Charters: a cure for America’s blues?

Will Charter Schools Cure America’s Blues? Walter Russell Mead sees the “blue social model” — government knows best — falling apart. Charter schools aren’t the magic bullet for education, he writes. (Nothing is.) He’s looking for “political and social transformation that can take us past the stagnant and dysfunctional world of Big Blue Bureaucracy into something more sustainable and more hopeful,” he writes in The American Interest.

The widening gap . . . between the interests of the consumers of government services and the producers of those services has the potential to split Blue America down the middle.

Historically, African-Americans have been very “invested in the urban public school bureaucracies and the teachers’ unions,” Mead writes. Yet black parents support charter schools.  In a recent poll, New Jersey blacks favor the expansion of charter schools by 52 to 43 percent, backing Gov. Christie. That makes blacks more pro-charter — and less “blue” — that the state’s Republicans.

Charter schools will help to produce and promote a more entrepreneurial Black middle class.  The leaders and faculty of a charter school have more responsibility than do the faceless employees of a large public school system.  If their school doesn’t attract students, it goes out of business.  A charter school must attract students who can always go elsewhere; the standard public school without competition can rely on the truancy laws to fill their classrooms.  More, the schools have to show results while keeping their eyes on the bottom line.  Charter schools can go broke if teachers adopt unrealistic work rules; public schools can stagger on for years delivering declining performance — and, with the support of the politically powerful teachers’ unions, extracting rising revenue from the public.

The proliferation of charter schools will mean the progressive replacement of teachers and principals with secure jobs for life with a new cohort of professional educators who bear the responsibility for the success or failure of their schools — and the survival of their jobs. This will make our educators smarter — and teach them valuable lessons about life in a more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic society that they can pass on to their pupils.

Charter schools don’t necessarily entail the privatization of public education, Mead writes. He sees what he calls “communitization,” power shifts to “community-based educators who organize themselves into small, accountable units to carry out functions once handled by massive bureaucracies.”

Communitization, for-profit or non-profit, in education, health care and other fields will enhance efficiency and shift “the center of gravity of American culture and society further toward entrepreneurial and creative values and institutions,” Mead predicts.

Charter school leaders will become community leaders, he writes.

School choice will make our society more flexible and entrepreneurial — and the biggest immediate beneficiaries will be the poor and those who seek to serve and teach them in creative new ways.

In Black and Blue and The Birth of the Blues, Mead writes more about the need to go from Big Blue to liberalism 5.0.

His faith in the power of charter schools to transform society sounds a bit blue sky to me, to use an older sense of “blue.”

About Joanne


  1. Foobarista says:

    I like this idea as it’s far easier to “vote with your feet” and force change than it is to “get involved” and bash your head against the educracy and political machines that run the school districts, particularly if you’re struggling to get by yourself – and especially if you live in the inner city where these machines are most deeply entrenched.

    Also, with the “vote with your feet” scenario, you’re far more likely to have immediate and positive results for your kid. If you try the “get involved” approach, you’ll at best change things very slowly, typically too slowly to benefit your own kid.

    Of course, it’s best if you can do both: send your kid to a good charter school _and_ get involved with it…

  2. So, how’s this working so far? Charters have been around for awhile now.

  3. Charter schools are supposed to be “laboratories” where “innovation” is evaluated. In the sane world, what works in laboratories is eventually rolled out into the rest of the discipline. In education, where creativity is not a means to an end, but an end itself, the benefits of experimentation are completely lost. Add to this the fact that the education world abhors any hint of any standardized measurement, and I don’t see how anything positive will come of it. Some charter schools and their methods will be above average but their accomplishments will go no further and their value will be known only as a set of anecdotes passed among neighbors. Some will be below average but their students will realize this when they’re flunking their college classes.

    We need to stop pretending that education is some sort of “art” and start treating it as a science.

  4. CarolineSF says:

    Because of the need to make constant appeals to funders, the charter world conceals and denies practices that likely lead to success, or “success,” such as the practices at KIPP and other “no excuses” charters that lead to intense self-selectivity for higher-functioning students, and the high attrition of less-successful students at those schools. (Come to think of it, those students are “voting with their feet,” except that of course it’s unknowable whether they jumped or were pushed.)

    That concealment and denial makes it impossible to learn from those schools.

  5. “So, how’s this working so far? Charters have been around for awhile now.”

    Charters haven’t been around for all that long in most places in the US. The East Coast has been slow to move to charters. It’s a class thing here. In NJ the unions did almost everything they could to smother them in the crib, and our unions are quite powerful. Until Christies’ recent new legislation, charters received two-thirds the funding level of their local district. Most suburban parents(read middle class and affluent white people) aren’t interested in charters because their local schools are quite good. The charters that do exist here come in two flavors: they are inner city (Newark, Jersey City, Trenton) and serve mostly poor black and hispanic kids. The other variety is what I call the fruit and nut flavor; they’re built around progressive ideas like “sustainabililty” and teaching “global awareness”. The inner city charters have been largely successful while the fruit and nut’s are mediocre at best. Twelve charters are set to begin operations this fall in NJ.

    For full disclosure, I volunteer as a reading “helper” at a charter in Jersey City and also raise funds and donate material for this same school.

  6. The unfortunate assumption that Mead falls into, and the short-sighted mistake made by almost all Charter School proponents, is that a Charter School staying in business somehow equals students gaining greater outcomes. Almost every serious study of Charter Schools shows what we already know: 1/3 of Charter Schools outperform public schools, 1/3 underperform, and 1/3 do about the same. Instead of trying to figure out how to “game” our way around public schools, which are asked to provide a free and appropriate education to all students, we should be improving the outcomes in our public schools. Apartheid education already exists in most of our urban settings; the creation of Charter Schools only exacerbates the problem. Let’s fix the problems that we have instead of creating more.

  7. A thought experiment:

    Suppose we have 100 people “creatively” design mousetraps. Will all these mousetraps be better than the ones you buy at Walmart? Some might be. Many, if not most, will be worse. And some will be of roughly the same quality.

    The thinking behind charter schools is that every random but creative approach is necessarily better. That’s foolish, but it’s the way of the education world.

    In the real world, if you design a mousetrap better than the one at Walmart, your design will eventually be sold at Walmart. If that kind of approach, using charter schools as labs, could be used in education it might prove effective. But it doesn’t seem to be what charter school proponents have in mind.

  8. john: Charters can’t be labs because they operate outside the constraints of public schools. Once you add the constraints back into the mix, the lab conditions no longer exist.

    Stacey: my region is a charter early adopter. We have dozens of them. Only the most horrendous have been closed (one went very messily bankrupt; another had the kids playing games/watching movies all day). None of them perform better than the public system, which lacks accreditation. In fact, the super has announced that the public system will happily lease/sell closed district buildings to any charter that wants ’em. There is no evidence of “communitization” — that was the function of neighborhood public schools.

    And I’m sorry. I’m 43 years old. Nobody has to teach me “lessons about life.” Just when you think you’ve heard every fatuous remark about teachers you possibly could.

  9. Oops. None of them *performs*.

  10. “Charters can’t be labs because they operate outside the constraints of public schools. Once you add the constraints back into the mix, the lab conditions no long”

    You’re missing the point.

    Some people believe that charter schools are “better”. If they’re “better”, they must be doing something that regular public schools aren’t. That makes them “experimental”.

    But if a charter school has hit on something promising, there’s no reason why the “technique” should be confined to just that one school. It should be incorporated into “regular” public schools. This is how the rest of the world works, but the idea is completely foreign to the world of education.

    Educationists believe in creativity for the sake of creativity and not as a means to an end.

    Creativity is like genetic mutation. Some creative ideas are positive but many are not. But, the evolutionary process eliminates most bad mutations while in the education model bad creative ideas continue in the form their own charter school. Overall, I can’t see how the charter school process can possible yield positive outcomes overall.

    On my journey in getting my ed credentials I observed at a school called the School Without Walls in Rochester. It’s part of the Rochester City School district but the school does its own thing. Plus, the students need to apply to it. Strictly speaking, I don’t know if its a “charter school”, but it seems to be in the spirit of one.

    Its students are a self-selected group. In general, they’d prefer to read than to join gangs or play sports (there’s no gym at the school). In general, the kids there are smarter, more ambitious, intelligent, and polite. The school, however, likes to take credit for making them what they are. It’s a little like gathering a group of Hispanic kids together and then bragging what a wonderful job you did in teaching them conversational Spanish. I think that the administration, and some of the teachers actually believe this themselves.

    Normally, a kid who wants to learn, say poker, learns it on his own time. Normally, we call that a “hobby”, and not necessarily a productive one at that. But at the SWW the kid can get any teacher to sign a piece of paper and learning poker suddenly is turned into a grandiose academic SENIOR PROJECT. He then goes off and learns it on his own like kids pursue hobbies all over the world. The school then pretends that it, and it alone, has taught this kid the “skills” to learn whatever he wants to learn. I’m serious. It’s as if you’ll never find a kid anywhere who’s taught himself something he’s interested in unless this kid was so well educated at the SWW.

    What’s really amazing, is that many in the community actually believe this tripe. They actually think that the school has stumbled upon some wonderful techniques to teach anything to anyone, when in reality you’ll see less teaching there than you’ll see at any other school.

    This little “experiment” has been around for about four decades, but there’s no evolutionary process to stick a stake in its heart. In education, there are no intelligent evaluation procedures to apply to anything. Plus, this school actively resists Regents Examinations “on principle”, so there’s no objective data on this school. It simply continues to run on its own image.

    I’ve also interviewed at two actual charter schools, both with grandiose names and beautiful websites. The names of the schools made you think you were interviewing at the Max Planck Institute, but when I got there, one was just a glorified playground with kids surfing the net like they do everywhere, except here they were learning intensive “Information Technology”, supposedly one of the “concentrations” offered by the school. The second charter school didn’t even have students. If memory serves, it was the brainchild of some businessman who thought it might be cool to open up a school. In both cases grand names, websites, and claims like “we’ll prepare your child for the high paying IT jobs of tomorrow (by teaching them how to find google)” keep them popular and keep them going.

    My cousin recently claimed that charter schools are better and as proof he cited the fact that parents want to send their kids there. I told him the stories from up above and asked whether those sound like good schools. He didn’t think so. I told him that they’re popular with parents from the outside too.

    I don’t see how a random, willy nilly process have any positive general effect. Applying the same on a vast scale is far crazier.

  11. Oh, come on people. Charters exist to destroy the cartel’s that currently control public education in America. I’m in favor of them whole-heartedly for that reason, as are most of our fellow citizens. I’m guessing that most of the comments here come from those of you with vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Not gonna happen. Whether you like it or not the system as it currently exist is a dying dinosaur. Get used to it.

  12. I can teach anywhere, Stacy — or do something else entirely. I love it when the word “cartel” comes out, though. Diction is a fabulous thing. Why don’t you address what I’ve said about charters instead of alluding to Mexican drug gangs?

  13. Alluding to Mexican drug gangs? Talking about self-referencing bias. You own that comparison, LS. It never even occured to me. I was thinking more in line with a movie released last year here in Jersey.

    I actually did address your point about charters. It really doesn’t matter overall whether they are more or less effective in the short term. They’re just tools, probably blunt but effective tools, creative destruction and all that.

    I don’t remember questioning your employment options, LS, but I’m glad that you can teach anywhere because it is quite likely that many teachers will need to locate their inner competencies soon as budget cuts across that nation kick in.

    The internet has destroyed the music, movie, and newspaper industries as they existed just a few short years ago. They are shadows of their former shelves. I hate to go all mushy pseudo-academics on you, but just as the industrial age destroyed the agrarian structure it encountered, our age of technology is destroying the 20th century big blue model. There will be some negative consequences to that reality, but there will be opportunities as well.

    Now I’m going to open a window to Al Jazeera’s live streaming of the Egyptian riots or revolution.

  14. Well, that’s interesting, though. If it doesn’t matter whether or not charters are any good — their sole purpose is to dismantle public education — and if the strategy is that parents will choose them because they are better than public schools, then it seems to me that the game plan relies on parents not really knowing which is better — or deceiving parents into buying the charter brand (which, I admit, is easy to do in our culture). This is a real shift.

  15. Stacy wrote:

    “Oh, come on people. Charters exist to destroy the cartel’s that currently control public education in America. I”

    Do you think that by boiling a fishtank and turning it into fish soup you’ll get a better class of fish?

    Here another point: It’s the same cartel. The “cartel” isn’t public education, it’s the set of looney ideas and their originators, the ed schools. Charter schools run on exactly the same set of ideas, only on steroids.

    Imagine what would happen if we “replaced” mainstream religious denominations with tens of thousands of little cults. Tiny little cults with charismatic leaders aren’t part of the “cartel” so they must be a good idea, right?

    You may not approve of the catholic next door, but it’s better than finding yourself living next to David Koresh.

  16. An addendum to my SWW rant: The school does one thing well. They actually hold kids back, even though they would never admit to it in those terms.

    In the SWW kids don’t have to show up, but if they don’t, they won’t receive credit for the course and they wind up taking it eventually when they’ve gained a little more maturity.

    Kids who are in a mood to be disruptive generally don’t show up, and so the classes you’ll see there are generally pretty well behaved, even compared to suburban schools.

    Again, if some form of this is a good idea, and I think this one has some merit, then it should be rolled out to mainstream public schools instead of simply being the exclusive and creative property of the SWW.

  17. Oh John, your use of Walmart is more telling then I believe you’re willing to admit to yourself.

    The comparison is so inappropriate that it’s worth a horse-laugh.

    In order for the comparison to have any validity your Walmart, as opposed to the real-world Walmart, would have continuously rising prices and an utter indifference to customer preferences or product quality.

    Oh, and those customers? They wouldn’t have any choice about where to shop. It’d be Walmart under force of law. Walmart employees would be busy constructing artful rationalizations why that’s a proper state of affairs. One of those rationalizations would be explanations for why requiring non-customers to help pay for the involuntary purchases of the customers is actually a good thing.

    Given those circumstances you’d like to sell the notion that Walmart would care about the quality or efficacy of mouse traps? Or that it’d be interested in improving their quality or efficacy? You’ve got to be a Walmart employee. Well, you’ve got to be a Walmart employee of your imaginary Walmart.

    As for the purpose of charters being to dismantle public education Lightly Seasoned, consult a psychiatrist. You’re suffering from paranoid delusions. Charters are public school and it’s only those who equate public schools with school districts who suffer from the self-serving delusion that they’re anything else.

    The purpose of charters is to return to parents what’s rightfully theirs: responsibility for their own children and the decision-making power that ought to go with that responsibility. The public education system, never particularly careful with that responsibility, has within the last couple of decades given up even the semblance of caring. Between the valueless fads that sweep public education and the ever-rising compensation that plays no small role in the potential bankrupting of a number of less-cautious states, the public education system’s become the engine of wealth transfer from the public at large to those who’ve found a way to tap into the money stream.

    Education? That’s what occurs when the excuses run out.

  18. Its students are a self-selected group. In general, they’d prefer to read than to join gangs or play sports (there’s no gym at the school). In general, the kids there are smarter, more ambitious, intelligent, and polite.

    If the traditional government-run schools want to retain these children rather than losing them to charters, private schools, or homeschooling, then they are going to need to start offering them a quality learning environment.

    My district is going to need to close some schools because of declining enrollment and the cut in state funding. There are 3 options under consideration. One of the scenarios would eliminate the district’s two magnet schools, even though they are among the highest performing schools in the entire county. It is unbelievable to me that the board would even consider eliminating the magnet schools to save lower-performing schools.

  19. Many people, both inside and outside of the ed establishment, really don’t like magnet programs; the words “creaming”,” draining resources” and “elitist” recur regularly, along with complaints of insufficient “diversity”. Any excuse to get rid of them will do. I get particularly riled at he argument that these kids should remain in the regular schools in order to inspire or be a role model for less able and/or motivated kids. No kids should have to have their needs and best interests ignored for that reason, but lots of people would rather see such kids leave the system for private schools or homeschooling than offer them good public options. Those same people are very likely to feel that any amount of money for spec ed, even for kids who will never be able to care for themselves in any way, is fully justified.

  20. Genevieve says:

    There are schools in my district which require an application and have long waiting lists (children used to be put on the lists at birth, now they have to wait until the children are 1 or 3 if the school doesn’t offer preschool). Sometimes they are referred to as Magnet schools. These schools have much lower rates of poverty and some sort of special program (Montessori, traditional, Project approach, IB).
    I would have no problem with these schools if they operated with a lottery, or at least made some effort to recruit students. As it is now, the schools are known only to those in the know. Many teachers and other district employees in the district send their children to these schools. They are virtually inaccessible to families that move into the district, or are not knowledgeable about the inner workings of the district. Finally, should families really have to think about their child’s schooling before their child’s first birthday?
    Starting next year, families that live within a quarter mile of the school will be given preference (a limited number of families as this is not a dense city). This is an improvement. However, these schools are far more guilty of creaming than most charters I have heard of (our state doesn’t really have independent charters, so I don’t have first hand experience with charters).
    So I can see why some people would be against magnet schools if the schools operate in a manner similar to these schools.

  21. Charters exist to destroy the cartel’s that currently control public education in America.

    Charters couldn’t exist without the cartels.

  22. “lots of people would rather see such kids leave the system for private schools or homeschooling than offer them good public options”

    Except that if the students who currently attend the magnet schools (and those who would attend in future) leave the district, the district loses the state funding for them (around $6k per child). Additionally, the district foundation loses any donations the families would give and any volunteer efforts they would make. These are the kinds of families whom the district needs because they actually care about their children’s education.

    Admissions to the magnet schools are done via lottery. The parent does have to sign the child up at age 3 but it’s well-publicized. There’s a whole section on the district website and I’ve seen fliers at the local library, not to mention periodic discussions on the town mothers’ club e-list.

  23. And the district also doesn’t incur the costs of educating a kid who’s no longer in need of their service so a drop in funding is entirely proper.

    As for magnet school admission being via lottery you ought to try that line on folks who don’t know that preceding the lottery there’s an admission’s test. Magnet schools *aren’t* required to give all comers an equal chance. Magnets get to cherry-pick the best students precisely the charge that’s laid on charters.

    Charters are a fact of life the primary remaining question being “where do we go from here”?

    I’m hoping that “next step” is getting rid of an entire district now that charters have proven the district superfluous. I’m hoping the first district to fall to the headsman’s ax is the Detroit Public Schools district more execrable then there are few.

  24. There is no admissions test for the magnet schools in my district. Anyone can choose to sign his/her child up for the lottery and everyone in the lottery has an equal shot.

    One of the primary reasons why schools need to close in my district is because of declining enrollment. Closing the magnet schools would almost certainly accelerate this decline more than closing the other schools under consideration would. Many of the families in the magnet schools would likely opt to leave the district rather than send their children to a lower performing neighborhood school. Whereas if some of the neighborhood schools are closed, then those children have to travel further but would attend a school of equal or better quality. I doubt that it would have a significant impact on enrollment.

    A business needing to downsize would never for a second consider closing high performing divisions while sparing its underperformers.

  25. Genevieve says:

    In our district, there is no admissions test to enter the elementary and middle schools. However, they are extremely reluctant to take children with special needs and english language learners. In many ways, our area’s Catholic schools are more accepting that these schools.

  26. Har! Thanks for the laugh Crimson Wife.

    Magnet schools without an entrance exam. That’s delightful.

    Sorry, it’s charters that can’t be selective. Try to keep that straight.