Charter Schools

Is It 'Morally Disturbing' When Charter Schools Skim Highly Motivated Families?

Robert Pondiscio's provocative new book, How the Other Half Learns, challenges supporters and opponents of education reform.

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At the 2000 Republican National Convention, the country got one of its first glimpses of a new type of public charter school. The claim was that with enough rigor, devotion, and "no excuses" discipline, such schools could close the achievement gap between poor minorities and their wealthy white counterparts. The shining example was the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP. Skeptics pointed out that the families showing up at KIPP and other no-excuses charters were self-selected.

In 2006, a combative former New York City council member named Eva Moskowitz co-founded a new charter school network with the same approach. Success Academy was KIPP on steroids, trouncing many public schools in wealthy neighborhoods on the annual state exams. 

Enter the education writer and former public school teacher Robert Pondiscio, who spent a year embedded at a Success Academy in an effort to figure out just how these schools do it. In his widely praised new book, How The Other Half Learns, Pondiscio reports that the critics were right: Not only is the very act of applying to the lottery self-selecting, but Success Academy makes such rigorous demands on parents that it disproportionately retains only the most highly motivated families. 

The result is that an applicant's chances of winning a seat at a Success school in its annual high stakes lottery aren't as competitive as many had claimed. Pondiscio found that there are about six applicants for every spot. However, because so many families drop out, the chances of getting offered a spot are actually closer to 50 percent.

But for those that make the commitment, the impact is absolutely transformative. And he argues that these kids deserve the same access to excellent public schools that upper-middle-class parents finagle for their children, even if it means leaving the rest of their communities behind.

Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Pondiscio to discuss why he believes motivated families deserve the opportunity to exit their traditional district public schools—which a New York Times reviewer called "a morally disturbing conclusion" to his "unsparingly honest book"—and his challenge to both supporters and detractors of the school reform movement.

Produced, shot, and written by Jim Epstein; interview edited by Ian Keyser; additional camera by Kevin Alexander; archival research by Regan Taylor.

Photos:

Parent at Success Academy Rally
Johnny Milano/Polaris/Newscom

Eva Moskowitz
Credit: RICHARD B. LEVINE/Newscom

Eva Moskowitz
Bryan Smith/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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  1. What is “immoral” about the basic fact that being more motivated improves your odds of success?

    1. It’s unfair to the unmotivated.

      1. I’d comment on that, but I don’t have the energy.

        1. Can someone get Eddy a comment over here? Make it a good one, please.

          1. Meh, someone else can do it

          2. Life is unfair to the dead.

      2. Meh!. It takes too much energy to care.

      3. Exactly. Studies show family emphasis on education outweighs any other factor, especially the usual suspects like class size and dollars per pupil.

        If there should be a “government program”, let it be to show parents how to engage with their childrens’ education instead of leaving it on public school autopilot for 13 years.

        1. That’s why all schools should charge tuition, so the parents are motivated to make sure their kids study and the teachers teach.

          What about families who can’t afford school for their kids? So many people are concerned about this (they always bring it up) that I’m sure they could scrape together some scholarships for the needy.

    2. I am planning to write a book about how non-prison population is self selected and is out of prison because they are motivated to obey laws.

      We should put random citizens in jail too.

      /sarcasm

      1. Ever heard of “Three Felonies a Day”? Non-prison population self-selects by avoiding police/prosecutor attention and ire, not by obeying laws.

      2. Sort of a draft, but for prison? Sounds better than national service even.

  2. What’s disturbing is the idea that motivated students with motivated parents should attend ordinary public schools not for their own benefit but for the benefit of the other students. That makes them conscripts. Or slaves.

    1. Welcome to Collectivism 101 – the purpose of an individual is not to serve his own ends but merely to serve the needs of the collective. Right now, your purpose is to Make America Great Again, give it a few years and your purpose will be to leap feet-first into the blender so that People’s Full Employment Camp 431 can make their monthly quota of Soylent Green.

    2. If the proletariat start improving their lives on their own with the help of capitalist bourgeoisie pigs then they may start to question Party doctrine. Can’t have that happen.

    3. “That makes them conscripts. Or slaves.”

      That the goal of the progressives.
      Slavery through equality.

    4. with the side benefit of reducing them to additional babbling idiots ready to demand a larger state.

  3. The New York Times wouldn’t know a moral conclusion if it bit them in the ass.

  4. the fuck would have ever thought hard work leads to success?

  5. This just in – the achievement gap persists between kids whose parents push them to succeed, versus kids without such parents.

    Let’s stop all educational reforms unless they can find a way to close this gap! /sarc

    1. Some British researchers a few years back were seriously making the argument that if this gap can’t be closed, children would have to be taken away from their parents and raised in institutional facilities where they can all be neglected equally.

      I don’t think they realized they were exactly describing Brave New World.

      1. Which is weird, because I’m sure they had to read it growing up in the Thatcher era.

  6. Every time I her some damned collectivist railing against individuality I want to scream. Fuck family, fuck work unit, fuck it all — when we write laws, we target individuals for responsibility and accountability. If the goddam collectivists actually believed that individualism was bad, they’d be moving heaven and earth to stop punishing the adults of a family and leaving the rest of the family without a breadwinner. Paychecks would be to families. Elections would be about families, not individuals. We’d be swearing in whole families, not individuals.

    What a bunch of hypocrites! But that’s nothing new.

    1. I mean, in politics at least the family does seem to be the operative unit. Just take a look at Biden and Trump’s respective sons.

    2. They honestly do not see how their policies negatively affect the individual. It is infuriating.

  7. Charter schools are for our loving and enlightened betters only.
    If they get taken for a ride financially, then don’t worry about. They will then employ their superior wisdom by raising taxes on all us peasants to ensure their offspring have a well-rounded education, something our children neither need or deserve. The children of the unwashed masses should be grateful for the public school monopoly our obvious betters provide us so they can grow up to be productive, happy and well indoctrinated slaves our beloved socialist paradise.

    1. “”Charter schools are for our loving and enlightened betters only.””

      The Rev will rejoice.

    2. I think you may be confused. Most people who support charter schools are basement dwelling fascist inbreed deplorable rethuglicans. The betters are the Liberal-Progressive elites who know what’s best for us, and it’s not charter schools.

    3. Hey there Uncle Jay.. most charter schools are very affordable and/or free; the number of for-profit charter schools is very small. They are not the same as private schools. Progessives want to get rid of all charter and private schools because they want factory workers that are compliant and not motivated over-achievers that can see that the cultural elites want a progressive ruling class and a nation of obedient worker bees.

  8. Is it morally disturbing if I feed my kid well?

    1. You mean your kid isn’t fed by the “free” breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided by your local schools? Get Progressive, man.

    2. Depends. Are you fattening him up for slaughter?

  9. They consider highly motivated children as a resource to be used to advance their utopian goals. Not people. Not valued as individuals.

    They are an input to a spreadsheet equation to maximize a goal that doesn’t include maximizing the benefit to highly motivated children themselves.

    1. You are to feel bad if your parents were involved in your education and you did well, with self-flagellation and pondering moments about your privilege.

  10. he believes motivated families deserve the opportunity to exit their traditional district public schools

    We have certainly declined a lot from the days of deToqueville and Nock. Used to be that motivated families and bright educators proved that by improving the local schools. And if that meant bulldozing idiot bureaucrats and constipated administrators out of the way, then so be it because those motivated families and bright educators are far better at persuading the ‘passive majority’ of their course. Not by exiting them and proving their motivation by ‘giving up’ in order to rent-seek off the tax base.

    The more I see this modern version of ‘FU libertarianism’, the more I realize it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with classical liberal or civic republican ideas.

    1. And if that meant bulldozing idiot bureaucrats and constipated administrators out of the way, then so be it because those motivated families and bright educators are far better at persuading the ‘passive majority’ of their course. Not by exiting them and proving their motivation by ‘giving up’ in order to rent-seek off the tax base.

      You clearly don’t have kids in a public school district.

    2. We have certainly declined a lot from the days of deToqueville and Nock.

      You decline with every post.

      Used to be that motivated families and bright educators proved that by improving the local schools.

      In your head? Used to be, in the age of Nock and Tocqueville, kids would exit the school system before completing HS and go on to be successful accountants, inventors/engineers, manufacturers, etc.

      Franklin, Edison, Einstein, Rockefeller, Kroc, Disney, Ford, Browning, The Wrights… not a public/HS diploma among them.

      1. Used to be, in the age of Nock and Tocqueville, kids would exit the school system before completing HS

        No. As recently as the 1950’s, most public schools in the country were managed as INDIVIDUAL schools – each run by individual school boards which were composed mostly of the motivated parents of a kid in that school. Everything about the management of that school – including teacher hiring, curriculum, etc – except for bond issues – was done at that individual school level. It meant eg that an elementary school would be run by those (mostly parent volunteers and the principal they hired) who are motivated about elementary school kids. Which is exactly the motivation of a parent who has elementary-age kids. The issue of HS graduation is only an issue for the HS to figure out if its a problem or not.

        The move to consolidate everything into ‘school districts’ happened in the 1950’s and 1960’s – entirely as a consequence of rapid suburbanization and therefore the need back then to build lots of schools in what had previously been rural areas. ie the bond issue problem in the days before computers. Districts meant the board had to be as concerned about HS as elementary, that teacher hiring became a district level decision (which also drove them to unionize), and it eliminated the parent in favor of the professional pedagogue. The only parts of the country that had always been district based before that was the Jim Crow South (which requires districts so one school can be shat on and another preferred) and New England (the 19th century Horace Mann stuff).

        We went from 130,000+ governance entities to roughly 15,000. A massive centralization even before it became even more centralized with increasing state and fed involvement.

        ‘Charter schools’ are a cop-out. A surrender to and acceptance of central planning in the name of a loud whiny FU. ‘Charter classrooms’ are how it would work in that non-district system. Where they can be implemented in weeks – expanded quickly if successful and shut down if not – and where their very presence among students who aren’t in that program can demonstrate the success and make it more inclined to ramp up quickly. Where 10 charter classrooms can be right next to each other – doing their thing – you know FUCKING COMPETING.

        1. NO.

          Used to be, all schools were private.

          The incentive for public schools was to indoctrinate the hoards of filthy immigrants, especially the Catholic ones, in the WASP ways of good morality.

          1. And then the filthy Catholic immigrants created parochial schools, which have typically performed better than public schools.

          2. Used to be, all schools were private.

            No they weren’t. They used to be monasteries. In the US they became public as early as 1647. The Land Ordinance of 1785 – predating the Constitution – set aside Sec16 (and later Sec36 also) of every township for ‘education’ as part of the surveying of that land for future distribution. That means every land title west of the Appalachians has that as the most basic terms of its privatized title. Every settlement populated by Northerners had, as its first ‘civic’ building, that ‘one-room schoolhouse’. How those and other ‘civic’ things were managed was what deToqueville marvelled at re civic associations. It wasn’t govt that did that. Only Southern settlements didn’t have local schooling – because the goal of the elites and land speculators was mass illiteracy. The planters kids went East for school and everyone else (slave and poor white) remained illiterate. So that they could be more easily manipulated.

            It is appalling that ‘libertarianism’ is taking that antebellum Southern approach as their preference.

        2. it eliminated the parent in favor of the professional pedagogue

          This is why I say you clearly don’t have kids in a public school.

          Your first post derides “FU Libertarianism” and chastises parents who leave districts rather than “bulldozing idiot bureaucrats and constipated administrators out of the way.”

          You then go on to point to how centralized Districts “eliminated the parent in favor of the professional pedagogue,” with no sense of how that problematizes your declaration that parents should be bulldozing the administrations rather than seeking alternatives.

          I can only conclude that you’ve never been in a situation where you have attempted to do this bulldozing yourself rather than chastising others for not doing it.

          1. how that problematizes your declaration that parents should be bulldozing the administrations rather than seeking alternatives

            Devolve school districts. That is actually a very popular idea among every single parent who thinks the school system isn’t working for their kid – and even among ‘school board members’. At the level of the local school where their kid goes, parents can think about the alternative. At the district level, they can’t. It’s too big a set of issues. Bulldozing the administrators is the happy natural consequence of devolution – not the loudly proclaimed objective.

            The nanosecond attention instead gets diverted to ‘charter school’, that entire thing gets squashed and reversed. Because charter schools – like Jim Crow schools – ALSO require ‘district level’ management of public schools cuz those charter schools feed on that taxbase and require ‘professionals’ to certify that something is a ‘charter school’ rather than a ‘liquor store’.

            1. If you’re saying that charter schools are a half-assed substitute for devolving school districts and opening up actual school choice, I 100% agree. Charter schools, in many ways, are the worst of both worlds. But I don’t think libertarians are to blame for charter schools – they seem to me like a compromise intended to prevent libertarian ideas from being implemented.

        3. As recently as the 1950’s,

          Tocqueville died in 1859. Nock died in ’45. Also, regardless of who managed the public schools, Einstein, Ford, Disney, Kroc, etc. were born after Tocqueville and died after Nock didn’t complete HS federally *or* state managed. You’re just talking to hear yourself talk.

        4. Where 10 charter classrooms can be right next to each other – doing their thing – you know FUCKING COMPETING.

          Certainly one of, if not the, most influential libertarian policy makers in the country put forth a bill to end the centralized education system. It, unsurprisingly, was defeated.

          You may think your retarded bullshit doesn’t stink but that doesn’t mean that everyone else should be forced to smell it. Slamming their head against the wall to live up to your rather plainly obviously anti-libertarian ideals.

    3. Used to be that motivated families and bright educators proved that by improving the local schools.

      So the only proper way for an individual to improve their future prospects is to serve the collective? Hard pass.

      1. You’re also free to just believe the obviously stupid shit that comes out of JFree’s mind too.

    4. You do realize that shoving motivated kids in classes full of kids ready to bully them for being motivated doesn’t help, right?

      1. You do realize that shoving motivated kids in classes full of kids ready to bully them for being motivated doesn’t help, right?

        What are you talking about? Study after study has shown that the bullies’ scores improve measurably in those circumstances.

        1. Regression to the mean.

        2. Study? or ABC After School Special?

          1. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. They used to sit my daughter next to the little thug kids during tests because the little thug kids got better scores when they sat next to her.

            How did they get those better scores, you ask? Does it matter? They did.

    5. I mean, compulsory funding for public schools runs counter to classical liberalism, but sure, feel free to scold people for finding an existing affordable alternative to watching their kids be failed by a system that exists to satisfy public sector unions.

      1. You people are just ignorant dumbfucks about actual history. Not a surprise since this (people who started going to school after WW2) is the first generation that went to schools that were not accountable to the local neighborhood/parents. The post-districting/consolidation system.

        YOU were poorly educated – dumbed down – in that system. Rather than recognize that that puts a double burden on thinking about the problems (need to make an effort to understand what you were never taught), you simply parrot some ideological ‘simple solution’. Exactly the sort of laziness that was also encouraged in the ‘district’ system. If you’re fat – congrats, you hit the trifecta.

        The mechanism for public funding of schools was put into place even before the US Constitution. Written by Jefferson, incorporated into ‘fee simple’ land title for all land patents created by the post-independence US, and becoming the mechanism by which he wanted to create a nation of yeomans jealously guarding their liberties precisely because they were educated enough to know how to do that.

        You OTOH apparently think fat dumb lazy – and I’ll add whiny too – is ‘classical liberalism’.

  11. I see that the commentariat already has this issue well in hand.

  12. So-called two-tier systems are always going to exist when the government has a general monopoly* in a particular endeavor, but where some private action can exist either outside of it or at the periphery.

    The only choice is to let the government have a *real monopoly, thus eliminating all private action– or eliminate the government’s monopoly altogether. We know the latter will never happen, so…

    1. Even in a real government monopoly, there will be a two-tier system, since the nomenklatura are always treated better. True equality is a myth–I don’t think it has ever happened in any human society, aside from a moment or two at a (voluntary) kibbutz.

      1. True equality is a myth–I don’t think it has ever happened in any human society, aside from a moment or two at a (voluntary) kibbutz.

        Protractedly stable government-created and maintained equality.

      2. And they had the most radical collective child rearing and education system ever. For them life and education were the same thing. There were no grades or tests. They did learn formal subjects, math, literature, science and so on. The lived together and participated in communal life.

        From what I gather it was not at all unsuccessful. They became privatized because people just didn’t want it anymore. Today the majority are more like group partnerships.

        There is something to be said for at least some of the ideas. We treat school as separate from other things. It is like a commodity. As if there was nothing to be learned from observing an ant colony or wondering how cats can jump so high. Instead we farm our kids out to sit in classrooms and expect that education begins and ends there. I am not against formal education but it needs to be integrated into the rest of life and become a natural process.

        It saddens me when parents obsess over grades and Harvard admissions. No wonder so many people today get their piece of paper and nice job and just stop learning.

  13. I desire to pass laws and order people about, but lack the motivation to campaign for such public positions as might provide this benefit. Why is denying me this opportunity any different than denying parents a spot at a preferred school for their kids because they aren’t willing to put in the effort to make it happen?

    1. If you’d prefer to just make up laws and order people about, perhaps you could get a job in law enforcement.

  14. Charter schools are just as morally wrong as any public school because they are public schools. They support the concept of compulsory education laws and taking money from people to pay for someone else’s education.

    1. Public Childhood education is not a simple market commodity. It has intrinsic value. While investors may look at it differently it refers to something not reducible to basic economic transaction terms.

      This is difficult in a superficial understanding of libertarian ideas.

      The tribe or village always did this. The children needed to be taught to catch fish, make an arrow, sew clothes, cook a meal, construct a shelter, stories and knowledge of the past were passed on. The next generation pushed the boundaries further. The teachers had a special place in every civilization.

      It is not so different today. I posted something above about how we are going about it. I know it is just one voice.

      1. I’m not as concerned about government funded schooling as I am about compulsory education laws that help to sustain it.

  15. All forms of truth are morally disturbing to the Left.

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  19. What’s morally disturbing is parents who don’t take a real interest in their kids’ education.

    What’s morally disturbing is thinking you can put your kids into some other school and cure it, dust your hands off, and and sit back and watch TV.

    What’s morally disturbing is trying to rely on slowing down other kids to speed yours up in lieu of the above.

  20. Locally (Pensacola, FL), the scammers have discovered charter schools as a good way to make money. We had a Newpoint charter school here (google it, the founder is currently in prison). We have a current charter school that bought an abandoned public school. They paid to renovate it, then they sold the school property to a company owned by the founder of the charter school. The charter school then signed a ten year lease (at $11k a month) to rent said facility (that they initially bought and renovated) . Then the new owner of the school (the founder of the charter) sold the school property (along with lease) to another company. In the mean time, the charter school bought the old Newpoint school property and have moved there. They still have 5 years left on the lease, and are both paying mortgage on the latest building, as well as a lease on their former property.

  21. No, it’s competition. Competition is good. It forces people to improve to compete.

  22. I feel absolute no moral obligation to send my kids to school with students from unmotivated families.

    While it sucks they were born into that situation, it is not of my making.

  23. What’s morally disturbing is trying to rely on slowing down other kids to speed yours up in lieu of the above. What’s morally disturbing is parents who don’t take a real interest in their kids’ education

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