fronts, much of these efforts have to be driven by local leaders.”  District leaders, charter authorizers, and school association leaders should collaborate and “take a stand for quality.”  A nonprofit agency “with sufficient funding and authority to be the citywide coordinating body,” should coordinate all the fragmented pieces around facilities, services for family, transportation, enrollment, and parent information.”

Doesn’t this all sound nice!  I think the problem is that money and power politics have affected Michigan’s legislature to ensure there is little oversight of a marketplace where a lot of money is to be made.  Michigan is packed with for-profit charter schools.  And I know that well-intentioned not-for-profit advocacy agencies rarely have the clout or capacity to gain control of a maelstrom like what is described as the flea-market education sector in Detroit.  In places with democratically elected school boards, there is a public forum where consensus can sometimes be developed and formal policies passed and implemented—usually through a long and messy process—to counter powerful business interests.  To imagine that good people can come together on their own in community groups and non-profits to retake control of a huge city school district—especially on top of the overwhelming economic collapse of the region and bankruptcy of the city—is dreaming.