A Philosopher's Blog

Charter Schools II: Choice & Quality

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2017

In the previous essay on charter schools I considered the monopoly argument in their favor. On this view, charter schools break the state’s harmful monopoly on education and this is a good thing. It is worth noting, again, that the state does not have a monopoly on education (there are private, non-charter schools). Instead, the state schools often have a monopoly on public money and charter schools break this monopoly by receiving public money. This, it is argued by charter school proponents, allows for more choice. They are quite right. But not all choices are good choices.

Without charter schools, people face rather limited alternatives to the public-school system. One is home schooling. While this does appeal to some people, it does limit the educational experience and requires a great deal of the parent(s). Another is attending a private school. While these schools can provide excellent education, they can very expensive. As such, they are an option only for those who can afford them. Because charter schools receive public money, they can provide an alternative to public schools for those who cannot afford a private school. However, there is the question of why there should be such choice and why people would take it.

One reason often given in favor of charter schools over public schools is that charter schools are supposed to superior in terms of the education they provide (or in some other relevant way). Proponents of charter schools point to failing public schools as evidence for this claim. While this is certainly a rational argument, there are some concerns with it.

One concern is that while there are bad public schools and excellent charter schools, there are also excellent public schools and awful charter schools. As such, there is nothing intrinsic to the public system that necessitates its badness nor anything intrinsic to the charter system that necessitates its superiority. This raises the question about what causes school quality.

The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding. It is no accident that the best schools tend to be in affluent neighborhoods and the worst schools tend to be in poor areas. After all, a significant portion of the funding for public schools is local and is often based on property taxes. As such, high value property generates more funding for schools. Low value property generates far less. Naturally, this is not the whole story for school funding, but it is an important part. It is also worth noting that not just community wealth is a factor—community health is also important for the quality of education. After all, stable communities that have families actively involved in the school can create a very good educational experience for the children. However, wealth and health often travel hand in hand.

As might be suspected, most parents would prefer their children attend the best schools—this is why parents who have the income buy houses in the best school districts. This provides another limit to choice: while anyone can attend the best public schools, they must be able to afford to live in the district. This makes the best public schools analogous to private schools; one must pay to be able to attend. The promise of charter schools is that children can escape the poor schools and go to a superior charter school, using public money.

While this does have some appeal, there are some obvious problems. One is that the poor schools will become poorer as they lose students and will presumably decline even more until only those who cannot escape remain. This would seem to be like pouring money into lifeboats for an ailing ship rather than using the money to fix it.

Of course, this analogy could be countered by saying that the public school ship is doomed and the only viable option is escape. This is a reasonable counter—if a school is so badly wrecked that it cannot be saved, then escaping to another school would be as sensible as fleeing a sinking ship. The challenge is, however, showing that this should be a charter school and not a new public school.

Another is that it would seem to make more sense to use the public money to improve the public school so that parents would want their children to attend. After all, if parents want to choose good schools, the best use of public money would seem to be to make public schools better. Since there are excellent public schools, this is clearly something that can be done with proper funding and a strong community. As noted above, there is no special magic to charters that makes them inherently better than public schools. To use another analogy, the charter school argument is like pointing to the poorly maintained roads of a community and saying that the solution is not to fix the roads, but to use the public money to put in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads. It would seem to make much more sense to fix the existing public roads rather than putting in “charter roads.”

In light of the above discussion, the choice argument for charter schools based on quality does not appear compelling. Unless it can be shown that charter schools are inherently better than public schools in virtue of being charters, then it would be more sensible to improve the quality of existing public schools rather than siphoning away public money. There are, however, other matters of choice beyond quality. In the next essay I will look at the appeal of ideological choice—charter schools that offer an ideological or theological alternative to public schools.


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  1. TJB said, on January 9, 2017 at 9:20 am

    Mike, can we start by agreeing that schools exist to educate children, and that decisions should be made on what is best for children, and not what is best for teachers or teachers’ unions?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 9, 2017 at 6:04 pm

      Sure, schools are supposed to exist to educate children.

      Casting teachings and unions as the main problem seems fundamentally mistaken. As with the police, there are bad teachers-but most are not and are trying to do their best with limited funding, under difficult conditions and with low compensation.

  2. TJB said, on January 9, 2017 at 9:27 am

    Research indicates that urban kids do better with charter schools.

    STANFORD, Calif. – March 18, 2015 – Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), the nation’s foremost independent analyst of charter school effectiveness, released today a comprehensive Urban Charter Schools Report and 22 state-specific reports that combine to offer policymakers unprecedented insight into the effectiveness of charter schools.

    “One of our largest research efforts to date, this study targets our focus on charter schools in urban areas because these are communities where students have faced significant education challenges and are in great need of effective approaches to achieve academic success,” said Dr. Margaret Raymond, director of CREDO at Stanford University. “This research shows that many urban charter schools are providing superior academic learning for their students, in many cases quite dramatically better. These findings offer important examples of school organization and operation that can serve as models to other schools, including both public charter schools and traditional public schools.”

    Across 41 regions, urban charter schools on average achieve significantly greater student success in both math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading. Compared to the national profile of charter school performance, urban charters produce more positive results. CREDO’s National Charter School Study results in 2013 found that charter schools provided seven additional days of learning per year in reading and no significant difference in math.

    Similar to the results in the National Charter School Study in 2013, the Urban Charter School report found local variation in the results. Across the 41 regions, more than twice as many urban regions show their charter schools outpacing their district school counterparts than regions where charter school results lag behind them. Despite the overall positive learning impacts, there are still urban communities in which the majority of the charter schools have smaller learning gains compared to their traditional school counterparts.


  3. TJB said, on January 9, 2017 at 9:32 am

    So charter schools primarily help poor and minority kids.

    If you believe, as I do, that Democrats want to keep minorities poor and dependent on government, then their opposition to charter schools is readily explained.

    You wouldn’t want a poor kid to get educated and get a good job–he might vote Republican…

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 9, 2017 at 6:10 pm

      They presumably help some kids, but there is the question of whether or not they are more effective than alternatives.

      I’m not part of the cabal of Democrats, so I am not privy to their secret poverty plans. But, I am certainly not in favor of keeping people poor. That is why I am a supporter of quality public education. Just as we should have good public roads to help facilitate commerce and public safety, we need good public schools to create good citizens and people prepared for careers or higher education. And then careers.

      We would thus seem to have the same goals; just differences regarding which methods would work best.

  4. TJB said, on January 9, 2017 at 11:08 pm

    If we are agreed that we should do what is best for children, and studies prove that charter schools are better for children than public schools, then what is left to disagree about?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 13, 2017 at 8:54 pm

      If charter schools are better for kids, then sure.

      If you are talking about performance studies, once concern is that charter schools tend to be able to pick their students-so they generally avoid taking bad students and students with special needs. So, they would perform better than public schools which have to take everyone.

  5. DH said, on January 10, 2017 at 2:57 pm

    “This raises the question about what causes school quality. The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding.”

    I completely disagree with that statement. Funding may make the road to quality easier, but it can also inhibit it greatly. Throwing money at a problem does not solve the problem – you need to have an implementation plan and a metric for success.

    “there is nothing intrinsic to the public system that necessitates its badness nor anything intrinsic to the charter system that necessitates its superiority.”

    I disagree there also – though I might soften the word “necessitates”. Both statements, taken together, are at the heart of my belief here.

    I think the question that should be raised is not what CAUSES school quality, but rather what DEFINES it. When public schools use government funding for their operations, the metrics for quality and success are focused on the averages – the average pass/fail rate – the number of students who pass the tests created by whomever creates the minimum standards. This commits the public school system to mediocrity. If a school produces an entire class full of below-average to average students with a low failure rate on the standardized tests, it is considered to be a quality school. School funding is directed first to the failing students, and if there is any money left over, it is allocated to additional programs.

    The “Implementation plan” should be decided by educators working along with the board of education, but both of these organizations are hamstrung by bureaucracy and are often at each other’s throats (please see my other post for more details). Educators are taken out of the loop when it comes to curricular decisions, and have to take a back seat to bureaucrats who decide on things like “Common Core”, “Inventive Spelling” and other unproven and questionable concepts. Teachers who teach what they are told and have no pedagogical input become drones, and burn out very quickly.

    The one thing that teacher’s unions have done that completely cripples the system is that they have successfully negotiated for defined-benefit pension plans, something that corporate America has found to be completely unsustainable. A teacher is able to put in 20 years of service, retire at 45, earn a guaranteed income that begins at 60 that will last for the rest of their lives. There is no investment risk to them, and any investment risk that does exist is mitigated by the taxing authority of the district, the state, or the federal government.

    When my kids were in high school, the Superintendent of Schools was found to have forged his PhD; he had purchased the document from a degree mill and lied about his qualifications for the job. He was fired, of course, but was able to retain his full pension for the rest of his life. At 50 years old and a salary of $200,000, this could not have worked out better for him.

    In my other response, I mentioned the exploratory project I did with my digital design students in conjunction with a science publisher; the publisher produced kits called “Science In A Box” to supplement existing curriculum with hands-on observations and participation. Teachers I spoke to all said the same thing – “We have the kits, we love the kits, but we can’t use them. We don’t have the time, we have to teach to the test, and the kids are so burned out by the time they get to high school that all they want to know is “is this going to be on the test””?

    Think about that statement for a minute. What it means is that some bureaucrat arranged for some funding for some innovative approaches to curriculum. The bureaucrat probably got a promotion for it – or got re-elected, or something like that – so there’s a lot of credit being passed around for “Funding” and “Innovation” and “Expansion of the Science Program” , but it does not trickle down to the kids at all.

    So what is intrinsic to the public school system that paves a clear path to badness (softer than necessitates) is a union stronghold on funding, directed to unsustainable benefits than no one else in the country (except other public-union employees) has, bureaucratic meddling in curricular decisions that should be made by parents and involved community members, and a metric for defining success that extols mediocrity and passing.

    This, of course, is reflected in the fact that over 50% of freshmen entering open-enrollment community colleges require remedial classes before they can even begin on the gateway courses; statistics also indicate that frustration plays a big part in the fact that 30% of those students end up dropping out before they can even get to the gateway classes.

    So what is intrinsic to the charter school system that paves a clear path to quality is the lack of this bureaucratic stronghold, the absence of union requirements, and the ability of administrators to apply funding directly to classroom programs without having to fight against unsustainable benefit packages or ridiculous golden parachutes for unqualified people who have been fired for malfeasance or worse. Curricular decisions are made by academics responding to the abilities and needs of the students – both remedial AND advanced, and can pivot away from mandates like Common Core or Inventive Spelling and use their own brains and creativity.

    The federal government holds money over the heads of governors and senators, doling it out lavishly to those who follow unconstitutional mandates (i.e., “Executive Orders”), and withholding it from those who do not comply.

    This is the system that ultimately led to the passing of Obamacare – not the political or economic viability of the plan, not the perceived success on the healthcare industry, not the belief that costs would actually come down – but rather the arm twisting, quid-pro-quo and outright payoffs in exchange for votes. This system trickles down to education mandates as well, i.e., “No Child Left Behind”, “Common Core” and other failing programs contrived by the bureaucrats in the Department of Education, which set aside the concerns and ideas of involved parents and bright, creative, innovative educators, who have to sit by and watch as REAL school quality diminishes in exchange for a fat payoff and a line item on some politician’s resume.

    Charter schools not only offer an alternative, but they offer involvement for the right people, untrammeled by the involvement of the wrong ones.

    Of course, as they begin to see the benefits of public money, that is all likely to change.

  6. DH said, on January 10, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    I have another analogy for you, in response to one of yours.

    “To use another analogy, the charter school argument is like pointing to the poorly maintained roads of a community and saying that the solution is not to fix the roads, but to use the public money to put in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads. It would seem to make much more sense to fix the existing public roads rather than putting in “charter roads.”

    I think maybe it’s more like pointing to the poorly run US Postal system, fraught with complacency, bureaucracy and budget overruns. Perhaps adding additional funding might fix this system, but historically it has only made it worse. By putting in “charter post offices”, i.e, competitors like FedEx, UPS, DHL and others, private carriers raised the bar and showed how excellence in this area could be achieved.

    As a result, the USPS realized that they had to step up and compete in this new market, or face a complete loss of relevance. The post office services have improved greatly and in some cases, they are even working with private carriers as partners.

    If Charter Schools are allowed to flourish, and take public money away from public schools without the bureaucratic oversight, they may end up proving my point, which is that the current system of DoED, government mandates, top-down curriculum decisions and teacher contracts founded in anything but excellence does not work, which would cause a great upheaval in the Government’s ability to serve its own interests.

    Sometimes an entrenched system just wants to be left alone, and is threatened by innovation and competition.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 13, 2017 at 8:57 pm

      The Post Office still seems better run than Wells Fargo, much of Wall Street and Volkswagen.

      Sure, some public stuff sucks. But lots of private sector stuff is horrible. As such, I’d say that sucking is not a matter of public or private, but due to other factors. Like ethics.

      • DH said, on January 16, 2017 at 2:19 am

        Actually, the post office has improved greatly over the last 20 years; I would maintain that the improvements are due at least in part to the competition offered by FedEx, UPS and other private carriers. Without the competition, they don’t have to do anything to improve – we have to take what they offer and like it. I for one am grateful to have the choice. I do use the USPS for some things, but if I have something very important that I need to send & track, I am more confident in FedEx. I shop frequently on Amazon, and I received a delivery via USPS last Sunday. Sunday? The Post Office? I wonder how they came to the decision to deliver packages on Sunday? Most likely it was a decision based on survival in the face of hungry competitors threatening to put them out of business.

        The same goes for Wells Fargo, much of Wall Street and Volkswagen. You might as well throw cable companies into the mix while you’re at it – and cell phone carriers, too.

        I do not bank with Wells Fargo, I do not drive a Volkswagen, and I do not subscribe to cable. Again, I am very glad I have alternatives to choose from. If enough people are smart enough to avoid these poorly run companies, they will fix their problems or go out of business, as they should. Even if they don’t, I am very comfortable in the knowledge that I don’t have to deal with them at all, and I can find better alternatives in every case.

        If public stuff sucks, it doesn’t matter as long as there’s somewhere else I can go to get better products and services. If private sector stuff is horrible, the same applies.

        Schools? Well, that’s what we’re talking about here.

        • TJB said, on January 16, 2017 at 8:29 am

          The only place I’m inclined to give the government a monopoly is the use of force.

  7. TJB said, on January 10, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    No matter how many times socialism fails, they don’t give up. Same with public schools.

    Didn’t Mike once talk about the “doubling down” fallacy?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 13, 2017 at 8:58 pm

      Sure, public schools are socialism. But they have been a key part of American success-education for all citizens.

      • TJB said, on January 14, 2017 at 1:11 am

        Point is that even though we spend more than any other country per pupil on our schools, they still fail our students. Yet some people claim that the problem is that we don’t spend enough.

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