Will Charter Schools Cure America’s Blues?
Published on: January 26, 2011
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  • Tom Holsinger

    Among the advantages charter schools have over public schools is that the charter schools have so many exemptions from the incredible administrative overhead requirements imposed on public schools due to centralized control of financing at the state level. Court decisions over the past 40 or so years have made the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution more equal than any of the rest of the Constitution. This for schools, has resulted in financing being centralized at the state level due to the vast disparities in local property tax revenues which traditionally have been the chief source of funds for public education. This disparity is deemed a violation of the 14th Amendment’s requirement for equal protection under the law, on the grounds that disparity of result is an equal protection violation. Ask Harrison Bergeron.

    But the judicial requirement for equalized funding of public schools could only be done by centralizing funding at the state level, and “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” State legislatures used this as opportunity to pile conditions on local schools as a condition of state financing, and this has resulted in budget-eating administrative overhead.

    The school administrator problem is due chiefly to the slow accretion, over many years, of feel-good legislation (almost always by Democrats in California) which assigns a small task to public schools to satisfy one of the legislators’ many special interest constituencies. The tasks almost always involve reporting of something or other unrelated to instruction, but which pleases the special interest group in question. Often training of some sort is involved.

    Few of these feel-good tasks, individually, involve more than a trivial expense but, in vast numbers over a 40-year period, their totality requires armies of administrators beavering away on utter crap which eats budgets and significantly detracts from the time and energy teachers can spend on instruction.

    The chief advantage of public charter schools in California is that they are exempt from many of these useless administrative reporting requirement, can spend a greater proportion of their budgets on teaching, and their teachers don’t have to comply with so many useless reporting requirements.

    Given that these feel-good tasks generally, if not almost always, create mandatory reporting duties, cuts in public K-12 education budgets in turn whack away at the few discretionary items, of which first in line is always actual instruction of students.

  • TexEd

    Nonsense!! Charter schools may be a good thing in the short run but in the long run, will fail. The charter school concept is based on failure and weakness. It says, “we can’t/won’t fix the system we have now and, therefore, will simply start a new one.”
    Two flaws: one, charter school employees will soon want the pay and benefits and security of the parallel system and, two, the cost of two systems on the taxpayer will be extraordinary.
    Assume that almost half of the black kids in DC opt out of the public system to attend charter schools. The black racists and crooked educational unions will not allow any decrease in the size (and, therefore, cost) of the old public system. The new charter system may work well for a while but it’s success will attract, yep, the black racists and crooked educational unions.
    Look at the unions’ sales pitch: “charter school workers, you are getting much better results but are paid much less, have poor benefits and very little job security; we can help you!”
    Eventually, the taxpayer will be forced to fund two systems that do a poor job of educating children and a great job of providing wonderful employment to marginal performers.
    No, the answer is not running away to form charter schools, it is standing and defending the public schools against the black racists, crooked unions and marginal public employees. If you can dig it out of the info that the Superintendent will let taxpayers see, check the number of non-teaching administrative employees your district has employed over the last 20 to 50 years and the number of students they cover.

  • Kolya Krece

    “It is also about shifting the center of gravity of American culture and society further toward entrepreneurial and creative values and institutions.”

    I don’t think the Democratic Party got the memo on this. To be fair I don’t think the Republicans have much of a clue either but they are not wedded to the same ideas. A central tenet of Democratic thought is that the government can magically guarantee us quality services and goods while at the same time providing safe stable and fair employment to it’s workers regardless of their productivity. All economic risk gets transferred to the private sector in the form of higher taxes, inflation and debt.
    Government workers motives are “pure” because the profit motive is not involved (allegedly). Evil selfish corporations and entrepreneurs cannot be trusted to produce public goods.

  • bandit

    Big drawback to charter and pilot schools is that they are used as an alternative to overall improvement. My family has been very involved in this with the Boston Public Schools and involved in an expansion of our kids school. However in my experience the kids who benefit are the kids who attend the schools and any competitive advantages or process improvements are hugely overrated. But the school districts use them for the benefit of improving test scores and putting a shine on the apple. Since the families are very involved you end up with 1 tier where you have involved families and good performance and the second tier where the improvements are non existent.

  • Luke Lea

    Charter schools sure sound like a way to get around the bureaucratic obstacles to school reform — though I imagine it will take some really talented principals to make them work. But then isn’t that always the case?

    Anyway, I’d like to pass on a couple of seemingly bizarre-sounding ideas which charter schools might incorporate:

    The first is a proposal I saw somewhere — I wish I could remember who made it — for a new kind of central high school in our biggest cities that would be more on the model of our community colleges: very large student bodies (15,000 or more), open enrollment, self-tracking, and an a la carte curriculum that included a rich assortment of vocational as well as academic offerings. Beyond minimal standards of literacy and numeracy and some basic American history, students would be free to choose those courses and teachers which they found most attractive, with few if any restrictions on maximum class size. (Particularly popular classes might even require large lecture halls, t.v. monitors, and t.a.’s like in college.)

    The idea is that if high school campuses were more like small cities where students (along with their parents) could choose their own courses of study, there could be a better fit between student aptitudes and opportunities without charges of discrimination.

    The second idea was a proposal to put web cameras in all class rooms as a way to monitor student misbehavior and teacher competence. As it is now it is impossible for parents or administrators to accurately assess either of these, which has led to a breakdown in institutional responsibility.

    As for teacher pay, there is a case for tying it to the number of students a teacher is able to attract (as a measure of productivity). As already mentioned extra large classes might require t.a.’s to help with the home work, but those extra costs could be factored in.

    I know these sound like crazy ideas. But as the times are new, we must think anew. 🙂

  • John Barker

    I will share this inspiring post with the staff of our charter school. These are encouraging words for our students and teachers.

  • Mr. Wise

    Excellent piece sir. It’ll be interesting to see if the new generation of college graduates begin to gravitate towards the flexibility and dynamism in the charter schools.

  • willis

    “At the same time, competition in the private sector (among charter schools, among different firms competing to get contracts to carry out other jobs) will lead to improvements in productivity and efficiency that will ultimately allow more service for less money.”

    Proponents of free markets often make this claim but never offer a compelling reason to support it. As a consequence the left simply dismisses it out of hand. The reason is simple, providers with competitors must offer better value by getting feed-back from their customers, applying their wits to use this information to improve their products. The motivator is competition, but the mechanism is customer feed-back. Public schools go out of their way to eliminate customer feed-back. Even if they had the child’s best interest in mind, they do not track to correct source of information for the improvement of their product.

  • Jason

    TexEd: “The charter school concept is based on failure and weakness. It says, “we can’t/won’t fix the system we have now and, therefore, will simply start a new one.”

    Agreed. Please let me know just as soon as teachers’ and other public sector unions are abolished, and we’ll redirect our attention back to the system we have. Until then teachers who (a) can’t be fired, (b) can impose impossible work rules, (c) are able to fight off any transparency or accountability in the classroom, and (d) command gold-plated pensions and healthcare, have become our “civil masters” instead of “civil servants.”

  • Richard

    Whatever involves public money involves politics and whatever involves politics soon involves activists, lawyers, judges, lobbyists, and politicians. Never discount the pernicious effect of self righteous judges to wreck any public institution on behalf of vexatious activists. Whether it was busing to achieve racial integration, equalization of public finance, discipline codes, grading standards, or even dress codes; the courts standby ever ready to tinker and meddle. The results are that public schools are more segregated than before, there are zero tolerance rules but no effective discipline, and grading standards no longer mean anything (“the C is the teacher’s friend.)
    Where public money is spent, legislation, bureaucracy, and judicial oversight are inevitable. Over time, any system of public education will decay and die in the same way as our current system. Sorry.

  • rasqual

    Public schools want parents to be compliant, not actively responsible. When parents are in charge of where their children go to school — because they hold a voucher in their hand (that’s worth the full value of what the state spends per head, not some token proportion calculated not to freak out entrenched educrats) and have alternatives — only then will sanity be restored.

    The public schools often outsource the most difficult students to private schools already. It’s criminal that the average student’s parent doesn’t have the advantage of being able to escape the system as well.

    Meanwhile, parochial and other private schools whose teachers are often not as well paid, often get better results. Alas, these schools have foundered as their sources of income have depleted. They’ve been less capable of serving impoverished communities.

    Full value vouchers would disproportionately help the poor. It’s a civil rights issue not for the poor, not for Blacks, but for all Americans. It’s pretty much time to nuke what we’ve known to date. Having seen what I’ve seen, I really don’t care one whit about those who have the gall to defend the status quo or pretend that just a few more tweaks or dollars will do the trick.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    Ironically, I saw a piece today on a news site where an Ohio woman was arrested for falsifying her address in order to get her child into a better school district. The woman was black.

    It does illustrate the problem. Under the existing model, if you don’t like the school your kid is assigned to and you can’t afford a private school, your only option is to move to a district with better schools. This is often not possible for folks of modest means (one suspects it will become even less of an option as the housing crisis drags on.) I think just to give these people SOME kind of path to get their kids out of dysfunctional schools and give them at least a fighting chance to learn something (and, a better life), charter schools are worth a shot. When your only choice is rotten, “less rotten” is an improvement. And with some luck, the low bar of “less rotten” could well be exceeded.

  • Israel

    I have taught and have been a principal in regular public schools. My wife and I are currently teaching at the same K-12 charter school. It is far from perfect and in many ways could improve. However, we both agree that it is far better than any regular public school we have worked for in the past.
    We may complain about certain aspects of our school but we end with the same refrain that “it could be worse.”
    That said, here is a list of positives (in no particular order of importance) about our school.
    1. It is a small school. We get to know our students very well and we maintain close contact with parents.
    2. Absence of classroom disruption. It is not tolerated, period. Parents and students sign an agreement that they will live up to charter expectations. The agreement covers academic performance and behavior.
    3. We have a waiting list. Parents and students have to want to come to our school and may have to wait until a slot opens up.
    4. At the high school level we don’t depend on just the state achievement test results as a measurement. We look at the PSAT, SAT,ACT, and AP scores to see how our students are doing. Parents are kept informed on how our school compares to all schools statewide and nationwide.
    5. No tenure. At least one teacher has been officially let go.
    6. No master contract. I negotiated my contract with the principal.
    7. We get paid more than regular public school teachers with equivalent education/experience.
    8. No faculty lounge, no inservice days, no union, etc.
    I think you get the picture. And lest you think we are an affluent community, nope, our students are rural poor. The majority of students are on free and reduced lunch.
    I have yet to hear a complaint from a parent that I am expect too much from their son/daughter. I like that the best.

  • Kenny

    Good luck in freeing blacks from the government plantation of Dependency.

    The Democrats won’t let them go, and if the blacks were freed, they’d be lost.

  • Cal

    I like most of Mead’s articles, but the entire premise of this one is completely incorrect.

    Blacks support charter schools whether the kids are improving or not. Their support has nothing to do with teacher quality and everything to do with environment. Charter schools can kick out disruptive kids. Public schools can’t.

    If blacks were supportive of charter schools and improving teacher competency, Michelle Rhee would still be running DC schools and Adrian Fenty would still be mayor. But most of the teachers Rhee fired were black. And that would be the case pretty much anywhere that incompetent teachers were fired–they would be disproportionately black and Hispanic. Black support would evaporate.

    Black support for charter schools is driven by parents who want a safe environment for their kids, not because they are bothered by teacher tenure or terrible academic results. Don’t kid yourself.

  • Herb

    Yes, charter schools are an improvement, mostly because of the variety and choice that they give to parents. But there are two major problems not considered. The first is that the government has no business being in the education business. Period. Wherever the government sticks its miserable little head in, special interests, politics, lawyers, corrupt unions, etc, will follow. There is no way that sound educational decisions will be made under such circumstances. School is the business of dedicated teachers, parents, and students. A “communitarian” school is hardly possible when the government and unions are involved, largely because they bring an anti-social coloring to everything they touch. What’s more, the bottom line for the government will be training young people to fit into whatever economic needs they see as most necessary for the state. But education should have nothing to do with economics. If we can educate students to be free thinking individuals, society (and that includes the economic part of it) will be become healthier.
    And that brings us to the second problem. Schools have been built like factories putting together machines. A professor I know at Columbia Teachers College once told me of a survey of their professors and students. The survey asked what educational model is at work in modern education. The overwhelming majority gave answers that showed that these educators and educators in training thought that the models were of the type that saw children as input-output machines. Information in, information out. The child as computer. The educational establishment, (though not all teachers,of course) is materialistic and utilitarian in the worst way. Until education becomes something more human, moral, and spiritual, nothing will work. As long as the government is involved, such a change in the methods and the raison d’etre of education is impossible.

  • Luke Lea

    Come on, Walter. Foreign Policy!

  • Anthony

    The communitarian aspect of charter schools is factor I had not previously considered during our country’s most vigorous educational debate relative to governance over last decade. Chicago public schools and its governing structure is presently engaged in contentious reform of its blue model vis-a-vis charters. Yet, as WRM posits “the research around charter schools is both controversial and politicized” with no type overcoming social pathologies. That said, this essay I find the most convincing yet in providing economic and social rational for the charter school option benefitting American citizens whose children generally have been academically left behind. Most importantly for 5.0, democracy and our schools are synonymous. See E.D. Hirsh (The Making of Americans) transethnic America and the civic core as it blends into principles implied via 5.0.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    It’s the Teachers Unions that have destroyed the public school system. Charter schools can’t help if they don’t get rid of the problem.
    Anti-Trust the Labor Gangs: Why should they get special monopoly privileges and not us? What makes them so special?
    The un-American [harsh characterization deleted –ed] are just doing what all monopolies do, Killing the Goose that lays the Golden eggs. Monopolies are as mindless as Bacteria, who when they find a food source simply gorge themselves until the food is all consumed, and then die.
    Over half of the Labor Gangs, now work for the Government (having already killed most private sector employers)(a monopoly within a monopoly, you know that can’t be good), where they are using their monopoly power to loot our Treasury, our tax dollars, ripping us all off. They are even using our own tax dollars to buy the politicians to rip us off even faster. And these dishonorable and treasonous [even harsher characterization deleted in the interests of common courtesy and reasonable discourse — ed] are in charge of educating America’s children, America’s future.

  • Mike

    I live in New Orleans, where, as you noted, a majority of kids go to charter schools. From the experience in New Orleans, I would look a bit harder into the “success” of charter schools before praising them. Yes, charter schools have shown improvements over public schools down here – but this is how they do it: most of them have cut their enrollment by at least half (forcing the unwanted students into public schools), and magically their numbers improve while the public schools suffer. Not really a viable option for improvement for many down here.

  • Craig

    Good article, though I think I think the DC experiment shows that you really need community support.

    The people who think Charters will wither, which many unions do, do not see the political power that charters have provided urban centers that know how to use it. That is the power to close a school, lay off all the teachers, then reopen as a charter an start the hiring process anew. They can bring in a private agency, non-profit, community group or whatnot to manage the process.

    In Philadelphia this happened last week when the Superintendent shut down 10 ailing schools and reopened them as charters. This approach works, but only with the local parents willing to get rid of bad teachers and help reform the schools. At the end of the day the charter movement gives urban minorities (Particularly asians even more then blacks) a chance to control their destiny. Unfortunately the democratic party is made up of teacher’s union sycophants and the Republican party is nearly completely ignorant of the charter movement at the national level.

    But in the end the parents and communities with power and dedication will use the charters to take over their destiny like in Harlem and the union controlled areas will continue to wither.

  • pottfullofpith

    @11. Rasqual: Very worthwhile observations. Thanks.
    @13 Israel: please note how many times the word “parent” appears in Israel’s post. He is exactly correct. The root cause of the problems is a lack of parental invovlement. Until and unless that is fixed, smaller classes or teacher excellence or more computers or longer days will not matter. Parental attitude and involvement is the obvious and deliberately ignored common denominator where kids do well in school: home schooled vs in school; charter vs non-charter; public vs parochial: children of immigrants vs later generations; Singapore kids vs US kids. Educating their children is first, last and always the responsiblity of the parents, and efforts to place that burden on others — teachers or schools or systems or ” a village” — is unnatural, unfair to all, and demonstrably unsuccessful.

  • Pete

    Neither charter schools nor even vouchers are magic bullets for what ails America’s public education.

    For those of you who have the courage to face reality, read Robert Weissberg’s “Bad Students Not Bad Schools” (2009) which was reviewed in Commentary magazine among other places.

  • Tim

    As someone who spent 7 years working within government (Justice Department and Treasury) and who then ran my own business (a car dealership) for 12 years, I don’t buy into the “bad, bureaucratic, inefficient, self-serving” government vs. “good and efficient” private sector paradigm. Mr. Meads insistence on contrasting the blue social model, with some unknown, market-based utopia makes a lot of assumptions about what private enterprise can deliver and what public enterprises can’t. My experience is that the “model” isn’t the problem, we need effective, intelligent leadership. I’ve seen public institutions deliver great service when led well, and private institutuions deliver lousy service when led poorly. The better question is to ask “what sorts of goods and services are best delivered as a public good, through public institutions, and which are best delivered through private means as a private good?” What goods and services do we all need and have an interest in as part of civil society? (Education and health-care come to mind.)

  • Trent J. Telenko

    American Public schools do work…as long as they are administered by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA)

    DoDEA has none of the Legislative/Judicial structural problems Tom Holsinger mentioned in the first comment on the thread and it is far more “diverse” ethnically than most American school districts.

    They get very good results —


    In comparing DoDEA’s average scale score in NAEP science for eighth grade students with scores for the nation and other participating jurisdictions, DoDEA’s average scale score was not significantly different from six states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Hampshire). DoDEA’s scale score was significantly higher than 40 states and jurisdictions. Five jurisdictions did not participate.

    (Note: Detailed statistical information on the 2009 NAEP science assessment and all other NAEP assessments can be found on the web at the following URL: http://www.nationsreportcard.gov)

    However, teachers in that system cannot strike, they don’t have union type tenure of a major urban school district and the DoD has coercive powers over military parents careers and their student-children that only Progressive era social workers ever exercised in the civilian sphere.

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