National School Choice Week

Er, Not Exactly: "What passes for acceptable school choice rhetoric is frightening"

The latest misguided attack on charters and school choice is heavy on invective and light on facts.


Via The Washington Post comes this outraged attack on National School Choice Week, an annual event designed to promote interest in K-12 education reform. As readers of know, we have been a sponsor of and participant in NSCW, which took place last week, for several years. View our related posts and videos here.

Sarah Lahm, a freelance journalist who has been an education fellow for The Progressive magazine, writes that "what passes for acceptable school choice rhetoric, behind closed doors, is frightening."

This a nice opening to a hit piece on NSCW, especially to describe a public event that was held at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Not a lot of closed doors at that event, I'm guessing, especially since it was free and open to the public, but details, shmetails, right?

Lahm also clucks that the panel was all-white even as she notes that one of the intended participants was African American but he "was not able to make it." And there's this slag: "But that's not all. The whole room was white, as far as I could see." That would include Lahm, by the way.

Lahm is up front about her opposition to school choice, which is all well and good, but it seems to incapacitate her analytic skills. For instance, she identifies the Institute for Justice as a "right-wing group" as a way of suggesting that it is somehow opposed to equal rights or in touch with minority communities. She is apparently unfamiliar with the libertarian outfit's extensive work on occupational licensing and early cases defending the rights of Washington, D.C.'s African hair braiders, who were being forced to jump through all sorts of bogus and expensive regulatory hoops. Same for the group's work on pushing back against anti-jitney laws. 

Lahm writes:

One Democrat plus one right-leaning Republican plus one far-right lawyer [Richard Komer of Institute for Justice] does not add up to a "bipartisan" panel, in my opinion….

The morning's panel began with a quick dismissal of the desegregation lawsuit filed in Minnesota last fall, which, if successful, could require the state's charter schools to develop and implement integration plans. All of the panelists, and moderator Hawkins, seemed to agree that the resegregation happening across the country now is simply due to "parental choice." Reichgott Junge–the Democrat–declared herself "not neutral" on this topic, and told the audience not to worry because "this is not the civil rights era." What she meant, I guess, was that we solved all of that bad racism stuff back in the '60's. Case closed….

Is there any safe place to express concern that the rapid resegregation of our public school system is not a happy accident, brought on by the heavenly solution of school choice?

In fact, there are plenty of "safe places" to express concern over every aspect of public education. There's the whole internet, for instance, not to mention school board meetings, and legacy media outlets such as The Washington Post, which reposted Lahm's piece. The idea that charter schools are somehow singlehandedly "resegregating" public education is popular among choice opponents, who routinely overstate the facts as yet one more way to get around the inconvenient truth that the primary beneficiaries of charters tend to be lower-income students, many of whom belong to ethnic and racial minorities.

From the government's own data:

From school year 1999–2000 to 2012–13, charter schools experienced changes in their demographic composition similar to those seen at traditional public schools. The percentage of charter school students who were Hispanic increased (from 20 to 29 percent), as did the percentage who were Asian/Pacific Islander (from 3 to 4 percent). In contrast, the percentage of charter school students who were White decreased from 42 to 35 percent. The percentages who were Black and American Indian/Alaska Native decreased as well (from 34 to 28 percent and from 2 to 1 percent, respectively). Data were collected for charter school students of Two or more races beginning in 2009–10. Students of Two or more races accounted for 3 percent of the charter school population in 2012–13.

So charters and traditional public schools are kind of the same when it comes to demographics. Oh, except for this:

In school year 2012–13, the percentage of students attending high-poverty schools—schools in which more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) under the National School Lunch Program—was higher for charter school students (36 percent) than for traditional public school students (23 percent). In the same year, 20 percent of charter school students and 21 percent of traditional public school students attended low-poverty schools, in which 25 percent or less of students qualify for FRPL.

Lahm's attack on the panel and the larger concept of charter schools is heavy on invective; memories of longtime Minnesota senator, vice-president, and civil-rights champion Hubert Humphrey; and quotes from a 2011 op-ed by left-wing historian Rick Perlstein and lyrics from The Clash song "White Man in Hammersmith Palais."

Yet it is remarkably light on anything approaching information about the educational outcomes of charters compared to traditional public schools when using "randomized control trials (RCTs), which are acknowledged to provide the most meaningful comparisons. Of course her account is light on that sort of material, because it undercuts the pretense that charter schools are some sort of sinister ploy to screw over minorities. In fact, when you compare charters to the sorts of schools that low-income, minority students would otherwise attend, you get results such as this:

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."

Lahm is absolutely correct to note that some charter schools are no good and fail their students. As Reason's education expert, Lisa Snell, told audiences at our three-city tour two weeks ago (watch video here), something like 200 charters closed their doors last year. That's a good thing: It means that bad schools go out of business, which rarely happens in many awful public schools that may remain open for years and decades after losing accreditation.

School choice, especially in the form of charters, is growing in America. That's not because it is screwing over the poor and the dispossessed. Those are the very groups that are utilizing charters at higher rates. School choice broadly gives them the right of exit from an educational system that has failed them for decades despite massive increases in per-pupil spending. Critics of school choice can denounce giving poor kids and their parents the same option that middle- and upper-class families take for granted, but they will convince nobody if they insist on presenting fact-free arguments dripping with completely unconvincing charges of racial prejudice.

Lahm and other critics of charters and choice would do well to watch this 2015 video by Jim Epstein about charters in Camden, New Jersey, one of the country's poorest and most-segregated cities. School choice isn't about marginalizing minorities—that's the traditional K-12 system's job and it's doing a bang-up job. No, school choice is about empowering parents and kids who need it the most.