Unlimited charters: not smart II

Three recent articles further highlight the risks in simply opening up the right to anyone to operate a k-12 school.

The first comes from Ed Week reporting on a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study found that Massachusetts charter schools in central cities significantly improved student’s math and language arts achievement but those operating outside of central cities did not. In fact in some cases lowered student achievement. The article quotes the study’s lead researcher Joshua Angrist: “In the nonurban schools, there are students there that have relatively high scores with or without charter schools,” Mr. Angrist said, “but the charters add nothing to that and, in some cases, take a relatively high level of achievement and lower it, especially in middle schools. You wouldn’t think parents would welcome that.” More than likely the growth of charter schools in Michigan in an uncapped environment will be beyond central cities. What has the industry done to earn the right to do that without limits?

The second is about online learning. This is where the risks of an unlimited right to operate are the highest because theoretically a single operator could enroll every child in state. Really not smart! A recent New York Times article makes that clear. As the article – titled In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores – reports: “But to many education experts, something is not adding up … In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.”

At Michigan Future we are very interested in exploring online learning as a way to improve teaching and learning. Two of the eight high schools we have made grants to will rely heavily on online learning to deliver content. But we know that this is an experiment: an unproven way to raise student achievement.

The final article comes from what I call planet ideology. This time from the left. Not the kind of reasoning I like or trust. Even though I don’t agree with lots in it, I do believe it is important to read. Because it balances the case we have been told over and over again, from those on planet ideology on the right, about public school teachers, administrators and Boards putting their self interest ahead of the children. The article points out the same self interest is driving many who are advocating charters.

The article is by David Sirota for Salon.com and is titled The bait and switch of school “reform”. Behind the new corporate agenda lurks the old politics of profit and self-interest. It makes a strong case that many who are labelled as reformers are motivated, at least in part by profits and/or political interest in weakening unions. I agree wholeheartedly with Sirota when he writes: “None of this is to argue that teachers unions don’t act out of self-interest. They do. The point, though, is that they do not have a monopoly on self-interest in the education debate. As the modern-day version of what Franklin Roosevelt would call “organized money,” the underwriters of the corporate education “reform” movement are just as motivated by their own self-interest. It’s just a different portfolio of self-interest.”

To us the data are clear: there are good traditional public schools and there are bad traditional public schools, just as there are good and bad charter schools. What matters is quality (as measured by student achievement), not governance. When it comes to online/virtual schools there is an even weaker case of superior student achievement. And there are self interests on all sides of the public vs. charter debate. Given those realities it seems to us far better to develop a system that allows for replication of good schools, new entrants and innovation (all needed) with controls and oversight. As we wrote previously it seems to us the best way to do that is to give authorizers the ability to earn the right to exceed the cap based on the student achievement of the schools they authorize. The better their students do, the more schools they can authorize.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.