charter schools: where we stand

I live in a city, Washington, that is shifting to charter schools. They will enroll a majority of the public school population by 2014 if current trends continue. According to V. Dion Haynes and Theola Labbe in today’s Washington Post, “D.C. charter school enrollment rose during the past five years by 9,000, to 19,733 in 55 schools, while the traditional school system closed classrooms as enrollment dropped by almost 13,000, to 55,355.”

Traditional American public schools are centrally governed by local authorities that can be quite large: New York City enrolls more than one million children. Charter schools, a recent innovation, are publicly funded but self-governing (as long as they retain their “charters” from the city or state). In DC, they receive about $11,000 per pupil they enroll plus some money for facilities. I don’t think any of our charter schools’ teachers are unionized. Currently, seven percent of the charters in my city are meeting the standards for “adequate yearly progress” under federal law, compared to 19 percent of the city’s standard public schools. Nevertheless, the charters are growing by 13 percent per year as parents move their kids to them.

On one hand:

  • Charters test the idea that parental choice will produce better outcomes, as a monopoly is replaced with a market. The DC charter schools may serve a harder population than the regular schools, which could partly explain their very low success rate on standardized tests. But clearly, choice is no panacea–not if only seven percent of the charters can meet standards of adequate yearly progress.
  • Charters test the theory that too much money is wasted in the downtown bureaucracy and fails to reach the buildings where the kids are. Each charter gets a guaranteed amount of cash, yet they perform worse than the schools in the main system, which must share their funds with downtown.
  • Charters test the proposition that teachers’ unions are the problem. This may sound like a ridiculous idea to some readers (especially those who read from overseas); but there is a widespread view in the US that teachers’ unions are the root cause of our failing schools. The unionized DC schools seem to perform better than the non-unionized charters.
  • On the other hand:

  • I do not object to charter schools on ideological grounds. They are public schools in the same way that schools in Western European social democracies are public–funded and licensed by the state. The fact that governance is decentralized does not make them private. In our own family’s school, I think most parents would oppose becoming a charter on the grounds that we would be abandoning the public system in favor of a “market.” I’d have no such objection, but would be proud to call our school “public” even if it seceded from the citywide bureaucracy.
  • The citywide bureaucracy frequently treats parents and teachers with disrespect, even open contempt. I strongly suspect this is one reason that people are shifting over to the charters, which are more likely to treat people politely and respectfully.
  • Charters give adults opportunities to work and innovate within the public sector. One would hope the results would be good, and so far they are mixed. But apart from the results, participation is arguably a right of citizenship.
  • Although I would not ignore test results and “adequate yearly progress,” these are not the only criteria. Parents may be shifting to charter schools because of other values. I spent part of the morning looking for national survey results about what parents want for their kids. The questions that I found struck me as excessively narrow or beside the point. But everyday experience suggests that in a diverse city like Washington, people want various things for their children–values, cultural references, experiences, and supports. They may be looking for charters that match those preferences more closely than the regular schools do.
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