Why I Changed My Mind
Charter schools receive public money but are privately managed. Unlike regular public schools, they operate free of most rules and regulations. More than 95 percent of charter schools are nonunion. When the state comptroller in New York sought to audit the state's charter schools, they sued to block him, claiming that they should be trusted to do their own audits.
Charters vary widely in quality. Some are excellent, some are abysmal, most are somewhere in between. The only major national evaluation of the charter sector was carried out by economist Margaret Raymond at Stanford University. Her study was funded by the staunchly procharter Walton Family Foundation, among others; yet she found that only 17 percent of charters outperformed a matched public school. The other 83 percent were either no better, or they were worse. On the NAEP exams in reading and mathematics, students in charter schools perform no better than those in regular public schools, whether one looks at black, Hispanic or low-income students, or students in urban districts.
Yet charter schools have passionate advocates, certainly on the right and also from a group called Democrats for Education Reform. Some charters are run by for-profit firms, some by nonprofits, and some are managed by community-based organizations. Their business model often involves a high turnover of teaching staff, because teachers are expected to work long hours, sometimes sixty to seventy hours weekly, plus be available by cellphone at all hours to their students. This works because so many charters are nonunion schools, but it is difficult to see how this model could be replicated. Not only does it preclude teachers' unions; it precludes a teaching profession in which teachers expect to make a career of teaching and have families.
The media like to focus on a star charter school, as though one extraordinary school is typical. The teachers are young and enthusiastic; the children are in uniforms and well behaved, and they all plan to go to college. But such stories often overlook important factors about charters: one, the good charters select students by lottery, and thus attract motivated students and families; two, charters tend to enroll a smaller proportion of students who are limited–English proficient, students with disabilities and homeless students, which gives them an edge over neighborhood public schools; and three, charters can remove students who are "not a good fit" and send them back to the neighborhood school. These factors give charters an edge, which makes it surprising that their performance is not any better than it is.
The original vision of charter schools in 1988, when the idea was popularized, was that they would be created by venturesome public school teachers who would seek out the most alienated students, those who had dropped out or those who were likely to do so. The teachers in these experimental schools would find better ways to reach these students and bring what they'd learned back to the regular public school. The fundamental idea at the beginning of the movement was that charter schools would help public schools and enroll students who needed extra attention and new strategies.
Now the charter sector sees itself as competition for the public schools. Some are profit-driven; some are power-driven. In some cities, charter chains seek to drive the public schools out of business. In Harlem, which has a heavy concentration of charter schools, the regular public schools must market themselves to students and families; they typically have a budget of $500 or less for fliers and brochures. The aggressive charter chain that competes with them has a marketing budget, according to the New York Times, of $325,000. The expansion of charters has been mightily underwritten by hedge-fund managers, the Walton Family Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and other major benefactors.
Just at the point where I had made an ideological break from my past support of accountability and choice, the Obama administration came into office. I expected that Obama would throw out NCLB and start over. But, on the contrary, his administration has embraced some of the worst features of the George W. Bush era. Obama's Race to the Top competition dangled $4.3 billion before cash-hungry states. To qualify for the money, states had to remove any legal barrier to the expansion of charter schools. States also had to agree to create data systems making it possible to evaluate teachers by their students' test scores. And they had to pledge to "transform" or "turn around" low-performing schools.
Each of these elements is an echo of Bush's policies. The expansion of charters fulfills the dreams of education entrepreneurs and free-market advocates, who would dismantle public education if given the chance. Judging teachers by test scores is wrongheaded because students' scores are affected not only by what the teacher does but by such important factors as poverty, student motivation and family support. Yet only teachers will be held accountable. "Turning around" low-performing schools is a euphemism for NCLB-style punishments: if scores don't go up, schools are closed, privatized, turned into charters or handed over to the state. When Rhode Island authorities announced their intention to fire the staff at the only high school in Central Falls, their decision was hailed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama. I thought the decision was meanspirited and wrong. Last year the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education sent a team to the same school and said it was making progress. Why not build on that progress? Why fire the staff without evaluating anyone? (Recently a deal was reached to rehire the entire staff; it includes conditions such as a longer school day and more after-school tutoring.)
Obama's emphasis on evaluating individual teachers by students' test scores has set off a frenzied effort by states to rewrite their laws in hopes of snaring some of the federal billions. The legislature in Florida recently passed legislation that would have denied tenure to new teachers, based 50 percent of teachers' salaries on gains in student scores, removed any credit for teachers' experience and education, and funded testing of all subjects by cutting 5 percent from the budget of every school district. Teachers and parents rallied and persuaded Governor Charlie Crist to veto the bill, probably ending his career in the Republican Party. Similar measures are moving through other state legislatures, cheered on by think tanks in Washington.
In my book I gather the evidence that persuaded me that accountability and choice are not likely to improve American education. Accountability, narrowly focused as it is, dumbs down education. Choice may enfeeble public education by draining away the best students and leaving what remains to the remnants of the public education system.
None of the policies that involve testing and accountability—vouchers and charters, merit pay and closing schools—will give us the quantum improvement that we want for public education. They may even make matters worse.
We need a long-term plan that strengthens public education and rebuilds the education profession. We need better-educated teachers who have degrees in the subjects they teach; we need principals who are themselves master teachers, since they are the ones who evaluate and support the teachers; and we need superintendents who are knowledgeable educators, since they make crucial decisions about curriculums, instruction and personnel.
We must ensure that every student has the benefit of a coherent curriculum, one that includes history, literature, geography, civics, science, the arts, mathematics and physical education. And we must attend to the conditions in which children live, because their ability to attend school and to learn is directly influenced by their health and the well-being of their families.