Chester Finn on charter schools

Where the political system is suspicious of charter schools, charter schools tend to be few but excellent. Where the political system welcomes them, they tend to be numerous but mostly mediocre.

Chester Finn isn’t happy with Diane Ravitch’s apostasy from the conservative vision of “school reform,” but he makes a fascinating point about charter schools:

Not all charters are created equal. The quality of the schools fluctuates widely by state. (Our ability even to evaluate charters varies greatly, too, depending on who performs the evaluations, what methods they use, and which schools they examine.) A few jurisdictions — Massachusetts, New York, Illinois — are sparing in their distribution of charter contracts and, for the most part, check carefully to determine whether organizations that get the green light have what it takes to succeed. As a result, these states have relatively few charter schools, but their performance is impressive. Meanwhile, states like Arizona, Ohio, Texas, and California confer charters on nearly everyone who applies; as a consequence, they now have many charter schools but also wide discrepancies in charter quality and performance ( tending, however, toward the mediocre). So even as Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby reports solid gains by charter pupils in New York City, Ohio’s school-rating system for academic year 2008-9 showed that just 16% of Buckeye charter pupils were in schools rated “excellent” or “effective,” while 55% of them attended schools on “academic watch” or in “academic emergency.” And Texas is home to some of America’s strongest charters — Houston is ground zero for KIPP and the “YES Prep” network — but also dozens of the weakest.

In other words, in liberal states where the teachers’ unions have clout and charters are greeted warily, the charter schools that do exist are excellent. In conservative states where charters are greeted with open arms, they’re mostly mediocre. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

14 thoughts on “Chester Finn on charter schools”

  1. The only use for charters I can imagine is for students who have unusual needs that are very hard for typical public schools to meet.

    For example, I can imagine a preschool/early elementary charter school for children with cochlear implants. They require a certain type of speech therapy and other specialized interventions. Any one school isn't probably going to have more than one or two such students, if any at all. Put all these kids from a metropolitan area together in one charter with the specialists they need, get them up to speed, and then get them integrated into their regular public school. After all, that's the ultimate goal, isn't it, to get them to the point where they can function in the community?

    I can imagine other similar charters for other disabilities, or maybe a high school for moms who can learn parenting skills and have their kids in a safe day care environment during the time they are at school. I can even imagine a charter for kids who are just plain behind academically, IF the school's goal is to remediate and then RETURN them to their public school within a specified timeline — or in the case of the teen moms, to prepare them for life after graduation.

    These charters should be required by law to be non-profit and their funding environment should be like that of social-service non-profits: they should demonstrate that they have wide community support (e.g., a volunteer board of directors drawn from different sectors of the community, and at least some financial support from the wider community); their funding should be up for renewal on a periodic basis; and the funding decisions should be made by a panel with expertise in education, finance, etc. They should know that if they can't prove that they are reaching their goals, their funding will be cut — I worked in the social service non-profit field for a decade and know how hard we worked to meet the goals we promised our funders we would achieve, because it was a matter of job or no job for us.

    Otherwise, all the criticisms of charters remain. For one, they are an assault on democracy, because they replace a form of local government, the school board/district, with a private — often profit-making — corporation that is accountable to no one and usually without any transparency. Worse yet, many of them are old-time graft-machines, at least around here (I see Chester Finn does call out Ohio).

    They almost all cherry-pick (lots of research to support this, and KIPP is especially guilty of pushing out huge numbers of students they don't want). In cherry-picking, they discriminate against students with disabilities, which is a violation of those students' civil rights. They both remove resources from the public schools and leave the public schools with the most difficult and expensive students. As noted in the post, they usually don't get better results than public schools. Finally, they function as an assault on teachers' unions. It doesn't help any of us to have unions weakened and we all know that the erosion of unions has contributed to the shrinking of the middle-class.

    Sorry to go on so long but I generally like what I read on this blog, I've learned a lot here, and it pains me to see something that seems to go against the rest of the values and views promoted here. I'm chalking it up to public education not being your field.

  2. The popularity of charter schools here in Texas is inextricably bound up with the notion that private enterprise can do any task better and cheaper than government, period. It's a fundamental — bordering on fundamentalist — belief, a matter or faith that colors anything and everything here.

  3. Hmmmm, I can't speak to everything, only the 1/6th of public educaion which is represented by California. But here, as you know, the teacher's union is one of the strongest political powers in the state–rivaled mainly by the prison guard's union. So the suggestion that they don't have clout seems rather surprising. (Unless you are exempting California from your analysis, which would be odd).

    And here, they have had quite a bit of say about charter schools are allowed to develop.

    So your analysis doesn't seem to follow.

  4. In other words, in liberal states where the teachers’ unions have clout and charters are greeted warily, the charter schools that do exist are excellent. In conservative states where charters are greeted with open arms, they’re mostly mediocre. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

    The lesson is that both the public schools and potential charter schools need to determine what makes the good charter schools good, then use that in reform.

  5. Brett, why wouldn't you also use what was good in public schools and use that in reform? There are a lot of very good public schools after all. Around three-quarters of Ohio public schools are rated Effective or Excellent, only 16% of the charters are. Though maybe your point is that your sample size would be smaller and therefore, easier and quicker to get through?

  6. Excellent post Ohio Mom. Charter schools are the new vouchers, which were the new segregation. "Good schools" is too often a euphemism for "good students", and this is about class and race. As long as our society is demographically segregated by geography, and we plan our schools accordingly, so too will be the the education therein.

  7. Snarky: this is EXACTLY the problem with free market fundamentalism. Government services exist on the principle that everyone should be treated equally. So it is with roads, emergencies, libraries, parks, etc. This is no different for public schools. Private schools will never, and should not be required to accept all students. Health care cannot function this way, and shouldn't be required to either.

    Governments do not need to provide cake. Or pedicures. Or jet skis. But if there is a service that we believe we are morally obligated to provide on an equal basis, then it can't be expected to be provided by the private market!

    Can we not hold these two concepts in our head at once, or am I just crazy?

  8. "In other words, in liberal states where the teachers’ unions have clout and charters are greeted warily, the charter schools that do exist are excellent. In conservative states where charters are greeted with open arms, they’re mostly mediocre. There’s a lesson in there somewhere."

    Sebastian notes the clout of teachers unions in California. Further I recollect that California approached charter schools with some caution and, perhaps, with wariness in the 1990's. Nevertheless, over time, the California authorized increasing numbers of charter schools bringing the result noted in the following quote from the blog:

    "'Meanwhile, states like Arizona, Ohio, Texas, and California confer charters on nearly everyone who applies; as a consequence, they now have many charter schools but also wide discrepancies in charter quality and performance ( tending, however, toward the mediocre).'"

    While I cannot speak to what occurred in Arizona, Texas, and Ohio, California amended its charter laws several times to attempt to bring greater financial and some additional academic oversight to charter schools. Did these changes improve the overall performance of charter schools? Not clear!

    At the same time, clout exercised by teachers unions restricted efforts to improve teacher, administrator, and school performance. This leaves California with some great schools and too many struggling and/or failing schools. Some good came from these efforts but a lot of effort remains to improve the entire school system statewide.

    Recent efforts to by the state to become eligible for new Reach for the Top grants led to some law changes that could further improve classroom and school accountability over time; but, these changes are only a start — and did not result in nomination to compete for the initial grants!

    Systemwide school improvement is complex, hard work in large diverse states such as California, Texas, Ohio and New York. It requires sustained effort and great attention at all levels of government and in each community/neighborhood. Simply relying on charter schools to lead the way is dangerous.

  9. California's public K-12 school systems were all but destroyed by Proposition 13.

    Whatever influence the teachers' unions might have exerted is trivial by comparison.

  10. Joel, you almost certainly aren't right about that. Per pupil spending in the years before Prop 13 in CA were drastically low. In the eighties and ninties that isn't the case. By then CA had caught up with the rest of the industrialized world, and well surpassed it in per pupil spending. (That is the story of US educational spending in geneal but even more so in CA). Prop 13 didn't stop CA from spending money on schools. At all.

    (Sidenote: the problem with prop 13 is the mismatch of the spending power and the taxing power. There isn't anything magical about 50% or 60% or whatever. Constitutionally you can set the spending and taxing power at some point other than 50%. But setting the spending power at a different point than the taxing power is systemically dangerous. The other problem with prop 13 is that commerical property was included in the slow step up basis for property taxes. People die eventually, and their properties get stepped up. Corporations don't, and the tax advantage of not selling has transformed many old and dying corporations into mere property holding shells to avoid the step up. I see the appeal of not kicking grandma out of her house just because she paid it off in 1970 and her neighbors are overpaying for their houses. Step up the tax basis when she dies. But don't exempt corporations. [Also the nice thing about prop 13 property taxes is that they are VERY predictable. If a legislature can't deal with the predictable nature, they are being stupid])

  11. There's a pretty easy way to see if schools are doing a good job– test how much an individual kid learns from year to year. This kind of longitudinal testing is different from the way No Child Left Behind operates, in which one cohort of students is compared with the next, giving large incentives for schools to attract stronger entering classes, rather than do a better job of teaching the kids they have. It also suggests that a 7th grade kid who comes in reading at a 3rd grade level and leaves at a 6th grade level had an outstanding academic year, even though another test would have rated him as below proficient at the beginning at the end. In NYC they've done some of these longitudinal comparisons, and a few of the charter schools have had really amazing results– 2-3 year average gains in proficiency in a single year.

    I know there are a lot of misgivings about testing. My own feeling is that relying on standardized tests is problematic for one of two reasons:

    a) It's a bad test.

    b) Teachers don't know what's on the test.

    If it's testing worthwhile stuff in a reasonable way (say, how to write a persuasive paragraph, or using a classification key to organize groups of organisms), then there is a lot to be said for the BENEFITS of teaching to the test, of teaching skills in a structured and measurable way. When I taught in New York, where every test ever given is public domain, I felt like knowing what was on the test helped me eliminate extra topics and focus things down, a good thing for the students even if they hadn't been tested. Now that I'm in Jersey, where tests are treated as top secret, I see many of my colleagues rushing to cover every topic that they hypothesize might conceivably be on the exams, a bad thing for their instruction.

    I haven't myself taught in any charters, although the profusion of new, small public schools in New York City, and the emphasis on principal independence and accountability, has made a lot of schools much more charter-like.

  12. "…in liberal states where the teachers’ unions have clout and charters are greeted warily, the charter schools that do exist are excellent. In conservative states where charters are greeted with open arms, they’re mostly mediocre. "

    So California is conservative and Texas is liberal?

    Why is it that anyone who calls themselves reality-based is using it in the Orwellian sense?

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