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Op-Ed: In All-Charter School Districts, Ideology Trumps the Facts

Mounting evidence indicates that charter schools can’t live up to their hype

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Paul Tractenberg

One of the latest and most ardently pursued urban education reform is the all-charter school district. New Orleans, Detroit, and the District of Columbia are far down that road, and Newark and Camden are racing to get there thanks to direct state operation of those districts. The big looming problem, however, is that the engine driving this reform is powered by ideology not evidence.

In a sense, this is a natural extension of the failed magic bullets of publicly funded private school vouchers, public school management by private for-profit entrepreneurs, and other free-market educational fixes. It’s also an outgrowth of the media and political full-court press to which we’ve been exposed over the past four years touting charter schools as the salvation of poor minority children in our cities. In rapid-fire succession, four full-length and widely distributed documentaries proclaimed the wonders of charter schools and the abject failure of traditional public schools -- Waiting for Superman and The Lottery in 2010, The Cartel in 2011, and Won’t Back Down in 2012 (about the so-called parent trigger law).

A short pro-charter-school documentary, also issued in 2010, may be the most revealing of the films, however. It was produced by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. Despite its neutral name, the Mississippi Center’s website proudly advertises its mission: “To advance the ideals of limited government, free markets, and strong traditional families by influencing public policy, informing the media, and equipping the public with information and perspective to help them understand and defend their liberty.” Its vision is “For Mississippi to be a place where entrepreneurs are free to pursue their dreams, parents are free to direct the education and upbringing of their children . . . and all Mississippians are free from dependence on government for their daily needs.”

Lest there be any doubt about what the Mississippi Center means by its commitment to “strong traditional families,” its website elaborates: “Marriage is to be a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman. Government has the high honor and responsibility to protect it, to fortify it and advance it for the ‘general welfare’ of the citizenry, but the church should be at the forefront of teaching and promoting biblical principles for marriage.”

What drives other pro-charter school efforts, and especially those pressing for all-charter districts, may be different, but it almost certainly involves more ideology (or, as the Mississippi Center labels it, “perspective”) than evidence. The blunt truth is that there is absolutely no evidence that implementing a charter school regime on a large scale, whether that be district-wide or nation-wide, will improve education, especially for the most disadvantaged students. Indeed, there is growing evidence to the contrary.

Chile and Sweden both adopted school choice in the form of charter or independent schools as a national reform strategy, Chile decades ago, and both have recently recanted based on accumulating evidence that that reform was ill-conceived. A July 2014 report from the impartial Cowen Institute at Tulane University about the “charterization” of New Orleans sounds a loud early-warning signal.

Although the report indicates achievement of New Orleans students may have improved slightly, there are those who are skeptical about the accuracy and meaningfulness of the district’s achievement data. Moreover, even accepting the report’s numbers, New Orleans students still score substantially below the average of Louisiana students, not exactly the loftiest benchmark. Administrative and total education costs in New Orleans have soared far above the Louisiana averages, and the district structure is one that the cartoonist Rube Goldberg would have been proud to devise.

After rushing to decentralize the district to the school level, the district has been forced to re-centralize a variety of functions, on a largely ad hoc basis, to deal with administrative inefficiencies and with huge educational issues involving many of the most vulnerable students falling into gaping cracks in the decentralized district. In the words of the Cowen Institute’s executive director, “ Unified governance continues to be elusive . . . A unified system of schools with a single central office responsible for serving all students and holding all schools accountable to transparent and equivalent standards is unlikely at this point.” The evidence also is already accumulating about the negative effects of replacing public schools with charter and so-called renaissance schools in Detroit, D.C., Newark, and Camden. Without getting into the debate about whether the real motive of many promoters of charterization is to latch onto the hundreds of millions of public dollars spent on education every year or to reap the perceived political benefits of further undermining teacher unions, among the last of the strong unions, the educational effects are enough to ponder.

Do we really believe that the education of our most vulnerable students will be enhanced by constant churning of their schools and teachers? Do we really believe that we will improve education by replacing experienced and credentialed teachers with bright young college graduates -- B.A. generalists as we used to call them in the early days of the Peace Corps -- who are trained for six weeks before they are placed in the nation’s most difficult classrooms for their two-year commitments? Do we really believe that, despite growing evidence to the contrary, charter schools will begin to fully serve the needs of special education and LEP students? Do we really believe that balkanizing our already undersized New Jersey school districts to the charter-school level, where each charter school is technically an independent school district, will satisfy our state constitutional mandate of an “efficient system of free public schools”?

I suppose the ultimate question is whether we care enough to educate ourselves about the evidence of what works and what doesn’t in education reform and to make our informed voices heard. Or are we content to keep accepting at face value the self-serving claims of the ideologues? The famous journalist Walter Lippman, long ago in a 1925 book, expressed his skepticism about whether members of the American public were really prepared to inform themselves about even the most important matters that directly affected their self-interest. He labeled them the “phantom public” because “[t]he facts exceed their curiosity.” Is that still the case? Please tell me it’s not!

Paul Tractenberg is Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor and Alfred C. Clapp Distinguished Public Service Professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, where he has been since 1970.

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