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A vision for charter schools that helps, not hurts, non-charters

A student working on homework.

A student working on homework. Photo Credit: iStock

Views on charter schools exist on a continuum anchored by two extremes:

1.) Don’t go there, full stop. Charters are a stalking horse for privatizing education. They also erode support and resources for traditional public schools, so it’s a zero-sum game: Anything we do to help charters hurts the overwhelming majority of children in the rest of the system.

2.) Charters are a solution to the government bureaucracy and regulations responsible for America’s failing public schools. Freed from the selfish teachers unions that block progress at traditional public schools, charters provide significantly better K-12 schooling options to children in need and should be rapidly expanded.

The second extreme, which is largely in line with the views of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment for secretary of education, is wrong. Although many traditional public schools in America have big problems and need significant improvement, many have gotten better over time and are a far cry from the disasters their critics make them out to be. Norare teachers unions holding schools back from improvement; e.g., there’s no consistent relationship between teacher union density and student outcomes at the state level.

But although the truth doesn’t lie near the center of this continuum, neither is the first extreme correct. Charters both can and should function as valuable components of the public school system. In fact, charter schools were first envisioned by former union leader Al Shanker as the research and development arm of that system, where teachers could experiment with new ways of teaching and connecting with students. Shanker wanted to see organized labor, school officials and communities working in concert to design these schools, learn ideas from them, and filter those ideas into other public schools. Meanwhile, he stressed the importance of making this alternative education experience available to a socioeconomically diverse group of students.

The challenge lies in successfully implementing Shanker’s vision. Doing so requires an honest assessment of what we know about the charter movement.

There are very small differences in test scores, on average, between students at urban charter schools and students at traditional urban public schools. Especially since the student populations at the two types of schools aren’t directly comparable, one shouldn’t conclude that either type of school is generally superior at promoting student achievement. At the same time, there is lots of variance in performance among both types of schools, and students at some charters have met with considerable success. In the spirit of Shanker, we should try to learn from these schools. Many of the practices employed by highly regarded charter schools, which include extended school days and years, rigorous teacher training and support, high-dosage tutoring for students, and specific instructional practices, can effectively be adopted at traditional public schools (provided they receive adequate funding), as research by economist Roland Fryer suggests.

For this vital synergy to occur, we must be sure that charters are not undermining traditional schools. If our goal is to provide an excellent and equitable education for all - not some - students, then charters must work in collaboration with area schools to efficiently allocate resources without exacerbating other schools’ funding issues.

Consider the defeat of a Massachusetts ballot initiative that would have expanded charters in the state. Even solid charter advocates opposed the expansion because of its potential to funnel resources away from traditional schools. Because fixed costs don’t fall when students move from traditional schools to charters, and since non-charter students often have more demanding instructional needs, the outflow of students to charters is costly to non-charters. State offsets generally fail to make up the difference.

Adequate school funding matters a lot for students, and recognition of that fact was likely an important driver of opposition to the ballot initiative. Test scores are also just one of many factors to consider when evaluating schools; opponents of the initiative had legitimate concerns about whether new charters would offer adequate extracurricular activities, employ supportive disciplinary practices, and solicit community input.

Only one of the 29 towns in which people of color comprise more than 20 percent of the population voted for the charter expansion. As the Boston Globe reported, “civil rights advocates say families of color yearn for something deeper: A robust commitment and plan to improve the quality of education in the city’s school system so they don’t need alternatives.”

The good news is that some places are working to develop such “deeper” plans. In the city of Lawrence, Mass., for instance - where the poverty rate, at 29 percent, is about twice the national average - Superintendent Jeffrey Riley has worked hard to forge relationships with both the teachers union and charter operators since taking over control of the district in 2011. With new leadership, increased instructional time, investment in art and music classes, and unionized charters that gave up their lotteries and agreed to serve some of the district’s neediest kids, the dropout rate in Lawrence public schools has declined precipitously, and both test scores and graduation rates are way up.

Stories of collaboration are beginning to surface in other places throughout the country, too, from Houston to Denver. These efforts surely have their issues. Even in Lawrence, families lack the type of democratic control over their schools that higher-income residents throughout Massachusetts enjoy, and that’s a real problem. Charters may also be less likely to generate true innovations when they grow too quickly, as Bruce Baker has argued. Still, ongoing efforts illustrate a genuine desire to move closer to Shanker’s vision.

DeVos and other ideological enemies of teachers unions may well try to block that vision. But as most education policy gets hashed out at the local level, they will hopefully fail. The desire for cross-sector collaboration with a goal of promoting equity for all students is growing, and fostering that growth will deliver a big win for our children.

Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of the new book “The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.” Spielberg, a Teach For America alum and former member of the Executive Board of the San Jose Teachers Association, works on issues related to inequality, economic opportunity, and full employment with Jared Bernstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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