(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)
Following the exposure of all the errors, distortions, and key omissions in the recent NYT hatchet job on charter schools, the new line from the reporter and her teacher union allies is that the CREDO data is current only through 2011-12, but the charter cap was lifted starting in the 2012-13 school year. So sure, charters may have been outperforming district schools before “opening the floodgates,” but now the supposed “free market” (which, for the record, has no price mechanism, no free entry and exit, and lots of regulations regarding school mission, admission standards, testing, etc.) is letting in all sorts of bad actors.
But is there any hard evidence for this? Charter critics point to several anecdotes, but as Jay noted earlier, the plural of anecdote is not data. They’re simply grasping at straws.
Until CREDO updates their report or some other group tries to replicate it, we won’t have accurate apples-to-apples comparisons. Until then, we can’t conclusively reject or accept that hypothesis. But what data we do have cast doubt on it.
According to the Mackinac Center’s “2014 Michigan Public High School Context and Performance Report Card,” which used data through 2013, Michigan’s charter schools are punching above their weight: “Though charter schools make up just 11 percent of the schools ranked on this report card, they represent 35 percent of the top 20 ranked schools.” Two of the top 10 high schools in the state were charter schools in Detroit. The study awarded an “A” or “B” to four of the 14 Detroit charter high schools, while only two received an “F.” By contrast, 12 of 14 non-selective Detroit district schools received an “F.”
Results from their 2015 Elementary & Middle School Report Card are more mixed, but charters still come out slightly better.
The Great Lakes Education Project also broke down the 2015 M-STEP proficiency and found that Detroit’s charter schools–which must have open enrollment–outperformed Detroit’s open-enrollment district schools, although they lagged behind Detroit’s selective-enrollment district schools (and, frankly, none of the sectors have particularly stellar performance). Again, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, so we should be cautious in interpreting these data, but they certainly don’t lend support to the notion that the charter sector is particularly troubled.
Moreover, as shown in this infographic that GLEP put together, Detroit’s charters are over-represented among the top-performing schools and outperform Detroit’s district schools on average:
18 of the Top 25 schools in Detroit are Charter schools
22 of the Bottom 25 schools in Detroit are DPS schools
Charter average: 14.6%
DPS average: 9.0%
Charters are 62% more proficient than DPS
71 charters (79%) perform ABOVE the DPS average and 19 charters schools (21%) perform BELOW the DPS average.
20 DPS schools (30%) perform ABOVE the DPS average and 46 DPS schools (70%) perform BELOW the DPS average.
12 DPS schools (18%) perform ABOVE the charter average and 54 DPS schools (82%) perform BELOW the charter average.
40 charter schools (44%) perform ABOVE the charter average and 50 charter schools (56%) perform BELOW the charter average.
To reiterate yet again, these are not apples-to-apples comparisons. For that we will need another carefully matched comparison, like the CREDO studies, or (better yet) a random-assignment study. But until then, charter critics should be more circumspect in their allegations. Certainly there is plenty of room for improvement in both Detroit’s charter and district schools. But the charter critics have not presented any hard evidence that Detroit’s charter sector is particularly troubled, or that the increased choice and competition is at fault for the poor performance in either sector (especially since Detroit’s district schools have been seriously troubled for decades).
Neither Detroit’s charter schools nor their district schools are above criticism. But critics should put their criticism in its proper context — and be sure to bring evidence.
(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)
In a recent essay, Andy Smarick proposed democratically controlled charter authorizers:
If a city has a large charter sector, state government could create a new authorizer with an elected board (or require existing authorizers to move to elected boards). That democratically controlled authorizer would then have a performance contract with each of the city’s public schools, including those operated by the district.
Smarick’s “middle path” approach is an interesting idea that’s worth consideration, but education reformers should have serious reservations about it. In particular, it’s not clear what the problem is that this approach is trying solve or why this approach wouldn’t lead to the same problems that political control over traditional district schools has caused.
Smarick’s case rests on the claim that “communities” are “demanding more democratic control.” But are they? Which communities? Or, more precisely, which voices in those communities? After all, it’s exceedingly rare that everyone in a given community speaks with one voice. And what are these voices saying? Smarick name-checks a few cities but cites no evidence that would answer any of these questions. He merely asserts that “authority that is both local and democratic has also been in demand.” Okay, sure, maybe. But it’s still not clear why ed reformers should accede to these (anonymous) demands.
A community’s voters want to have a say over what types of schools exist, what constitutes “good schools,” who runs them, how an area’s culture and traditions are passed on, and much more. Decisions are more reflective of the public’s will when these issues are litigated through the democratic process. Additionally, we can have faith that the discussion is transparent, that people feel agency, and that the results—even if imperfect—will be durable and respected.
Are any of these claims necessarily true?
On Twitter, Smarick claimed that a democratically controlled charter board’s “incentives [and] ability to interfere [with] schools drop dramatically when board authorizes but does not operate schools.” Possibly. But as Jay pointed out yesterday, traditional school boards don’t “operate” the district schools either, yet there is plenty of room for mischief. After all, Smarick himself argued that these boards should decide what “types” of schools exist and what constitutes a “good” school. That’s an awful lot of control.
As Smarick himself recognizes, elected boards shift power away from families to “the community” (i.e., whichever group can seize political control). As he explained:
Today’s decentralized systems of choice empower families and enable a wide array of options, but they inhibit the community’s ability to shape the contours of the local school system.
It seems that Smarick — who is generally quite conservative — is embracing the progressives’ preference for political control over mediating institutions that Yuval Levin has so insightfully described:
Progressives in America have always viewed those mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the government with suspicion, seeing them as instruments of division, prejudice, and selfishness or as power centers lacking in democratic legitimacy. They have sought to empower the government to rationalize the life of our society by clearing away those vestiges of backwardness and putting in their place public programs and policies motivated by a single, cohesive understanding of the public interest. This clearing away has in some cases consisted of crowding out the mediating institutions by taking over some of their key functions through direct government action. In other cases, it has involved turning elements of civil society and the private economy into arms of government policy — by requiring compliance with policy goals that are foreign to many civil-society institutions or consolidating key sectors of the economy and offering protection to large corporations willing to act as public utilities or to advance policymakers’ priorities.
I hope that Smarick will reconsider his support for empowering the government at the expense of school autonomy and families’ preferences. Perhaps the angel on his right shoulder will whisper Yuval Levin’s counsel into his ear:
Conservatives have always resisted such gross rationalization of society, however, and insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolved social institutions — from families and civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, charitable enterprises, private companies, and complex markets — will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. The life of a society consists of more than moving resources around, and what happens in that vital space between the individual and the government is at least as much a matter of character formation as of material provision and wealth creation.
As I noted above, I do believe that Smarick’s proposal merits serious consideration. Although I don’t think he has made a strong case for a democratically controlled charter board, I do think he’s onto something when he says that there is strong demand for democracy, at least in some quarters. That said, I think the more viable “middle path” is down a different road. There are numerous mediating institutions in society that engage in democratic decision-making, but only members have a vote. Instead of giving a vote to everyone in the community — wolves and sheep alike — perhaps charter schools could give a vote to parents of students who are enrolled there. This way, parents who want democratic agency can enroll their children in democratically run charters, while other parents can choose schools that have different missions, and in no case will outside special interests be able to seize control.
I’m sure there are other arrangements that could also achieve the balance that Smarick seeks. But please: don’t give power to the wolves!
(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)
Yesterday, Checker Finn and Brandon Wright of the Fordham Institute published an essay highlighting three “market malfunctions” in the charter school sector. What they highlighted instead were primarily government malfunctions.
The first “market” malfunction they identify is the apparent lack of congruence between supply and demand:
As rapidly as it’s grown (6,800+ schools at last count), the supply of charters has not keep up with demand in most places. (Estimates of the total waiting list go as high as a million kids.) All sorts of political, budgetary, and statutory obstacles have limited the number, size, and locations of charter schools.
Political, budgetary, and statutory obstacles… these are market malfunctions?
Skipping number two for a moment, their third supposed “market” malfunction is the problem of what they call “distracted suppliers”:
Many charters are strapped for funds. They feel overregulated by their states, heckled by their authorizers, and politically stressed, so the people running them often struggle to keep their heads above water (which includes keeping enrollments up). They have little energy or resources to expend on becoming more rigorous or investing in stronger curricula and more experienced instructors.
Strapped for funds when the law prevents them from charging their customers anything. Overregulated by their states. Politically stressed.
Again, my Fordham friends, these are market malfunctions?
Their second concern is the closest they come to identifying a market malfunction: weak consumer information.
Even where parents are mindful of school quality and try their best to be discerning, consumer information in this marketplace remains incomplete, hard to access, and difficult to understand. State report cards are ubiquitous yet lacking. Even when they adequately display academic achievement in tested subjects, they cannot begin to convey all the other information that goes into a sound school choice. What, for example, does the school truly value? Are its classrooms quiet and orderly or lively and engaged? How does it handle character development? Discipline? Disabilities? Do students and teachers like it there or flee as soon as possible? The list goes on.
Yes, the market (as well as the government) has failed thus far to provide bountiful, accessible, and high-quality information about most schools. I’ve explained how the market could accomplish this (e.g., a combination of private certification, expert reviews, and consumer reviews) and there are some organizations already trying to fill this gap (e.g., GreatSchools), but there’s still much more to do.
Of course, one reason that there are so few third-party organizations providing such information is that the government crowds them out, both by providing their own scorecards (which Finn and Wright find wanting) and by operating a massive system of “free” district schools that crowd out private alternatives.
So again: you call these market malfunctions?
(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Randi was in full “make stuff up” mode today, making the video above all the more welcome. After a few paragraphs of feverish conspiracy mongering regarding charter schools being a “coordinated national effort to decimate public schools” (er, Randi, charters are public schools…) Randi stated “To make matters worse, many charters cherry-pick their students, leaving cash-strapped public schools with higher populations of students with special or high needs, further tipping the scales.”
Evidence? She don’t need no stinking evidence!
In addition to the points made by the video about magnet schools and charter school admission lotteries, it is worth noting that district schools routinely “cherry pick” by family income through attendance boundaries encompassing high-priced real estate.
(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
The early 1980s punk rock band Fear famously destroyed the set of Saturday Night Live (the gif above is from their SNL performance-SNL’s invitation to Fear to perform and bring some fans having been one of the greatest really terrible decisions of all time). In any case, Fear had a song called Let’s Have a War. Like most punk bands of the era Fear was out to frighten the parents of 15 year olds and draw attention to themselves with outrageous antics. The lyrics of Let’s Have a War (not to be confused with another Fear classic Bomb the Russians) as I recall went something along the lines of:
Let’s Have a War!
Jack up the Dow Jones!
Let’s Have a War!
It can start in New Jersey!
Ok Ladner where are you going with this? Right, so a refrain in the song:
It’s Already Started!
So out here in the Arizona cactus patch, the looming age of (relative) financial austerity and efficiency has already started. The people who work in the school system feel very grouchy about it, but where things stand today is much better than the recent past.
So let’s go back to the world of 1992 Arizona (blue columns). Arizona operated as a high-tax state in those days and the school districts were almost the only game in town (Arizona has always had a low rate of private school attendance). The state had a majority Anglo K-12 population in those days, but unfortunately those Arizona Anglo students weren’t terribly skilled on average at reading English. Now mind you, they had proficiency rates 2.8 times higher than Arizona’s Hispanic student population at the time, but that provides little comfort.
What does this translate to today, in 2015, now that the class of 2000 have aged into the prime working years of their mid 30s? Let’s just say that many firms find it necessary to recruit nationally when searching for job candidates. No one was hoping for an overall reading proficiency rate in the low 20s in 1992, but we got it anyway.
Now let’s look at the 4th grade reading scores for the Class of 2021 (red columns). While these results leave a great deal to be desired, they are profoundly improved over the 1992 4th grade results. Arizona closed the gap for Anglo students with the national average, but failed to do so with Hispanic students.
Hispanics now constitute a plurality of Arizona K-12 students. A 17% reading proficiency rate constitutes a looming catastrophe for the Arizona of 2030 and beyond. Thus while we should recognize the fact that Arizona’s academic outcomes have improved greatly, we should also recognize that the state has a desperate need for still greater gains. Note however that all of those nasty policies that Diane Ravitch hates: standardized testing, charter schools, private school choice, etc. all started phasing in around 1994 in Arizona, and that the 2013 NAEP had the highest average scores in state history despite funding cuts and a large transition in student demographics. This does not constitute final glorious victory, but certainly progress.
Arizona is a relatively poor state with an unusually small working age population (lots of old retirees and young kids). Rapidly growing states tend to rank towards the bottom of state rankings of per pupil funding, and will do all the more so if lots of the state has either retired or is still in school. Arizona does have a large number of wealthy retirees, but let’s just say that many of them have other residences in addition to their get out of the cold spot, and this means they have the opportunity to avoid paying Arizona income tax.
The Great Recession was an elbow in the face to Arizona’s housing dependent economy followed by a swift kick to the head. (To you non-Gen X readers this is mosh-pit imagery consistent with the punk rock theme of this blog post). Once the federal stimulus money ran out real declines in per-pupil spending commenced. This document from JLBC shows that the inflation adjusted spending per pupil in the Arizona public school system dropped from $9,438 in 2007 to $7828 in 2014.
Outrageous! Horrible! Get a rope!
Slow down on the lynch mob. The 2007 number basically represented the height of the property bubble and all of the funny money that it brought flowing into state coffers. Arizona had spent far less than that per pupil in the past, and the height of a bubble does not make for a good mental entitlement point. When the state had money, it increased K-12 spending. There has been joy before, there may be joy again, but the state can’t spend money it doesn’t have.
Of course we could raise taxes. This however is governed by a little thing called democracy. We had a governor’s election in 2014. One candidate promised to balance the state’s spending and revenues without raising taxes. The other claimed that he would not raise taxes but also campaigned on increasing K-12 spending. Arizona elected candidate A (Doug Ducey) by an overwhelming margin. A few years earlier, the school district industrial lobbying complex put a painfully convoluted ballot proposition to increase taxes for education spending on the ballot. The public rejected it by a huge margin. We have regular elections for state legislature. The voters have continued to elect a pretty conservative bunch and well, they had other options available to them.
Arizona voters did endorse a sales tax increase almost a decade and a half ago to increase the state’s base funding amount to inflation. The interpretation of this provision is currently a matter of legal dispute between the legislature and the industrial complex, but the resolution seems unlikely to result in a game changing amount of funding regardless of the outcome. Arizona doesn’t have a game changing amount of money to give to schools within the tax structure that voters have both explicitly and implicitly endorsed.
More importantly, Arizona’s 2013 NAEP scores were not only higher than 1992- they were higher than 2007. Between 2007 and 2013 Arizona NAEP trends: 8 point gain in 4th grade math, four point gain in 8th grade math, three-point gain in 4th grade reading, five point gain in 8th grade reading. The proper term to describe an increase in outputs with decreased inputs: efficiency gain.
The folks working in the schools feel very grouchy. Unlike the risible bellyaching before the onset of the Great Recession (when spending increased and everyone had enrollment growth) they have a much more serious case to make in the current context. Running a school district in Arizona right about now is not an easy task- your per pupil funding has declined and your student count is more likely than not to be dropping. Tough decisions lie ahead on a worryingly large number of half-empty district facilities. You are having a tough time finding teachers as your Baby Boomers retire.
It’s already started in Arizona. Currently we are in year 5 of what you can either view as an age of austerity, or an era of improving efficiency depending on whether you view matters through a provider or a taxpayer lens. The Census Bureau projects large increases in Arizona’s youth and elderly populations over the next 15 years.
It’s not likely to get any easier. Arizona’s need for more effective and cost effective education delivery will continue to grow over time regardless of how much we choose to lament the need for change.
(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Thus far I am aware of a tax-credit improvements in Alabama and Arizona, new special education scholarship programs in Arkansas and Mississippi, and many other measures pending in many other states. I think it is safe to say that Greg will once again defeat Jay Mathews in the over/under of 7 enactments.
While we celebrate yet another Greg victory, it may be a good time to pose a different question for ourselves: how many states have enacted a choice program or a combination of choice programs sufficiently robust to see a growth in private education in the face of a strong charter school law? A Rand Corp study found private schools will lose one student for every three gained by charter schools in Michigan. We would not expect to find an exact match for this nationwide, but charter schools do by definition draw upon the universe of would-be choosers: parents who are looking for alternatives outside of their zoned district school. It makes sense that they would have a larger impact on private education.
If we assume the Michigan finding to be roughly equivalent to a national average, then we can proceed to check the tape. First charter school enrollment by state:
Next private choice program enrollment by state (from the Alliance for School Choice Yearbook):
So how many states have one-third or more as many private choice students as charter school students? Indiana is matching private choice students with charter school students despite a strong charter law thus far, and so is the leader in the clubhouse. Florida barely met the 1 private choice for 3 charter school students standard between the combination of the corporate tax credit program and the McKay Scholarship program. Without new revenue sources however growth in the Florida tax credit will stall in the next few years even as statewide student growth continues. Moreover Florida charter schools have almost certainly drawn a relatively advantaged group of students from private schools (charter schools have universal eligibility). The private choice programs have been aiding only low-income and children with disabilities and providing significantly fewer resources than those students receive in public schools (smaller tax credit scholarships in the case of low-income children, no local top-up funds in the case of McKay students).
Florida lawmakers have been busy improving the ability for high quality charter operators to open new schools (as they should) but balked last year at providing new tax credit revenue sources. Absent some large policy changes Florida will soon slip below the 1 to 3 ratio.
Iowa met the standard because of a healthy and growing tax credit program and a weak charter school law (3 total schools), so give them an *. Wisconsin meets the bar with the combination of private choice programs and a charter school program that (last I heard) is still bottled up in Milwaukee, so kind of an * too.
The Illinois and PA programs would require some sort of estimate regarding the price elasticity of demand for private schooling, but I’ll just heroically guess that charter schools have the better end of the deal in those states. Arizona and Ohio have more than three charter students for every private choice student. Other states like California, Michigan, New York and Texas seem content to watch their charter school sector batter their private school sectors into gravel.
Bear in mind that this comparison would look even more lopsided if we counted dollars rather than students. For instance the average tax credit scholarship in Arizona runs around $2,000 while the average charter school receives around $7,000 per pupil. Very few of the private choice programs come near to matching the per pupil level of subsidy provided to charter, much less district schools. Emblematic of this failure was the choice of 12 Catholic schools in Washington D.C. to give up the ghost and convert to charter schools after a (poorly designed) voucher bill had passed.
The goal of the private choice movement should not be to preserve a preexisting stock of private schools per se, but rather to allow parental demand to drive the supply of school seats. Those District of Columbia Catholic schools did not convert to charters because the parents were clamoring for it, but rather because the Congress had offered almost twice as much money per pupil to do it. States like Texas invest hundreds of millions of dollars per year into a charter sector that draws disproportionately from private schools while providing parents who would prefer a private education for their child nothing but the prospect of struggling to pay their school taxes and private school costs simultaneously.
Seen in this context, many private choice victories seem worthy but incremental. Incremental change is the equilibrium point of American politics, but the choice movement needs more Indiana style successes. Once more unto the breach dear friends…