Charter movement leaders: We ‘were naïve’

Chester E. Finn Jr. and Bruno V. Manno have been two of the most faithful cheerleaders for America’s charter school experiment since it started 24 years ago. But in a recent article for National Affairs, they look critically at where the movement has gone wrong.

“It’s a little embarrassing to acknowledge,” they write, “with the benefit of hindsight, that putting a charter sign on a school building actually reveals surprisingly little other than that it’s a ‘school of choice’ with some freedom to be different. Early advocates, ourselves included, were naive about some key things.”

Charter boosters, they admit, didn’t pay enough attention to issues of authorizing and governance of the schools. They pushed quantity, wrongly assuming a free market would lead to high quality. They “wanted the infusions of capital and entrepreneurialism that accompany the profit motive, but … didn’t take seriously enough the risk of profiteering.”

Finn is president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a school-reform organization that authorizes charter schools in Ohio, and was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. Manno is a senior adviser with the Walton Family Foundation, which spends over $200 million a year on education initiatives, much of it to promote school choice and support charter schools.

Their article brings to mind a recent piece in the Indiana Policy Review by Timothy P. Ehrgott, a charter-school pioneer who wrote that charter schools haven’t fulfilled their promise. But while Ehrgott seemed almost ready to pull the plug, Finn and Manno want to double down on the bet – as long as charter supporters learn from their mistakes.

Charter schools, they write, have five positive attributes that position them for success: They have strong public support (even though much of the public doesn’t know what charter schools are); many of them do well in school rankings; they largely serve poor and minority students; they are popular, as shown by long waiting lists; and they play a big role in some cities, like New Orleans.

“Turning to academic performance, however, our praise must be more muted, as the charter track record is, in a word, mixed,” Finn and Manno write. “Some of the country’s highest-achieving schools are charters, but so are some of the worst.”

One key point is that charter school authorizers matter. Some authorizers do a good job of riding herd on charter school operators, but some don’t. We’ve seen that play out in Indiana, where the Indianapolis mayor’s office enforces high standards for its charter schools but Ball State University was criticized by the Stanford-based CREDO group for lax authorization.

Some authorizers do great work … But too many others display mixed motives, are influenced by perverse incentives, or lack judgment, courage, or expertise. They’re also plagued by a shortage of solutions to schools’ various troubles — for instance, when a charter school is closed down, where are its students supposed to go and who decides? Who “owns” its assets? Who pays its debts and handles the residue of its contracts with staff and vendors?

Charter school doctrine held that “bad” charter schools would shut down because parents wouldn’t choose to send their children there. But to the surprise of Finn and Manno, that hasn’t always happened. Parents don’t always choose on the basis of effectiveness as measured by test scores.

Milton Friedman may have gotten this part wrong, at least over the short run. As we’ve witnessed first-hand in Ohio and elsewhere, a great many parents are (understandably) grateful to find schools for their children that are safe, accessible, and welcoming. But they are either ill-informed or not too fussy when it comes to those schools’ academic records.

The authors point out that the original vision for charter schools – as spelled out by American Federation of Teachers leader Albert Shanker and others – was that they would be laboratories for innovation, developing new approaches that would be adopted by public school districts. Charter schools have produced some approaches that other schools have adopted, like more time in the classroom and intensive use of data to raise test scores. But there’s less experimentation these days.

Save for continuing innovation in the realm of “blended learning,” … the charter sector does not appear to be doing much R&D today. It’s even less clear that many traditional districts are embracing — or really want to embrace — the alternatives that charters have successfully piloted.

A question that’s rarely asked when we talk about charter schools is this: What are the opportunity costs? What if we had taken all the time, effort and political capital that’s gone into promoting charter schools and instead spent it to improve traditional public schools?

Advocates say charter schools have forced other schools to get better in order to keep students. That may be true. But it’s also likely that the movement has pushed public school leaders into a defensive position, making it less likely that they will be open to criticism.

Those of us who are old enough can remember that there were serious conversations about education taking place before 1991 –focused on the role of standards and testing, what made for effective schools and how to produce and inspire great teachers. But more recently the arguments over charters and choice have, to steal a phrase from Arne Duncan, sucked the oxygen out of the room.

Note: Thanks to Leslie Lenkowsky for bringing this article to my attention. Les may not agree with how it’s portrayed here. And hopefully he will let us know if that’s the case.

1 thought on “Charter movement leaders: We ‘were naïve’

  1. I think this is a fine summary of an important. But I would add two points:

    Yes, a lot of effort and money has been devoted to charters. But there’s no evidence it has come at the expense of effort and money for traditional public schools. To the contrary, since the 1990’s, both government and foundations have substantially increased their investments in public schools. (Remember the Annenberg, $500 million initiative, to take one example?) What has all that accomplished? Has anyone even looked? And how likely is it that the effort and money that has gone into charters would have gone into traditional public education – unless the latter had made the kinds of changes in how they operate that the advent of charter schools, among other things, prompted?

    And yes, the quality of authorizers matters a lot. Which is why the fact that Indiana University has never used the authority it has to approve charters is scandalous and a blot on the reputation of the School of Education. It is important for IU to remain committed to traditional public schools. But not using the power it has to improve the quality of charter schools, demanded by parents, verges on irresponsibility.

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