Fifteen hundred charter schools have been established nationwide since 1991, enrolling 300,000 schoolchildren. The original idea was for parents and teachers, with educational visions, to establish independent publicly funded schools, free from regulations that impede innovation. Superior results would stimulate imitation by regular schools. Charters have been endorsed by both liberal reformers and conservative critics of public education.
Chester Finn, Jr., Bruno Manno, and Greg Vanourek are among the latter. (Finn, Ronald Reagan's assistant secretary of education, typically speaks for conservative Republicans in education controversies.) In the authors' Manichaean view, charter schools are not a mere incremental reform, but challenge everything regular schools represent. To justify this polarization, they view public education through a misfocused lens.
A frequent conservative ploy, repeated in this book, is to assert that because public schools are so awful, any alternative is superior. Actual evidence about school shortcomings is unnecessary because, allegedly, parents have already issued their verdict by "voting with their feet--private school enrollments are rising." This claim is so commonplace that facts can be jarring. Actually, the share of privately educated students has been declining. In 1998, 11.2 percent of elementary schoolchildren were in private schools, down from 11.7 percent in 1988. Even with home-schoolers added to the private total, the private share is still stagnant. Not only have Catholic schools lost working-class parishioners, but affluent families are also choosing private schools less frequently, enrolling their children in public schools instead. Polls find Americans quite satisfied with the public schools their children attend (Finn and colleagues term this "complacency") and register dissatisfaction only with schools overall, in which case information comes from the media, not from experience.
Another nostrum repeated in Charter Schools in Action is that public schools today function like "antiquated" factories from the "horse and buggy" era. Charter schools, on the other hand, are flexible, reflecting insights of modern corporate management.
However much schools need improvement, the ossification charge is absurd. Curricula and pedagogies change constantly. Pupil-teacher ratios have declined by about 40 percent since the middle of the twentieth century. As late as 1950, median male adults had completed nine years of school; today, they have some college education.
Competition from charters is now one stimulus for change, but not the primary one. Indeed, public schools reform so rapidly that methods are barely assimilated before new fads emerge. Standardized tests change so frequently that scores are not comparable from one year to the next. Preschool is being added as an entitlement. Schools teach conceptual math, then replace it with "basics." Reading pedagogy swings wildly from phonics to "whole language" and back. Bilingual education is implemented in some places, prohibited elsewhere. But as Finn and his colleagues see it, were it not for charter schools, education reform would be "nearing paralysis." Perhaps these reforms are unimportant, but this is no horse-and-buggy system.
Exaggerating schools' shortcomings invites a lesser burden of proof that alternatives might work. A fed-up public may be willing to try anything. Charter Schools in Action takes this approach: Despite "barrels of good intentions, reform efforts have yielded meager dividends." Again, evidence shows otherwise. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are higher than a generation ago, especially in math. More students take advanced placement courses and pass them. The gap between minority and white scores has narrowed. Academic content of diplomas has risen. Much remains to be done, but these are not "meager dividends." Charter schools' superiority needs be proven, not assumed.
Setting up a voucher system, in which parents get government funds for private school tuition, has been many conservatives' aim, although chances of leveraging small programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida into universal schemes are not good. But privatization can also be accomplished by giving public funds directly to private schools. Whether you think this is what charters do depends upon whether you consider them "public" or "private" schools. At one extreme, publicly funded but unregulated schools represent "private education," as most of us understand the term. As more standards are imposed, schools become more public. A publicly funded school that must implement minimum curricula, administer state tests, and admit students without discrimination is clearly "public."
This book's inconsistency is that it defends charters so unregulated that they are private in all but name, yet proposes new regulations more stringent than any presently conceived. The authors rarely find existing regulations of which they approve. States that forbid private schools from converting to charters for the sole purpose of tapping into public treasuries, states that "burden" charters with teacher certification requirements, or states that do not "automatically" waive other regulations are deemed by the authors to have "limp" statutes in need of "the legislative equivalent of Viagra."
Charter schools now encompass a wide range of sins and virtues. Any book attempting to promote or condemn them in toto will be inconsistent. When initially conceived by liberals, the idea was for charters to be free from most regulations in exchange for proven academic results. "If we can't demonstrate the outcomes," said one proponent, "we're not entitled to the deregulation." Other conditions also maintained the schools' "public" character. Charters would be open to all, with students admitted by lottery, without admission requirements or exams to create unrepresentative student bodies. They could not charge tuition to supplement public funds. They could not teach religion.
These requirements, however, have gone mostly unenforced. Many charters pioneer pedagogies that should be imitated by regular schools. But private schools have converted to charters, functioning as before but with public funds. Some charters solicit extra parental contributions. Lottery requirements are circumvented when schools don't advertise openings or headmasters "counsel" unwanted parents away.
Yes, wide variation among charters made this book difficult to write, but the authors duck the most obvious contradictions. They claim "charters tap into Americans' propensity for civic engagement ... not unlike the village schools of the early 19th century. [They] would have raised no eyebrows on Alexis de Tocqueville." This makes sense when applied to parent/teacher-run alternative schools. But it's hard to see village life recreated by the Edison Schools, Inc., now accumulating charters to make it one of the largest school districts in the nation. Enforcing uniform curricula, Edison needs be as hierarchical as any school system, sorely testing Tocquevillian eyebrows. Yet such corporate chains don't provoke the authors to reconsider whether charters are "diverse, selfgoverning educational institutions ... without ... bureaucratic management."
Some charters only mask chicanery, like virtual "schools" that pass public funds through to home-schoolers. In one case, California prohibited a charter from giving its public money to home-schoolers for purchasing equipment (like home computers) not characteristically supplied to regular school students. After home-schoolers marched in Sacramento to halt enforcement of what Finn and colleagues term a "narrow interpretation," the state retreated. But the authors lament that the charter wasted "two years of time and energy on fighting the bureaucracy."
The authors suggest that charters, accountable for results but "free to produce those results as they think best," are inspired by corporate decentralization. "Individual units within [a modern] firm," they allege, "have wide latitude to operate as they see fit, so long as they deliver the desired bottom line." This is misleading. Corporate plant managers may have greater discretion about which suppliers to patronize and are accountable for meeting quotas, but they also follow thousands of detailed engineering specifications, personnel regulations, and other guidelines.
This flawed analogy comforts the authors when they describe the "genius" of charters as "tight as to ends, loose as to means." Separating results from technologies sounds good, but it takes no moral philosopher to know that ends and means can't so neatly be distinguished. How we define outcomes restricts how schools can reach them. Balance in standardized writing exams between creative expression and ability to spot grammatical errors will determine how schools teach English. Contradictions abound: Finn and colleagues, for example, say the state should prescribe promotion standards, yet they praise charters experimenting with multi-age grouping. They want standardized tests but praise charters that use portfolio assessments. They say charters with "eccentric curricula, unproven methods, new-age practices" should not be "overregulated" or closed, but recommend a required "coherent academic core ... limit[ing] the opportunity for unbridled curricular diversity." It is disconcerting to find simultaneous appeals to incompatible streams of the charter movement in a single volume.
Because charter and regular school practices overlap, an ideological book like this must praise charters for activities that, in regular schools, it condemns. It describes Fenton, a regular Los Angeles school whose faculty voted to convert to charter status and whose "autonomy has led to accomplishments that would have been impossible under the thumbs of district and union," such as reducing class size to 20 in grades K-3. Yet California implemented similar reductions statewide. As evidence of another accomplishment, the authors report Fenton "restored a 10 percent district-wide staff pay cut." But they fail to mention that the cut was also restored in regular schools. More important, these authors attack uniform salary schedules as a cause of regular schools' alleged malfeasance. Notwithstanding their Fenton example, they claim charter schools grant only merit raises to individual teachers who demonstrate improved student performance. Finn would never consider a 10 percent boost for all teachers to be evidence of success in regular schools.
Or consider the 230-student Higley school district that profits from Arizona's charter law. Higley issued charters to 28 schools statewide that had no relationship to Higley's students or program. Each school then collected state funds from which it paid up to $100,000 annually to Higley for its charter. Higley taxpayers maintain a public school at less cost to themselves, and the 28 charters operate free from annoying supervision. One can imagine the outrage of critics if similar shenanigans were discovered in the regular system. Yet the authors gush that "America had yet another example of the changes being wrought by the charter phenomenon in the customary structures ... of public education."
Though quick to see bureaucrats' malign hand in attempts to hold charters to their nominally public missions, Finn, Manno, and Vanourek acknowledge that if charters are to fulfill their promise, there must be "clear standards, good assessments, and consequences for everyone." Yet in actual practice, charters today are rarely held accountable for poor academic performance. While a few charters have been shut down for financial reporting violations, none has been closed for failing to raise test scores. The authors admit there is "sparse achievement data" (the "jury is still out" on charters' academic effectiveness, they say) but conclude charters are successful because students, parents, and teachers think highly of them. This satisfaction is not viewed as "complacency."
Lack of evidence of superior achievement is nonetheless troubling, and, to their credit, Finn, Manno and Vanourek propose a new and comprehensive accountability system. Indeed, their proposal should apply to both charter and regular schools. It should also be republished without the accompanying undisciplined panegyrics to unaccountable charters.
It's an "accountability via transparency" system where every charter "regularly pump[s] information out into view," including goals, curriculum, and performance, so "readers can easily compare this school's achievement with other[s']." Test scores should be "reported in absolute terms (how students are performing vis-à-vis the school's standards), in value-added terms (how much more they know at the end of a ... year than at the beginning), and in comparative terms (in relation to ... other schools)." Public authorities should intervene to reform or close underperformers. Schools unfairly held accountable should pursue judicial appeals. The authors, curiously, see such appeals as a defense against an "autocratic bureaucracy that always enjoys the last word," but similar checks and balances in regular districts create the bureaucracy these critics hate.
But this is not all. Because critics like Finn want to prove innovative charters successful, tests of accountability must become more sophisticated, going beyond standardized tests and adjusting for variation in goals and students. How charters using portfolio assessments could be compared to regular schools using standardized tests is unexplained. However, the authors do confront the most vexing problem facing American education: the role of family characteristics in determining achievement. Children from literate homes will typically be more successful than children without this advantage. Even good schools filled with disadvantaged children will post low scores. While there are some very bad inner-city schools, there are also good ones where scores remain below the norm.
While it is commonplace for critics to indiscriminately call public schools with low scores "failing," these authors properly propose a different standard for charters. They acknowledge that news about test scores at charters is "not always bright." But here, they want to examine explanations they would view as excuses in regular schools: "When comparing schools, it is also important to match pupil demographics." A school with difficult children "may actually be more successful ... though its test scores are lower." Published accountability reports should be "broken down by relevant demographic categories (e.g., gender, ethnicity, and family income)."
This is a remarkable proposal from conservative school critics and could transform our presently unproductive debates about public education. Although some states have begun to disaggregate test scores by demographic subgroups, they are ambivalent about whether this should affect accountability. Will conservatives now examine regular schools in this light before determining whether they require the rescue of semiprivatization?
These ambivalent authors propose rigorous accountability for charters but fail to recognize this for the public regulatory scheme it is. Perhaps doing so would cause them to break with radical conservatives espousing an antigovernment ideology. Someone should resolve the contradiction, but this book hasn't done so. ¤