Charter poaching, competition, and dignity

Julia Lawrence at EducationNews gives us a brief look at some legislative offensives in ongoing charter warsGeorgia is considering a law to allow the state to approve charter schools in a district without the district’s consent, and Mississippi is considering something similar which also allows the state to put charters anywhere, not just in low-performing districts.  (It appears that Mississippi law currently only allows charters as a remedial measure.)  Perhaps somewhat predictably, district superintendents aren’t thrilled to have their power attacked like this.

The fact that various political entities and individuals are bickering over who gets the power to tax and spend isn’t a terribly interesting one to me; politicians have been fighting over things like that for millennia, and they’d probably fight over it even if everyone completely supported charter schools, because the fights Lawrence is highlighting are, I think, about power, not policy.  So I had considered just putting up a post entitled “charter schools” with the text “Discuss”, and letting the usual suspects fly into a frenzy in the comments.   That might have been fun to watch.

But I wanted instead to try to focus attention on a very particular issue, raised by a Tennessee superintendent who seems to simply not like the idea of charter schools being approved in his district: poaching.  Here’s what he says:

If 17 new charter schools open here in the fall, Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash said he expects to bleed staff as the startups “cannibalize” the city schools, picking at sinews of talent and leaving a weakened system behind.

“Everyone is going to cannibalize our top people,” Cash said. “With the new evaluation system, we now know who our top folks are. Who do you think they are going to be after with every lure, bait and catch you can imagine?”

I was a little shocked when I read this, because it seemed like such an admission of weakness.  Essentially, he’s holding up a giant sign that says, “We don’t deserve to survive as an organization.”  Can you imagine the CEO of a private company making this sort of complaint in public?  He’d be laughed at by the public and removed the next day by the board.

It had always been my impression that charter schools received slightly less funding per student than public schools.  (The link is to a New York study, and though one should be mindful of generalizing from a single state, I believe California works similarly.)  Given the financial disparity, what “lure, bait, and catch” could charters use that are unavailable to districts?

Teacher-based decision-making, and teacher-involved management might be one draw — but then Superintendent Cash is really just complaining that his serfs are being given their freedom in the next Principality over, and why can’t they just stay in their place like good little peasants.  Surely that’s not his argument.

Better working conditions might be a possibility, but why doesn’t the district just improve its working conditions by adopting whatever policies the charter schools adopt?  If teachers like a schedule with a few more breaks, then give them a few more breaks.  If the charters give teachers more classroom authority, why not give your teachers more classroom authority?  If the charters let the teachers pick their own curricular materials, why not do the same?

Perhaps I could understand a complaint that went something like this: the charter schools will take all of our best students.  The best teachers and staff will follow the best students because they’re easier to teach.  That seems like a legitimate worry about why you’d lose your best teachers.  Of course, that just pushes back the problem.  Now we have to ask a different version of the same question: why are you losing your best students?  Once you think it through, it really starts to look like the Superintendent isn’t just complaining about competition and the fact that it would harm education, but rather he’s complaining about competition and the fact that he (and the district) would lose.

Look, I’m not saying that competition in our education system is going to make things better, not for everybody and maybe not even for the students.  I’m not saying that everyone has to like competition; some people really just want their comfortable little slice of the pie.  I understand that; it’s a significant part of human nature.  We can fight out issues about how much and what types of competition we’ll have in our society in the legislatures.

Fight about power.  Fight about policy.  But whining about how competition is going to hand you your hat, and using the assertion that your competitors are better than you are to argue that they shouldn’t be allowed to compete really betrays a lack of dignity.


  1. You can’t be serious.

    Essentially, he’s holding up a giant sign that says, “We don’t deserve to survive as an organization.” Can you imagine the CEO of a private company making this sort of complaint in public? He’d be laughed at by the public and removed the next day by the board.

    Can you imagine a CEO who can’t pay his best workers more, who can’t fire his worst workers, and who has absolutely no control over his product or his customers?

    And his “competition” can pay more based on ability, can fire his worst workers, and can cherry-pick both the product and the customers.


    Of course, the same idiots who think the CEO analogy is relevant outside a lunatic bin also think that running all schools like a business makes sense, but no, unless schools want to be sued by parents for disparate impact, that’s not happening.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Of course, if you’d bothered to read to the end of the post, you’d already know my response to this, because you’d know that my argument (to the extent I have one) is about dignity and legitimacy, not fairness or substantive policy.

      If you can’t pay your best workers more, can’t fire your worst workers, and have absolutely no control over your product or your customers — if these things are interfering with your ability to do a good job — complain about that, because those are legitimate complaints.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        He won’t complain about that because he’s not an idiot and probably likes being employed. In fact, he probably is employed due to his disinterest in complaining about those very issues. Does he want a battle royal ala Michele Rhee? Does he want to be demonized and marginalized? He already lives in a straightjacket, a cushy and comfortable straightjacket that he chose for himself. So, he will complain about those things that it’s politically possible for him to complain about. When that position becomes untenable, he’ll change positions.

  2. why are you losing your best students?

    Simple- because you are not offering their families the type of program they want. There is a Montessori charter school within my district that gets 3 times as many applications as there are available slots. Similarly, there is a private Classical model school that also gets far more applications than there are slots available. Clearly the parental demand is there, so it seems like a no-brainer to me for the district to start its own Montessori and Classical magnet schools. But do they? Nope. They are wedded to a “one size fits all” model regardless of what parents want 🙁

    • CW is right about the programs parents would like. I’d bet the farm that if my kids’ old “high-performing” (lots of bright kids with highly educated parents) ES-MS started a Classical or Core Knowledge program with Singapore Math, and used homogeneous grouping, direct instruction and allowed acceleration, those kids would be so far ahead of the kids in the other schools in the cluster that parents in the other schools would be screaming for the same program. Obviously, those programs need to be started first at the lowest grades, but I’d bet that it would take only a few years for the difference to be undeniable.

      In the cities, I have the impression that a safe and orderly school environment is high on the list of parent wishes. They may not know much about curriculum but they do know that learning is not possible in the middle of chaos and actual danger. Good curriculum would be icing on the cake.(yes, it should be meat, potatoes and vegetables, but…)

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    “Can you imagine the CEO of a private company making this sort of complaint in public? He’d be laughed at by the public and removed the next day by the board.”

    Um … yes, I can imagine that.

    And the public might laugh, but the board wouldn’t remove the CEO if the CEO could deliver a political win.

    As an example … in the early 1980s the US automotive industry basically argued that they’d be in big trouble if the American consumers were permitted to purchase as many Japanese cars as desired. These CEOs didn’t get fired. They persuaded congress to limit the number of imports that American consumers could purchase.

    • First of all, thank you for mentioning my story and I must admit, as I was writing it, the concern about poaching caught my eye as well. However,

      “Can you imagine the CEO of a private company making this sort of complaint in public? He’d be laughed at by the public and removed the next day by the board.”

      as Mark Roulo mentioned above, CEOs complain about this sort of thing all the time. Staff turnover due to poaching by competitors is a problem for all organizations, private or public, and nothing Cash says is even remotely controversial. Districts invest in their teachers as any company worth its salt invests in its employees. Losing that investment should be on the mind of any leader. Only those who are blind to this issue should be removed by the board and laughed out of their jobs by the public.

    • Well there’s a relevant example – the pre-Japanese invasion American auto industry. A de facto monopoly that, faced with competition, does what every monopoly does, tries to shut down competition rather then compete.

      As a monopolist Superintendent Cash is throwing everything at “the enemy” including the tacit admission that the enemy does a better job then he does and for reasons he can’t match. Of course he doesn’t really want to compete with charter schools, he just wants them to go away.

      But the superintendent is correct in worrying that charters will woo away his best teachers since those are the teachers most likely to want to get out from under the thumb of useless, even counter-productive, functionaries like Superintendent Cash. The rotten teachers and the teachers who’ve given up on the idea of taking pride in what they do are very likely to be the ones who remain because the environment of the district is much more suited to their professional characteristics.

      So there’s the reason a district might lose its best teachers to charters.

      The rich irony in the complaint though is that Superintendent Cash couldn’t identify, his best teachers if his life depended on it. After all, what’s teaching skill to him? Nothing.

      As to the tedious calumny of “cherry-picking”, the profile of the students the district loses, as I believe has already been shown, is of students with problems.

      It’s not charter schools that engage in “cherry-picking” but district schools. Magnet schools, to be specific.

      As everyone knows, magnet are selective and unapologetically so. That’s practically their reason for existence. Charters, however, are not allowed to select students operating, typically, on a lottery-based system.

      Students with problems, however, have nothing to lose by changing schools. They’re already doing poorly in the school they’re assigned to due to organizational convenience not educational appropriateness so bailing is just common sense.

  4. Stacy in NJ says:

    Unfortunately, because public education has been so resistant to anything like real reform for decades, we’re going to have to burn down the village to save the village. That superintendent is correct; he’s probably going to bleed both the best students and the best teachers. He might want to have a conversation or two with his local unions and school board to figure out how his district can become more flexible, specialized and responsive. That, of course, will be completely fruitless.

  5. Isn’t one of the main things that make charter schools what they are is that in return for clearly defining themselves in their charters, they are freed from many of the rules and regulations that regular public schools are bound to?

    Would you want to compete with a business that didn’t have to follow some of the same laws or regulations that your business did, particularly if those laws and regulations were some of the most time-consuming, cumbersome, highly litigated, and expensive parts of doing business?

    Instead of public employees who just express concern about competition, I suppose what some would like to see is a public school employees who would say, you know the public schools aren’t really prepared to be everything to everybody either. We’d like the freedom to not offer programs for the most severely and profoundly disabled students and instead have those picked up by another state agency ; we’d like the freedom to have enforceable discipline contracts with students and parents and the ability to outright expel students who won’t or can’t meet them without having to assume the cost of alternative education for them. We’d like to get out of the transportation business. (and maybe we’d like to shed our athletic department as well.) And those are just the things that I can think of in about five minutes. There are probably a bunch more things that traditional public schools “have to do” that charters are perceived as not having to do.

    • Why couldn’t traditional district schools enforce discipline contracts with students and parents? Just because they don’t doesn’t mean that they can’t. The political will would just have to be there to support such contracts.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Why couldn’t traditional district schools enforce discipline contracts with students and parents?

        1. In many states, I am fairly sure there are laws regarding expulsion that make such contracts impossible. Finding the “political will” to change such laws would be difficult.

        2. Even if such contracts were perfectly legal, there is the enormous problem that the system still has to do something with the young people who break the contract. That means setting up “alternative education” for them. Most systems find this very very difficult.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          The right to an education is essentially federal. And once granted, a school cannot suspend a student without a due-process hearing. The school has the burden of proof, just like in a criminal case.

          I think it should be obvious that a he-said/she-said of student versus teacher will often go in favor of the student in these sort of proceedings.

          Once the students can be suspended only rarely (and they know this), discipline is going to be much harder than in the 1960s.

  6. J. Remarque says:

    Incidentally, Superintendent Cash is the highest paid public employee in his county, earning $275,000 per year on a contract that also offers some sweet yearly performance bonuses. If he’s so helpless, if he “can’t pay his best workers more…can’t fire his worst workers, and…has absolutely no control over his product or his customers,” then why is he earning so much money? What does he do all day?

  7. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I have never had a teacher leave to go to a charter school. I AM innundated with applications from charter school teachers wanting to come into a my public school district. I’d chalk it up to being a suburban district except I hear the same from the urban schools. Charters are where people go in a last ditch effort to get a job.

  8. Lightly Seasoned is absolutely correct. Go right now to, click “advanced search” and look through all San Francisco County jobs. Long lists of charter school teaching jobs — so many of them that you really have to wonder about the turnover in that sector, since most of those charter schools have been in existence for many years. Almost no public school teaching jobs. (Maybe I’ll do a count for you all so you don’t have to bother yourselves.)

    And I keep running into young adults recently out of college (or their parents who fill me in) who have landed jobs at charter schools.

    I have quite a few friends who are teachers (as is my husband), and the only ones I know who teach or have taught at charters do it because it was the only job they could get or else because they lacked a credential. I’ll leave the other points about charters, creaming and all that for now. But the employment situation is so very extreme that it’s puzzling. If charters weren’t so lionized and Teflonized, the education press would be asking about this.

  9. OK, I did count. I’m not doing the math to figure out all the per-capitas, but you get a rough idea.

    SFUSD has ~120 schools. A portion of them that I’m not counting are Superintendent’s Zone schools (some have SIG money; at least one is mandated to replace half its teachers).

    Gateway Charter is a high school and a middle school.
    Leadership Charter is a high school.
    KIPP has two charter schools.
    Flex Academy virtual hybrid charter has one small school in SF and one in Santa Clara County, technically based in SF.

    Here’s the count — open teaching/admin positions.
    SFUSD 8, 4 of them in Superintendent’s Zone schools.
    Gateway 10
    Leadership 5
    KIPP 4
    Flex 3
    Other 3

  10. Doesn’t a lot of the relative disinterest in charters from teachers reflect the lack of some of the accepted benefits of public school teaching, like job security and cushy retirement benefits? Additionally, I think that often the pay is lower and that employees have fewer protection from arbitrary dismissal.

    What could a teacher expect to gain to offset these losses?

    • Public-school teachers get ADEQUATE retirement benefits, not “cushy.” We’re not talking about the 1% (it’s those folks, rolling in luxury, who try to con us into believing that public employees are the ones whose lives are “cushy”).

      But then, those same powerful forces (and the many, many voices who are paid or funded to flack for them*) are also constantly telling us that teachers are clamoring to work for charter schools. Why? Well, they’re working miracles, aren’t they? The billionaires who back charter schools are the new civil rights heroes — didn’t you know? Teachers could be making history by teaching in charter schools.

      *(Does anyone really believe this crap who isn’t paid or funded to promote it?)

      • My MIL is a retired public school teacher and she gets an EXTREMELY cushy pension. It’s 75% of her final year’s salary with an annual cost-of-living adjustment guaranteed for the rest of her life plus full family health benefits with no premiums, cost-shares, or deductibles until both spouses are eligible for Medicare. And on top of that, she gets Social Security. Between her pension and SS, she’s got a guaranteed six figure income for the rest of her life. That’s absolutely ridiculous!

        True, nothing can be done about current retirees, but all those who are more than 5 years away from retirement should be immediately switched to a cash-balance plan and all future hires should be eligible for a 401k-type defined contribution plan only.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          My MIL taught first grade for 35 years in an affluent district on Long Island (NY). Her retirement is as you describe – 6 figures. Folks in the private sector are only starting to realize the discrepancy between public and private sector pension/benefits.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Teacher pensions vary between states and to some extent within states. I suspect Mike from Texas could tell us they aren’t so good in Texas. However, here in Massachusetts, they are pretty good–after 35 years (age 58 if you start teaching at age 23), you get 80% of your final three years’ salary.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          You forgot to mention the generous life, health, dental, and long term disability insurance with little to no contribution that is typically part of the retirement package. These benefits are hugely expensive for tax payers.

      • Recently-retired connections in NJ are making MORE as retirees than they made while teaching, because they get Social Security plus a very generous pension, with all of the medical benefits CW mentioned – including kids up to age 26 or so. The teacher pay went up something like 30% in their last few years of teaching, so they stayed active an extra year or so to get the max salary for their last 3 years to qualify it for their retirement base. Also, the retired ES (3rd-5th grades at various times) was paid as if she had had a EdD for at least 25 years – because she had over 60 hours of grad classes. So was her spouse, for the same reason – he was part admin and part HS teacher.

  11. I agree that teacher retirement benefits are better than most private plans, but I don’t know that most states have the tax payers paying a disproportionate amount of the cost of all teacher benefits. Some states split the costs of insurance, retirement, etc between the taxpayers and the employees in a ratio that’s more like the private sector. (It’s just that practically nobody gets a private defined benefits retirement plan anymore.)

    Right now, with the general economy stinking it up and people looking towards their depleted 401Ks, it may seem like a great thing to cut the cost of teacher benefits. If you’re going to to do it, certainly strike while taxpayers are hot. But if the general economy comes back, teaching will be an even less attractive career comparatively than it is now.

  12. “I was a little shocked when I read this, because it seemed like such an admission of weakness. Essentially, he’s holding up a giant sign that says, “We don’t deserve to survive as an organization.” Can you imagine the CEO of a private company making this sort of complaint in public? He’d be laughed at by the public and removed the next day by the board.”

    Can you imagine the CEO of a private company (let’s call it Company A) being told that his/her company must manufacture goods according to three different sets of standards, some of which are mutually contradictory and must use each and every component part delivered to the company regardless of its quality or fit, while facing continual budget cuts and layoffs—while all the employees who are lucky enough to still have jobs are faced with absolutely incomprehensible performance evaluations based on nonsensical measures that are completely irrelevant to their job?

    If Company B came along, and it was allowed to choose its own standards for manufacture, throw any of the component parts it was supplied that it didn’t want into Company A’s assembly line, radically increase its own funding at the expense of Company A, and sidestep all of the ridiculous “accountability measures” inflicted on the employees of Company A, don’t you think the CEO of Company A might feel like the competition is more than a little unfair?