Flash: Charters aren’t a silver bullet

Applying to Washington D.C. charter schools taught Conor Williams that school choice relies on chance. Lots of parents want to get their kids into the good charters. A lottery decides who makes it.

There are Hebrew, Chinese, and Spanish language schools. One promises Spanish immersion, discovery-based learning, and an emphasis on ecological sustainability. There are multiple Montessori charters in our area . . .

D.C. has some “great” district-run schools, but they’re open only to people who can afford million-dollar homes, Williams writes. So parents have turned to charter schools. “In 2012, there were more than 35,000 students on charter schools’ waitlists (though some were duplicates). There were only 77,000 students in the city that year.”

Charters’ lotteries are neutral, he writes. His “son, with his two highly educated, almost-middle-class, white parents” has no advantage “over his friend whose mother dropped out of high school and is raising her child alone.”

It’s not perfect. Savvy parents can “get around town” and apply to multiple lotteries, he complains. However, D.C. has unified its district and charter lotteries.  While “a handful of high-performing charters stayed outside the system,” parents can apply to most schools with one application.

The D.C. Council has considered letting charter schools give admissions preference to students who live nearby. As the city gentrifies, that could lock low-income families out of high-performing charters, Williams writes. What about weighted lotteries to give a preference to disadvantaged students?

He doesn’t mention helping good charters expand, so they can serve more students.

The headline says Williams “learned about inequality” but his conclusion is that charters are a “mild corrective to inequity” though not a “solution.” Not a silver bullet? Really! 

Review: 75% of charter studies are flawed

Seventy-five percent of charter school studies are flawed because they fail to account for charter students’ differences in academic background and performance, according to a meta-analysis published in Science.

High-quality research is emerging from charters that use lotteries to pick students, write Julian R. Betts, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, and Richard C. Atkinson, a former president of the University of California system who once served as director of the National Science Foundation. Students who apply to a charter but lose the lottery represent a sound control group, they write.

The relatively small number of lottery-based studies of charter schools have generally shown that they either outperform or perform at the same level as traditional public schools, according to the authors. But those studies cover only a small fraction—about 2 percent—of charter schools nationally.

However, charters that need lotteries for admission may be unusually good schools, the authors warn.

Too much choice? Or not enough?

School choice is a failure because it doesn’t guarantee access to a high-quality, neighborhood middle school in her majority-black Washington, D.C. neighborhood, complains Natalie Hopkinson in a New York Times op-ed.  The district closed the local middle school for poor performance and low enrollment, complains Hopkinson, the founding editor of a black e-zine,  The Root. She doesn’t like the new K-8 nearby — low test scores, no algebra or foreign languages — and her son has to compete with other students for admission to a high-performing charter, magnet or private school outside the neighborhood.

If the old school had remained open, surely Hopkinson would have rejected it. Choice may not guarantee her son a place in an excellent and conveniently located school, but it’s created more options than kids from that neighborhood had before.

Hopkinson envies the “shiny new middle school” in an affluent part of town, notes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. But that’s not a product of  “Zip Code Education,” not school choice.

Furthermore, D.C. was losing public school students and closing schools for years before the first charter school was created, Biddle writes. Middle-class parents of all colors moved to the suburbs — more Zip Code Education — for better schools.

Hopkinson lives in Northwest D.C.  Students are zoned into low-performing middle schools, but they now have choices, Biddle writes.

Instead, you can enroll him in Howard University Middle School, one of the Center City Public Charter School branches — a former Catholic school converted into a charter just a few years ago — a Community Academy charter school, or  even one of KIPP’s charter schools. All of those choices are just minutes away from the Shaw metro . . .

As a middle-class parent, Hopkinson is choosing between district-run neighborhood and magnet schools, charters and private schools for her own children, but wants to restrict choice for others, complains Edspresso, which adds that she’s wrong about charter school performance.

In fact, DC’s charter schools make more and faster gains for all children, retain their students longer, and are boasting higher graduation rates. Those that don’t work do close — at a rate of 15% percent, a practice that still rarely happens in traditional public schools, even in this city where she believes officials are school closure crazy.

Washington D.C. didn’t offer good schools in working-class neighborhoods before parents had charter options and private-school vouchers. There was little incentive to create the kind of schools parents wanted. Few parents could afford private school tuition and they couldn’t all move to the suburbs.  If Hopkinson wants better schools and fewer wait lists and lotteries, she should support more choice, not less.