Why Charters Will Lose in Massachusetts

Image result for charters question 2

Massachusetts voters will be deciding in a few weeks whether to expand charter schools in the state. By all rights, the measure should be winning by a landslide.  Rigorous evaluations of existing Boston charters show large test score gains.  Charter supporters are spending millions to blanket the airwaves with ads. And following what appears to be the new ed reform ideal model, Massachusetts charters predominantly serve highly disadvantaged communities, so they have positioned themselves as the progressive promoters of social justice.

Despite all of this, Question 2 is trailing by double digits in recent polls and appears headed for defeat.  Why?  As I’ve written recently, ed reformers appear to have become so obsessed with social justice virtue-signaling that they’ve forgotten how politics actually works.  Narrowly targeting programs toward disadvantaged communities leaves programs politically vulnerable to harmful regulation, restriction, or repeal.  As much as disadvantaged communities desperately need education improvement, they tend to be poorly positioned to advocate for those efforts politically.

If you want to help the poor, you should design programs that include the middle and upper-middle classes.  This is the political genius of Social Security.  It is extremely effective at alleviating poverty among low-income seniors because high income seniors, who tend to be better positioned for political advocacy, also get it.  This is the political genius of many college subsidy efforts — the poor can benefit from them because wealthier families are also eligible.

I understand that Question 2 is attempting to expand charters so that they can include more middle class and upper-middle class families, but those voters are unaware of how charters might benefit them because already existing Massachusetts charters have largely failed to serve them.  And the unions and their local suburban school officials are doing a great job of scaring suburbanites about how a charter expansion might harm the relatively good arrangements they currently enjoy.

Charters in Massachusetts would have been better positioned politically if they had not previously neglected to benefit more middle and upper-middle class families.  Then more politically-advantaged families could have learned about benefits from their own experience and through networks of family and friends.  Ed reform needs to win by convincing middle and upper-middle class families that they can benefit themselves from creating and expanding ed reform programs.  Trying to obtain their support by arguing that poor and minority families who live somewhere else would benefit is a losing strategy.  Most political decisions are driven by crude calculations of self-interest, not high-minded appeals or guilt.

But ed reformers appear to have taken such a strong aversion to the rough political realities of self-interest that guilt is their dominant political message.  For example Richard Whitmire attempted to shame suburban voters, tweeting to an approving chorus of progressive reformers: “All comes down to: Will well-off suburbanites deny better schools to urban parents?”  The fact that Question 2 is trailing significantly in the polls provides the obvious answer to Whitmire’s query — of course suburbanites will deny better schools to urban parents if they think they might lose something and have little to gain.  That’s how politics works.

Until ed reformers temper this antipathy towards more advantaged families, abandon guilt-driven political appeals, and embrace the political realities of self-interest they should expect to continue suffering a series of political defeats.

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13 Responses to Why Charters Will Lose in Massachusetts

  1. matthewladner says:

    Jay you wrote that the SJW tribe has forgotten how politics work. I suspect that many of them have yet to learn how politics work, rather than having learned and then forgot how it works.

  2. Stuart Buck says:

    There are suburban charters in Massachusetts, but they tend to be worse than the local public schools, as Josh Angrist and colleagues found: https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/app.5.4.1

    • Massachusetts charter schools are overwhelmingly located in low-income areas of the state even if they are outside of Boston. Of the 80 charter schools the state lists (http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/search/search.aspx?leftNavId=11238) I want you to guess how many are located in zip codes that have a median household income that is above the median for the state. And then I want you to guess how many are in zip codes that have a median household income that is above the median for the county in which they are located. Once you see the actual numbers I think you’ll agree that what Angrist describes as “suburban” is not the advantaged suburban area that people might imagine.

      • The median household income in Massachusetts is $70,628 (http://www.deptofnumbers.com/income/massachusetts/ ). The median charter school in MA is in a zip code where the median household income is $49,556. And those charters are in counties where the median household income is $55,957. So Massachusetts charters are concentrated in lower-income counties and then within lower income zip codes within those counties. Only 20 of the 80 charter schools in the state are in zip codes with above median household income. And only 26 are in zip codes where the median household income exceeds that of the county in which it is located. Like I said in the post, advantaged suburbanites have been largely un-involved with charters in MA. And in those few cases where charters do have more advantaged families, those schools tend to emphasize a non-standard curriculum (like the arts), so they are not maximizing their math and reading test scores and Angrist declares them “bad” schools

  3. matthewladner says:

    Good point SB- a small number of crunchy schools is apparently insufficient to broaden out to a winning coalition.

  4. Mike G says:

    I agree with your description of one big dynamic.

    A second dynamic is the ballot question offers nothing to the existing charter operators or parents, which has a huge effect on “ground game.”

    I’d characterize 29 out of the 80 charters as middle class+.

    I wonder: how much difference might we expect if, say, 50 out of 80 were middle class or above? I.e., what if “Low absolute number of charters relative to voters” is more of the issue here?

    My other question: if the TV ads had featured the middle class families attending charters, instead of the urban ones, would that have mattered?

    • You raise an interesting issue regarding the second dynamic. Given the focus of MA charters on politically disadvantaged groups, I’m not sure that offering them a benefit in the referendum would make much of a difference, but it couldn’t have hurt. What could have been offered? An increase in charter per pupil spending?

      And yes the entire political campaign for Question 2 has been focused around helping disadvantaged families. This accurately reflects the thinking of most ed reformers, but it is not a way to win.

  5. Milton Friedman said “a program for the poor only is a poor program”.
    The current structure of the education industry (any industry, really) benefits somebody or it wouldn’t persist. Institutional change happens when political decision makers reevaluate their personal cost/benefit calculations. Because the education industry’s remote overseers don’t “feel your pain” and because they owe their position to current recipients of the taxpayers’ K-12-dedicated revenue stream, their calculations incline them to support the current system.
    Across the US the correlation (district size, $/pupil) is positive. Across the US the correlation (district size, NAEP score) is negative. Costs rise and performance falls as districts increase in size. There’s an exception: the correlation (district size, score) is positive for the subset “children of college-educated white parents”. These parents exert political influence beyond their numbers, so in large districts their kids get magnet schools and G/T classes. You have a better chance of persuading your legislature’s Education Committee to support vouchers or subsidized homeschooling than you have of persuading a hungry tiger not to eat you, but not by much.

  6. Ashley Jochim says:

    I also what effect excluding local authorizers has had on support. This relates to the point Jay makes about broadening the appeal but it goes beyond that to the extent that people like having some say in what kinds of charter schools get approved and how they might benefit their communities.

    • Travis Pillow says:

      This would also have had the potential to defang the most potent argument proponents can muster – the impact on existing public schools. If local authorizers had a say, they would presumably manage charter growth in a way that wouldn’t undermine traditional public schools. It wouldn’t have guaranteed the charter growth that proponents wanted, but it could have paved the way for some gains.

  7. Greg Forster says:

    In addition to naked self-interest, whose influence I would never discount, two more positive reasons programs are stronger when they’re universal:

    1) Norms of solidarity. Look at that Richard Whitmire quote. The underlying attitude is: “F— you, we hate you because you’ve wronged us and now you owe us, so pay up.” But the mobilization of grievances and resentments is more effective at getting demagogues elected than it is at enacting strong programs, which requires building coalitions. Strong programs are built on the rhetoric of solidarity: “We all benefit from this; it serves the common good.”

    2) Excluding middle and upper classes weakens the educational results because the limits on the number of customers prevent educational entrepreneurs from starting new schools, because you can’t serve the (rightly) high-risk-tolerance families willing to experiment with new approaches, etc.

  8. For what it’s worth, in Minnesota we’ve worked hard & successfully to make it possible to have chartered public schools all over the state – rural, suburban and urban.

    There are more charters in suburban and ex-urban areas than in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul

    We also have no caps on the # of charters permitted.

    There is a broad base of support because a variety of families see the value of having options – including district as well as chartered public schools.

  9. Tim says:

    I think you are discounting the fact that in densely populated metropolitan areas, a big chunk of a homeowner’s net worth is largely and directly tied to what types of students the local school district keeps in and what kind it keeps out. Choice is a big threat to that ecosystem; exclusivity and higher-end students are more valuable than the prospect of improvement through choice/competition. What you are proposing would be an exceptionally difficult sell to middle- and upper-middle-class Massachusettsians (or New Yorkers, Marylanders, etc.), and I generally think Whitmire’s read on this is the accurate one.

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