As my colleagues and I have noted in various education-related posts over the past few days,
This week is National School Choice Week, and Reason will be highlighting the ways in which expanding K-12 educational opportunities for children and parents can make schools better and more innovative. And we'll be documenting various ways in which traditional school districts are imploding despite spending more and more money on a per-pupil basis.
And of course, National School Choice Week, of which Reason is a media sponsor, means that a variety of so-called progressive groups such as People for the American Way (PFAW) will claim that school choice, including everything from voucher programs to education savings accounts (ESAs) to charter schools, is nothing less than a sinister plot to dismantle that great "equalizer" in American life: K-12 education based on where a student's parents live.
To PFAW, National School Choice Week and the policies it promotes are nothing less than a "movement to undermine public education."
Well, no. School choice in all its varieties is designed to reform and improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, especially those stuck in the lower reaches of the income distribution. Middle- and upper-class kids already have plenty of school choice. Their parents can send them to private schools or decide to move to an area with "great" public schools. What choice programs do is give some level of options to the neediest kids who are otherwise screwed by a system that is clearly not delivering for them.
Here are snippets from PFAW's broadside against National School Choice Week:
National School Choice Week is deliberately designed to blur important differences in educational policies that fall under a broad label like "school choice." It's entirely possible to support some kinds of school choice—like a school district creating magnet schools with curricula designed to emphasize different areas of study—and be opposed to others—like siphoning public education funds into unaccountable religious academies or fly-by-night cyberschools through vouchers or tuition tax credit schemes.
Yeah, not so much. For starters, forget about the dog whistle of religion being injected here: School-choice programs give money directly to parents and students, never directly to religious schools, which is why courts have consistently ruled that such programs don't further the establishment of religion or run afoul of "Blaine Amendment" concerns. Indeed, to follow PFAW's logic, Pell grants and federal student loans for college should be scrapped since the funds get used at religious schools such as Notre Dame as easily as state schools such as Purdue or Indiana University.
Are schools of choice unaccountable? Any school that only gets money by attracting and keeping students is by definition accountable. The right of exit ensures that rotten schools that don't serve the desires of parents or students will go out of business (as they should). We should also recognize that different people have different ideas about what constitutes quality education (go ask your friends who spring big bucks for a Waldorf school or a Montessori joint and get back to me). But you know what schools tend to persist for decades despite awful results? Public schools whose funding is largely disconnected from the number of students attending on a regular basis much less the performance of those students.
Are charters, the most popular form and fastest-growing form of school choice, effective? PFAW grants that "charter schools, like traditional public schools, are a mixed bag," with some doing great and others not so much. That goes along with a general line that, on average, charters perform neither better nor worse than public schools. As I'll explain in a moment, that's not quite right but even if it were, that would be an argument in favor of charters, which cost less and allow students to leave easily. Charters get about $3,000 less per pupil than traditional schools.
But in fact, when you actually compare outcomes among disproportionately poor and minority students in urban areas using randomized control trials (RCTS), you find again and again and again that charters are nothing short of a godsend. Rather than use broad categories, RCTs match similarly situated students by comparing kids who got into a charter with those who signed up but were wait-listed and instead attended nearby public schools instead.
Arkansas University's Jay P. Greene summarizes the research, which is worth quoting at length:
Students in urban areas do significantly better in school if they attend a charter schools than if they attend a traditional public school. These academic benefits of urban charter schools are quite large. In Boston, a team of researchers from MIT, Harvard, Duke, and the University of Michigan, conducted a RCT and found: "The charter school effects reported here are therefore large enough to reduce the black-white reading gap in middle school by two-thirds."
A RCT of charter schools in New York City by a Stanford researcher found an even larger effect: "On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the 'Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap' in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English."
The same Stanford researcher conducted an RCT of charter schools in Chicago and found: "students in charter schools outperformed a comparable group of lotteried-out students who remained in regular Chicago public schools by 5 to 6 percentile points in math and about 5 percentile points in reading…. To put the gains in perspective, it may help to know that 5 to 6 percentile points is just under half of the gap between the average disadvantaged, minority student in Chicago public schools and the average middle-income, nonminority student in a suburban district."
And the last RCT was a national study conducted by researchers at Mathematica for the US Department of Education. It found significant gains for disadvantaged students in charter schools but the opposite for wealthy suburban students in charter schools. They could not determine why the benefits of charters were found only in urban, disadvantaged settings, but their findings are consistent with the three other RCTs that found significant achievement gains for charter students in Boston, Chicago, and New York City.
When you have four RCTs – studies meeting the gold standard of research design – and all four of them agree that charters are of enormous benefit to urban students, you would think everyone would agree that charters should be expanded and supported, at least in urban areas. If we found the equivalent of halving the black-white test score gap from RCTs from a new cancer drug, everyone would be jumping for joy – even if the benefits were found only for certain types of cancer.
But when we're talking about K-12 education, we're rarely talking about what's actually good for students first and foremost, especially poor kids whose parents have precious little social, economic, or political capital. Suddenly, what we really need to talk about are the various "stakeholders" in the system, ranging from teachers (always portrayed as underpaid and underappreciated) to homeowners (gotta maintain property values tied to public schools) to, well, OK, students too. When you want to change a system that has little to show for massive, inflation-adjusted funding increases over decades, students are just one interest group among many.
You can get a whiff of that sort of thinking in the way PFAW winds up its criticism of National School Choice Week:
Educators and activists are working to identify and implement reforms that support teachers, parents, families, and students in order to give every student a chance at a great education. Some kinds of school choice, like magnet schools and fully accountable public charter schools, can be part of the solution.
But robbing our public education system of urgently needed funds, and sending taxpayer money to unaccountable private and religious schools, or turning management of schools over to profit-maximizing corporations, is not in the public interest. It is in the interest of ideologues who are hostile to teachers unions and the very idea of public education, and to those who seek to profit off the billions of dollars the American people spend on education.
By trying to smooth over crucial distinctions between policies that promote stronger public schools and policies that promote private interests, National School Choice Week distorts a necessary public debate.
Note that in the litany of stakeholders in education, students come last, as they typically do in discussions of reforms. In every state in the country K-12 teachers represent the single-largest professional bloc of voters and most of them are represented either by unions or other collective-bargaining units that make sure their interests are front and center. It's great the PFAW is willing to admit that many public schools are tanking, but in drawing meaningless and invidious distinctions between "accountable" and "unaccountable" schools and tooting the religion dog whistle like nobody's business, PFAW is the one distorting the discussion.
In apples-to-apples comparisons made via RCTs, charters outperform traditional public schools. That fact needs to be better understood and publicized: When you give poor parents and students more options (even ones that cost taxpayers less, as charter schools do on a per-pupil basis), they get better outcomes. That's a success, full stop, and it should be all that matters when talking about education reform.
And giving students a fraction of the amount of per-pupil spending that traditional schools get (whether kids show up or not) isn't "robbing" the system of anything. It's a better use of tax dollars than flushing more money down schools that aren't delivering.
For critics of school choice who persist in thinking that giving poor inner-city kids a better shot at getting an education is some sort of reactionary right-wing update to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, take a couple of minutes to listen to Howard Fuller and Kevin Chavous, two well-regarded African-American reformers who have something to say to you (click below).
These guys understand what every good libertarian and every good Marxist knows to be true: The main function of a state-run education system is to maintain, legitimate, and replicate the existing social order and power structure, not to give the lower orders a way up or out. Once you realize that the function of the traditional school system, whatever the intentions of the individuals comprising it, is to set the status quo in cement, then suddenly it makes sense that spending more money has no positive effect.
School choice, whether through straight-up vouchers (private or public), scholarship programs, or charters, is a proven and increasingly popular way around impediments to social and economic mobility. It is part and parcel of a world whose traditional power centers are rapidly decentralizing and losing control and authority. And it's about goddamn time.
Take it away, Howard Fuller and Kevin Chavous: