National Public Education

The NAACP and Charter Schools

Some time ago the NAACP called for, with good reason, a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools so that, as they said, we might examine these programs more closely in three areas: 1. the governance of these schools, 2. their relationship to the public schools, and 3. their effect on the public schools.  Let's look more closely at each area.

1. The governance of charter schools.  Who, exactly, is in charge of these schools?  The answer out there on the street is "no one," it's just the parents who send their kids there. "That's the whole point; they are run by the people who use them."  But is that possible? Do the parents hire the staff, fire the staff, choose the books?  Aren't there administrators and bureaucrats who actually organize these things?  Who are these people, and who are their bosses?

And is there any way to affect them?  The traditional schools may be bureaucratic, but there is a way to vote the leaders out of office.  There is nothing like an elected school board in charge of a charter school.  So what happens if there are problems?  It would seem that by doing away with public school bureaucracy the charters have also done away with the democratic process, replacing a cumbersome but transparent administrative structure with a sleek but secretive one.

Given that there is no obvious way to change the policies of a charter school through any kind of democratic process, wouldn't it be wise to get a clear picture of the rationale behind those policies?   Who benefits from these schools?  Are they just a gift to the parents?  That doesn't seem likely.  Aren't there some people in charge who are also benefitting?  Who are these people, and how are they benefitting from these programs? It's our public money; where is it going?

2. The relationship to the public schools.  These schools are still funded by the public school system, even though they are administratively separate from them.  Doesn't that funding imply a relationship?  Can a charter school, then, change its funding?  Will it be able to fund new programs with new funds if that seems best?  And will it ever be able to increase the funding for programs that are doing well?  If not, what will be the incentive to do well?  If yes, how does that match up with the separation from the public schools?

How, then, does the public school system decide on that funding?  Is it according to the overall per pupil cost, or just the per pupil cost for each taxpayer?  There are many more taxpayers than pupils, so the latter will always be much less.  It may actually cost about $20,000 to educate a child these days, but each taxpayer might only pay about $10,000, since they get to divide that cost up between all the taxpayers.  If the state only funds the charter school according to the second amount, won't they be profiting on each child that attends a charter school?  Is that why they are so much in favor of such programs? The state no longer has to pay out that $20K for the child, but then only gives $10K to the charter school and pockets the rest.

But how are the charter schools supposed to educate a child on $10K?  Can they build a new science lab?  Create a football program?  Sponsor trips to Europe?  Won't they always be relying on the public school structure for such things?  But what will happen when the charters start replacing the public school structure, as they seem intent on doing?  Who then will build the science labs?

3. The effect on the public schools.  People argue that charter schools are better than the public schools they replace.  They are a good deal for the parents.  They are almost like a private school education but at a public school price. What a deal!

What the NAACP has realized, though, is that even if there is nothing wrong with this logic, it is starting from the wrong place.  It's looking at the issue of charter schools merely from the perspective of a consumer of this education, not that of the creators of a sound public educational policy.  There may be no conclusive argument against the idea that charters are good schools; the question is, though, are they good school policy?  Are they a way to improve the education of the entire population?  This is the "effect on the public schools" that one has to analyze.

The public schools do educate the entire population (or 90% of it).  If we are really going to replace them with these charter schools, we have to ask whether this new program will also educate everyone.  Is it the right way to replace a program that educates us all? I don't see how we could say this.  Charters are built on the idea of turning away from a general, collective, public approach to education.  They don't help the traditional public schools. How could they?  They are founded on the idea of separation from the public school structure; they are a rejection of the public schools, not an aid to them.  Where is a public school that has benefitted from a nearby charter school?  They don't exist.

So my hat is off to the NAACP.  They have seen that this is a public policy issue, not simply a matter of whether some parents will get a good deal on their child's education. We live in a democracy.  We get to create the public policies that run our public programs like public education, health, and the military.  This is the task we have to focus on.

Peter Dodington

August 5, 2017


Charter Schools as Models of Innovation

Recently I read two expressions of support for charter schools written by African Americans, one by Rev. Percy Hunter of Memphis, and the other by Cheryl Brown Henderson, the CEO of the Brown Foundation in Atlanta.  Both writers are associated with charter school organizations.  They argue for an expansion of the charter school movement, telling how a Stanford study shows that students gain the equivalent of some 40 or 50 extra days of learning at these schools.  Of course they are also critical of the NAACP's call for a moratorium on charter school expansion.

I can see why they feel this way.  As I have said elsewhere, of course the people in the charter schools love them, since they get an essentially private school experience at a public school cost.  And, I was impressed with some of Ms Henderson's comments.  At the end of her piece, she berates the NAACP for wanting to "close off an important path to learning," regardless of whether this is the only path we take or not.  She feels we should be "taking the lessons of successful schools of all models and applying them to under-performing schools."

I quite agree that this would be a good idea.  As the Obama administration often argued, charter schools should be used as models for how to improve the entire school system. They are like a kind of research and development cell in a large corporation, experimenting with new ideas and trying them out before putting them into regular practice.  They ought to be engines of innovation, or some such concept.

The problem is, though, that implementing this is not the task of the charter schools; it's the task of the regular school system.  It's not the charter school's job to see that their innovations are then used by the "under-performing schools," it's the task of the regular school boards and the state department of education.  In a way, the charter schools themselves are the last people who should be doing this; they are to come up with the ideas, not apply them.  The whole point is to keep them separate from the regular work so that they can come up with some totally new ideas.  You don't want them getting involved in fixing the regular schools.

So this means that making more charter schools is not going to solve the problem of how to get their work into the traditional schools.  More schools would actually have no effect on that part of the problem at all.  What we need to do is get the regular bureaucracy to do this better.  In a way, what the NAACP should have recommended is not a moratorium on charters, but an increase in regular state and local efforts to use the charters to improve the regular schools.

But, of course, they didn't.  Why not?  Because nothing would have happened.  Calling for the schools to fix their own problems is a non-starter.  They have been trying this for 50 years and nothing has changed.

The reason for this is clear when you think of the parallel situation in a business setting. If the Boeing Corporation set up a small autonomous unit to come up with innovations, they then would carefully use those innovations in the rest of the company.  The corporate administration is in charge of both the innovative group and the rest of the company, so they make sure that the two are helpful to each other.

But as many have noted, neither the states nor the local districts are "in charge" of public education.  They all see themselves as just bit players in a much larger operation, the national level of education.  They don't think of themselves as in control of the success of failure of that national operation.  So, they don't want to control the situation.  They let the charters go off and do whatever they want, and still pay them.

It's as if someone got into the Boeing company and killed off, or infected the minds of, all the corporate administrators so that they no longer cared about the overall success of the company. Then they would let the innovative units do whatever they wanted, and some people, no doubt, would look to these units as the ultimate answer to the company's problems, since the regular administration was so out of it.  And, of course, the only people reasonably happy in such a situation would be the people who were part of the innovative units, since they, being somewhat separate from the overall administration, would be less affected by its incompetence.

Notice that although everyone says that we don't want a national school organization, that is exactly what the charter school movement is.  All the charter organizations are national.  Of course they are, since that is where the problem we want solved resides. We have a national public school problem and will only solve this by turning to a national school organization.  The state system doesn't work.

Peter Dodington

January 14, 2017