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Sep 24, 2018

Living with mistakes: Charter schools and evidence

About 37% of all births in the US were unintended; they are mistakes. Should that fact affect the lives of people born by mistake? I hope that no one thinks that way. What about whole institutions? How many of them are here by mistake or by accident? For example, the US taxation system is here by accident, and is thoroughly irrational. In Ohio, I used to file four tax returns – federal, state, city and school district. Instead, one agency should collect all the money, and send it on to others. The Electoral College is another mistake, designed to prevent excesses of popular vote, but in practice, it allows the minority to impose its will on the majority of the country. However, legacy trumps rationality more often that one may think.

The story of charter school movement is a testimony of the persistence of an error. Social sciences contain one essential, unavoidable paradox: To evaluate effectiveness of any policy, one must implement, or at least massively experiment with it. However, when many people get involved in the experiment, it growth a thick crust of emotional attachments, opinions, ideological biases, ego and career investments, and material assets. Experiments, like children, take on their own lives. The fate of the pilot becomes invulnerable to social science evidence, unless it experiences a catastrophic failure. Charter schools have definitely not failed; they just did not manage to outperform traditional public schools on average, which was exactly the promise of the experiment. Hattie calculates the effect size at .09 SD, which is still positive, but miniscule. There is some evidence that charters may actually harm minority students. Yet because of the crust, we must now learn to live with charters for the foreseeable future. Unless we see a fundamental shift in all schooling, charters are here to stay.

The origin of the idea is not clear. It probably originates with libertarian ideas of Milton Friedman (1955), only made more politically palatable for the Democrats to sign up. Others (Kolderie, 2005) attribute the idea to Ray Budde, a University of Massachusetts professor. Regardless of the origin, the idea of choice in education was sufficiently appealing to both American political parties. And why wouldn’t it? There was no evidence to the contrary at that time. In the early 1990-s, people were hoping that freeing schools from bureaucratic constrains would make them more innovative, and more responsive to students’ needs and parents’ expectations. We do not have a reliable way of measuring innovativeness and responsiveness, but we can measure academic achievement. Even those studies showing modest impact of charter schools on educational achievement sound disappointed that greater results cannot be found. The promise was revolutionary, the results are, well, modest is any. The negative side effects have been fairly visible, most notably, on the finances of public districts. The negatives are not strong either. And then there is a more philosophical question: should parents have a right to chose a school even if their choices do not lead to better outcomes for children? After all, we want to choose our doctor without any need to prove she or he is any better than the other? This one is impossible to answer with evidence; it is a matter of values, beliefs, and preferences.

The most troubling part in the story for me is that we do not really know why the original idea has not worked. Why did not competition spark innovation and why did not innovation bring about better results? Is it because schools in general do not play a big role in children’s educational achievements? Is it because we do not invest in educational R&D and literally do not have any great innovations to play with? Has schooling reached some natural limits of effectiveness and are no longer improvable?

The 2017 EducationNext poll shows a sharp decline in charter school support among both Democrats and Republicans. I find it highly unlikely, however, that the movement will dwindle and wither away, for the reasons already stated. A responsible policy would be to figure out how to regulate charter schools, to minimize their side-effects, including some limits on proliferation. However, scaling the charters back is not plausible. The original idea included a promise of swift closures of school that did not perform. Well, it is just as difficult to close an underperforming charter, as it is to close a traditional public school. The cultural practices of schooling imply school stability as an essential identity building mechanism. Students who must often change schools are considered to be disadvantaged, because of the relationships they build with teachers are not easily replaceable. Regulating charter schools is not a simple task; partly because they were envisioned as free from most regulations, and partly because they serve a critical social function as any school does.

It would be unwise for any politician, to take a radical exclusionary position toward charters, and they rarely do. Depending on a state, there may be many thousands of people, including parents, teachers, board members, and supporters that feel invested in the movement. None of them will accept the statistical findings about the efficacy of charters in general as a reason to retreat and desist. The local argument is never about charter schools as an abstract, but about their own particular school, or a classroom teacher their child likes. Politics is an art of building coalitions; and it cannot be done by becoming more and more radical. Charters support more funding for public education, the values of equity and inclusion, the value of the good teaching preparation.

Now, we are a public university with a strong access and equity mission. Public school districts are our main, critical partners; this may never be in doubt. Building relationships with them is our priority. However, just like politicians, we cannot risk alienating a whole segment of K-12 education by taking a strong anti-charter stance. We would lose more than we gain.

(Some of this text has been published in the Journal of Transformative Leadership and Policy Studies 7/ 1).

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