When ‘School Choice’ Means the Opposite

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Albert Shanker, the legendary teachers’ union leader, promoted the idea of charter schools 30 years ago, he was hoping to create flexibility from the constraints of education bureaucracies and union contracts so teachers and communities could experiment and innovate.

In the years since the first charter-school law was passed in Minnesota, in 1991, the charter movement has strayed far from Shanker’s original vision. Instead of community-based, educator-driven innovation, charters have grown into an industry dominated by like-minded management organizations that sometimes control hundreds of schools — some nationwide.

These charter organizations have proliferated with the help of deep-pocketed philanthropists and businesspeople who have sought to transform the public-education system so that both charters and traditional public schools operate like companies competing in an economic market. Schools survive by producing the greatest gains, usually measured by test scores. The rest lose students as families choose the highest-performing schools or have their charters revoked by state-designated organizations that authorize charters.  

Now the charter industry is reaching an inflection point. Business backers are pushing to expand charter schools at an unprecedented rate, doubling down on the idea that free markets are the best approach to improving K-12 education. At the same time, critics — some from within the charter movement — are shining a spotlight on the industry’s failures and distortions.

This summer, the John and Laura Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Foundation, backed by Netflix founder Reed Hastings, announced the City Fund, a bid to bring choice and competition among charter and public schools to 40 cities around the country. And last summer, the pro-charter Manhattan Institute and the Center for Education Reform published a manifesto both criticizing the mainstream charter movement and calling for more deregulation of K-12 education (nonprofit and for-profit charters, as well as private schools that receive government money in the form of vouchers.)

The manifesto concedes that such a free-market approach is likely to result in more failing schools. “We accept that more freedom might mean that more schools fail than would in a more regulated environment, but we believe that failure is necessary for success,” it says.

That faith in markets isn’t supported by the evidence, however. Studies show that, on average, charter schools and traditional public schools produce similar results. But freedom from regulation is associated not with success but with especially high failure rates; charter-school performance tends to be weakest in states with the laxest rules for ensuring education quality.

Paradoxically, deregulation has also tended to narrow choices rather than expand them. New Orleans, for example, which has turned most of its public schools over to charter organizations, is dominated by charter-school oligopolies that enforce uniform curriculum and disciplinary standards. Instead of fostering creative pedagogy, the charter industry has focused on producing high test scores, the key measure by which philanthropists determine which charter organizations to finance. Teachers are typically required to teach canned curricula and rarely last more than a few years, and students are often subjected to one-size-fits-all discipline policies.

In New Orleans, the nation’s first virtually all-charter city, more than 20 percent of the non-selective schools in the so-called Recovery School District, which was established to take over schools deemed failing by the state, are now operated by KIPP. (The Recovery School District, which comprised three-quarters of the city schools after Hurricane Katrina, was recently returned to the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board.) Moreover, KIPP’s no-excuses disciplinary approach was widely adopted by most of New Orleans’s non-selective charter schools following Katrina in 2005, producing sky-high suspension and expulsion rates. Meanwhile, even the best community-led school proposals had trouble winning approval.

Strict discipline was seen by many charter pioneers as necessary for helping the city’s poorest students, mostly African-Americans, to improve their academic performance. Ten years after storm, the city touted improved test scores in the elementary grades, but scores have deteriorated during the last three years, in part because schools did not adapt well to state educational standards.

Frederick Hess, of the free-market-oriented American Enterprise Institute, concedes that disruptive reform policies in cities like New Orleans “should give pause to those who care about community ties, quality of life and social capital.”

Other critics inside the charter movement argue that charter organizations and big investors have shut out “unique voices and diverse ideas,” as well as community and family input; “scrappy school leaders” behind top charter organizations “might never have been approved under the current regulatory and funding environment,” notes Jeanne Allen of the Center for Educational Reform in her June 2017 study, Charting a New Course: A Case for Freedom, Flexibility and Opportunity Through Charter Schools.

However, the solutions offered by proponents of market-based reforms include rolling back charter-school regulations, such as teacher-licensing requirements, and allowing more groups to approve new charter schools.

Michigan, where the family of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, is a key backer of the state’s charter sector, allows more groups to approve charters than any other state, making it possible for schools that have been deemed failures by one group to shop around for new authorizers. Even zombie charters that have been closed by one authorizer can be brought back to life by another, according to a new study by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

In Arizona, charter schools are so lightly regulated — they are exempted from government procurement laws, for example — that they have become a speculative real-estate play, prompting financial instability and allegations of mismanagement. The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools is now investigating charges that companies affiliated with a charter organization that operates a dozen schools made as much as $37 million from managing and leasing charter-school buildings.

Could a charter-school bubble be far behind? As the City Fund gears up to expand charters and charter-like schools nationwide, communities from Massachusetts to Texas to California are already experiencing a school glut brought on by competition and shrinking enrollments, exacerbating the financial stress of school districts that have yet to recover from the spending cuts of the Great Recession.

It’s time now for charters and traditional public schools to embrace Shanker’s vision of experimentation and innovation. In New Orleans, the Morris Jeff Community School, one of the city’s few open-admission, community-led charters, is also one of the only ones to offer an International Baccalaureate curriculum and to diversify its student body. In New York City, Community Roots Charter School, a small, progressive charter in Brooklyn, offers a novel diversity-training program to public and charter schools; the aim is to help schools develop the culturally sensitive curricula and practices needed to attract racially and economically diverse families.

Such schools, however, are the exception in an expanding charter universe.

Education policies should protect children and their schools from the brutal realities of the market while leaving room for the kind of teacher- and community-led experimentation that the charter movement was originally meant to foster.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

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