Charter schools are under attack. They are being blamed for draining money from traditional public school coffers. They are being blamed for increasing school segregation. They are called “tools of billionaires.” They are accused of trying to profit off of the public purse by cutting corners and shortchanging students.
For the record, I don’t think this is true. I’d argue that the research is actually more tilted in the charters’ favor than opponents are wont to admit. And I’d argue that with respect to finances, student mobility has been a feature of schools for time immemorial and I don’t see anyone saying that their neighboring district “drains money” from their local public schools. Many problems that public schools have (underfunding, segregation, low teacher-pay) existed long before charter schools were ever on the scene, which makes it difficult for charters to have caused them. And, of course, no child is forced to attend a charter school, so the easiest way to prevent kids from leaving traditional public schools for charters is to make the school attractive enough that they want to stay.
But that is not actually the point I want to make here. I’d like to take a minute to think about how we argue about education policy.
Labels are powerful, for good and for ill. Too often in education policy, it is for the ill. Labels like “charter schools” or “traditional public school” become either a kind of epithet or a term of endearment, rather than a descriptive term. This short-circuits the serious thinking that should be done about what policies should be promoted and where.
When thinking about education policy, it’s important to focus on the thing that we care about, not the label it has or the baggage that comes along with that label. As it turns out, when we move beyond labels, the world gets a lot less black and white. Rather than seeing things as 100% good or 100% bad, we can see them for what they do and do not do, and line those things up with the things that we need to get done.
Think of it this way.
Traditional public schools have strengths and weaknesses.
Charter schools have strengths and weaknesses.
Private schools have strengths and weaknesses.
For-profit organizations have strengths and weaknesses.
Nonprofit organizations have strengths and weaknesses.
Public institutions have strengths and weaknesses.
Private institutions have strengths and weaknesses.
Local government has strengths and weaknesses.
State governments have strengths and weaknesses.
The federal government has strengths and weaknesses.
And on and on and on.
Rather than focusing on the label, citizens and policymakers need to ask two questions:
1. What problem are we trying to solve?
2. What type of organization (or level of government) is best positioned to solve that problem?
Doing so will have two positive results. First, this can lead to a more productive conversation. If people are debating the pros and cons of particular organizations or institutions, rather than making holistic judgments about who is good or who is evil, a genuine exchange of ideas can take place. Charter school leaders are not going to engage in a debate with someone who leads with the assertion that charter schools are “destroying public education.” But nor should traditional public school leaders allow charter advocates to act as if everyone is their sector is pure as the driven snow.
Charter schools are not the solution to every problem in education. But are there problems in education that they can solve? Surely even those who are skeptical of charter schools can identify a least a couple. Right? The same is true for traditional public schools and the same is true for private schools.
Second, a better discussion can lead to better solutions. Matching the right organization or institution to the right problem can help solve it. Matching the wrong one can make it worse.
But it’s not just charter schools. For-profit organizations are great at attracting capital so that they can scale quickly, promoting efficiency, and changing nimbly. For problems that need large solutions quickly without a lot of money, for-profit operators can play a positive role. Some problems, though, don’t need massive scale quickly, and efficiency and nimble change are second or third order concerns. In those cases, for-profit operators can do more harm than good.
Local governments are closer to the people, which can make them more responsive to the needs of communities and more representative of the voices who live there. But they also have limited capacity and can, through the tyranny of majorities, run roughshod over minority opinions or populations. If you need a fine-grained solution with lots of gradations and distinctions, local government are the folks to do it. But, if you need to amass a lot of resources or feel that it is important to protect certain rights or require certain obligations even if they are unpopular in a particular community, it might be a state or federal solution that you’re looking for.
In both of these cases it is not that one is “right” and one is “wrong” or one is “good” and one is “bad.” Rather, some solutions are better tuned to certain problems than others.
I hope in the future, rather than hearing whether a school is charter or traditional, for-profit or nonprofit, or a solution is local, state, or federal, and then stopping the analysis there, folks will dig deeper into the actual issue at hand, weigh the pros and cons, and come to a more informed decision. I know that’s a lot to ask in America in 2019, but a guy can dream, can’t he?