Kate Zernike of The New York Times has a long and sobering report on the jungle-like condition of Detroit’s charter school system:
Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos. […]
While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.
There seem to be three important takeaways from the piece. First, it looks as if unscrupulous (public) university administrators are shafting disadvantaged children by covering for sleazy charter school for-profit operations. Under Michigan law, public universities can make money by chartering new schools. Some, like Saginaw State University, seem to be ignoring evidence of underperformance, declining to reform, and expanding their failing systems at the public’s expense. Second, it should clearly be illegal to offer goodies to lure kids or their parents in a publicly-funded charter school. And third, charter school regulations should favor non-profit schools and non-chain operations.
School choice is vital—and as Jonathan Chait points out, charters still perform better than blue model public schools in disadvantaged areas—but that means that sound regulation is necessary. As states and localities roll out charter systems, teachers unions will try to regulate their competition out of existence, and private corporations aiming to set up national chains will lobby hard for a free hand. The goal must be to build a strong network of teacher-owned, teacher-managed, publicly-accountable charters.