Amy Stuart Wells, an education professor at Teachers College of Columbia, trashes charter schools in the Washington Post, arguing that the free market has nothing to offer schools.
Carrying out market-based school reform on the cheap requires people with the experience to educate children, the business acumen to run an autonomous institution, the political connections to raise the private funds needed to keep the school afloat, and the ability to forsake their personal life to work six or seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. It turns out that there are a limited number of people who can or will do charter school reform well. Thus, most charters schools hire younger, less experienced teachers and have high rates of teacher and administrator burnout and turnover.
Note that most charters are operating “on the cheap,” with less funding than neighboring district-run public schools. And yet charter students do as well (or better) than students in neighboring schools.
In this decade of growing free-market disillusionment, policymakers should amend state laws to better support the high-achieving charter schools and close the rest. And I hope they will also remember the hard lesson learned from this reform: that free markets in education, like free markets generally, do not serve poor children well.
Economist Katie Newmark responds, observing that charter schools are expanding rapidly.
Either all those families have been brainwashed by the evil conservatives or they’re stupid enough to send their kids to schools that are bad for them or they have found something about charter schools that they like better than public schools.
Newmark also answers Wells’ use of recent studies of charter school performance, and quotes the Department of Education’s NAEP study:
[T]he mathematics performance of White, Black, and Hispanic fourth-graders in charter schools was not measurably different from the performance of fourth-graders with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in other public schools.
In reading, there was no measurable difference in performance between charter school students in the fourth grade and their public school counterparts as a whole. This was true even though, on average, charter schools have higher proportions of students from groups that typically perform lower on NAEP than other public schools have. In reading, as in mathematics, the performance of fourth-grade students with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in charter schools and other public schools was not measurably different.
Similar students perform about the same in charter and non-charter schools, Newmark writes.
Wells and other charter school opponents would probably point out that this is not the magic improvement that advocates promised, but why does that matter? Charter schools are cheaper than regular public schools, parents are happier with charter schools, and bad charter schools can go out of business, unlike regular public schools — if the charter schools aren’t doing any harm, why not allow them to exist just for those advantages?
In a year, we’ll have some data looking at how charter students progress, or fail to progress, over time. It also would be very helpful to analyze how incoming charter students differ from students attending district-run schools. To what extent are parents choosing charters because their kids are doing poorly or have special needs? To what extent are charter parents more involved and committed to their children’s educations?
Update: Eduwonk questions some of Wells’ unsupported assumptions.
The best charters tend to be suburban ones? What’s the evidence for that, (holding constant prior achievement of students, of course)? With a noteworthy exception, charters are disproportionately located in low-income communities. That’s actually an example of the market working; there just isn’t much of a market for charter schools in places where the public schools are doing reasonably well — the suburbs. Of course, to the consternation of many, the opposite is also true. Besides, in a growing number of urban communities, for instance, Los Angeles, Washington, and Boston the top open-enrollment high schools are charter schools.
Wells ignores support for charters from urban parents who want better schools, regardless of ideology. It’s all about those free marketeers, she implies. Eduwonk also makes fun of Wells’ assertion that charters will fall prey to the “broader disillusionment with free-market ideas now gripping the country.”
Again, huh? We just re-elected a president who made no secret of his desire to privatize and use market forces to reform our most widely used social insurance program and is now trying to do just that. It’s entirely possible that such disillusionment is sweeping the halls of Teachers’ College, but it’s not a national trend yet.
Education monopolies don’t serve poor children well, Eduwonk concludes.