Controversy: Charters and Choice

Joe Nathan

Rosa Parks—yes, that Rosa Parks—recently applied to open a charter school in Detroit. That's one of many things omitted in Richard Rothstein's critique of the charter public school movement ["Charter Conundrum," TAP, July-August 1998]. As a researcher, a former teacher in inner-city public schools, and a former PTA president whose three children attend integrated city public schools, I see great value in the charter school idea. Some say schools can't be expected to significantly improve the achievement of low-income students other than by rectifying the underlying problems—such as drugs, single-parent families, poor nutrition, and a host of others—that come with a low-income existence. But liberal charter proponents, such as Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, don't believe that acknowledging the existence of these problems (and trying to fix them) means justifying the acceptance of poor achievement by low-income students.

We need to talk about the reality of public schools, not just the theory. I'll concentrate on three realities:


  • The current public education system features a deeply inequitable school choice system, based on wealth and residence. Charter schools decrease this inequity.



  • It is both possible and desirable to hold schools accountable for results.



  • The charter approach is having a positive impact on a number of school districts.



Let's take these one at a time.

Public school inequity. Rothstein says charters aren't needed because the existing system offers enough choice. But Gallup polls find that more than 60 percent of African Americans disagree.

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We have a deeply inequitable public school system in which the wealthy already have school choice: middle- and upper-income families can always move to exclusive suburbs, where the price of admission to "public" schools is the ability to buy a home and pay real estate taxes. Low- and moderate-income families generally don't have this ability. Thus those, like Rothstein, who defend the current public education system are in fact defending a massive, informal school choice system based on wealth and residence—arg uably the most inequitable system imaginable. As one inner-city activist recently said to a charter school critic: "How dare you insist we send our children to schools you will do anything to avoid for your children?" Charter schools represent a much fairer approach to school choice than either vouchers or elite magnet schools. Rothstein says innovations like magnet schools mean we don't need charters. But more than half of secondary magnets use admissions tests. Thus they end up underserving low-income students and students who have failed in traditional schools. Many charter school proponents (myself included) favor prohibiting admissions tests for all publicly funded schools. Most charter laws wisely prohibit the kind of admissions tests that magnets use. The charter approach expands options for families who have the fewest options now. That's one of the reasons why people like Ms. Parks support it.

The "myth" of accountability. Mr. Rothstein does a good job of presenting the complexities of student assessment. He notes that tests differ and that "there is no consensus about how to assess educational outcomes objectively." But it does not necessarily follow, as Rothstein concludes that it does, that the idea of holding schools accountable for results is a "myth." Many states and districts have agreed on ways to measure achievement. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform has developed "tools for accountability," for example, to help educators and parents evaluate schools (check out the Web site to see how these work). Not all charters will improve achievement, of course, but part of the charter idea is that ineffective schools will be closed. Despite Rothstein's assertion that "charter schools never lose their charters for academic malpractice," the Minnesota Board of Education did close a charter this year. As Jeanne Kling, chair of the state board, explained, "We closed the school because it did not improve student achievement." In fairness, this apparently happened after Mr. Rothstein submitted his manuscript. Nevertheless, this suggests that charters can be held accountable.

Giving up on the idea of accountability means giving up on the possibility of measurable improvement. Unfortunately, many liberals have low expectations for the public schools. Expectations matter. High expectations help produce high results; low expectations yield low results. Researchers studying teacher expectations found that students whose teachers thought they would do well in school did significantly better than students whose teachers thought they would fail. The same is true for schools: if we expect them to improve achievement, it's more likely they will. Which approach will be more useful to inner-city and rural families frustrated by their public schools? There is Rothstein's approach: Evaluation is too complex; we can't hold schools accountable. And there is the charter approach: Despite evaluation's imperfections, we can assess whether students are doing better, learning more, over three to five years—and we can expect schools to improve achievement.

A growing impact. The charter movement has grown in seven years from one state to 33 states, from one school to about 1,100. Examples abound of school districts where the establishment of charter schools led the local system to innovate and improve, or forced formerly intransigent bureaucracies to give way. For example, parents in Colorado tried for six years to convince the local district to replicate several small, innovative alternative schools. The district refused. Then Colorado passed a charter law. Over the next eighteen months, the district replicated all its existing alternative options and added new ones. Rothstein praises Boston's "pilot schools" program as an innovation taking place without charter status. But the district might never have implemented the pilot school program without the passage of the Massachusetts charter law. Before the law passed, officials of the Boston teachers union had proposed allowing educators to create new schools. The Boston school board refused. Then the law passed permitting the state to authorize charters. Recognizing that it could lose many students, as well as some of its best teachers, the district accepted the union's proposal. Kent Matheson, former state superintendent of the year, says Arizona's charter law helped encourage his district to improve its elementary schools, to create a new school, and to be more welcoming to parents. Teachers and school administrators around the country tell similar stories: regular public school systems benefited from the creativity and reform stimulated by the appearance of charter schools in their districts.

Charters also open up new opportunities for educators frustrated by red tape and resistance to change. Former Arizona teacher of the year Karen Butterfield felt stifled in her district—so she opened a charter. Former national teacher of the year Tracey Bailey has joined Florida's Department of Education to help others start charters.

Unions have begun to recognize that charters might be the solution to bureaucratic stickiness. In 1992 the National Education Association (NEA) told Congress that it was "unalterably opposed" to allocating federal funds to help create charter schools. Today, the NEA is spending $1.5 million to help NEA members start charters. And American Federation of Teachers locals in Houston, Dallas, and Philadelphia are helping create charters.

Isn't it time to acknowledge that public education is deeply inequitable and deeply frustrating to many families and educators? The charter movement is helping students and helping change the system. It is bringing new hope and opportunity to students, families, educators, and communities.



Richard Rothstein


Joe Nathan has been one of the nation's most aggressive and prominent crusaders for charter schools. His response to my article illustrates the limitations of the messianic approach taken by many charter proponents.

"Charter Conundrum" de scribed a complex landscape where some charters may prod regular schools to improve (it noted, for example, that Boston's "pilot schools" were stimulated by competition from charters), but where others may reduce educational quality. My strongest criticism was directed at the "bait and switch" strategy that charter advocates have adopted: building public support for charter schools by claiming they would be more accountable, then ignoring this promise as charters find themselves no more (and no less) accountable than regular schools. Typical is Joe Nathan's claim (in his book, Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education) that all charter schools "must show improved student performance on standardized tests and other measures, or they will be closed. This is called accountability. It is missing from today's public education."

Nathan now asserts that this promise is being kept because he has found one elementary school recently that was closed, according to the state school board member he quotes, after it "did not improve student achievement," although my inquiries disclosed that she had no standardized test data on which to base this claim. Several months earlier, in fact, also without data to support his opinion, Minnesota's education commissioner had praised the progress being made at this school.

But let's imagine that Minnesota had closed this school because it did not "show improved student performance on standardized tests and other measures." There are now 1,100 charter schools in operation. Granted, many are too new to be held accountable yet. So let's estimate conservatively that only 500 can be so judged. Does Nathan expect us to believe that 499 of these remain in operation because they've demonstrated improved standardized test scores? If 100 had been closed for the promised reasons, we could consider the 80 percent survival rate as evidence that chartering is the most productive educational improvement ever devised. But when only one school, at best, is found wanting, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that, with this promise of greater accountability, we've been sold a bill of goods.


In truth, even the closed Minnesota school was in a state of collapse more serious than is usually tolerated in regular public schools. It wasn't closed until it belatedly submitted incomplete financial reports and apparently billed for special education services that had not been delivered. This is precisely the sort of administrative breakdown that, for regular public schools, our extensive system of bureaucratic regulation is designed to prevent. For better or worse, this is why public schools require procedures such as multiple check signatures and competitive bidding. Similarly, much-criticized public school teacher certification requirements are intended to prevent wholesale collapses in student achievement.

Charter schools are freed of these sometimes stultifying re quirements. While this means that you'll probably find great dedication and inspiration in some charters (though you can find that in some public schools, too), it also means you're likely to find far more corruption and incompetence than in regular public schools, where despite the regulations, some abuse persists. Thus the question of how far school systems should relax their bureaucratic rules to free creative energy is not an easy one, because more frequent corruption (or worse) will be the price inevitably paid. Charter schools provide one way to balance these benefits and costs—but their answer is an extreme one, and it clearly hasn't settled the issue.

Nathan suggests that charters bring choice to disadvantaged students similar to the choice rich children already have. This argument is misleading. Research suggests the strongest influence on a student's achievement is the average achievement of their peers, and so middle- and upper-class parents exercise choice by paying high home prices and real estate taxes to associate their children with other advantaged children in schools where high-achieving students predominate. But charters represent an entirely different kind of "choice"; they do not give poor parents the opportunity to associate their children with the more privileged. Inner-city charters are likely to include as high a proportion of disadvantaged children as the neighborhood public schools from which these children came. Unless charters pro mise to increase the socioeconomic and racial integration of our education system—and they don't—they will fail to bring to the poor the kind of choice enjoyed by the rich.


Nathan claims that charters are superior to magnet schools be cause "more than half of secondary magnets require admissions tests." This claim is presumably based on a 1994 Department of Education report stating that 54 percent of federally funded secondary magnet schools utilized "program specific criteria" because of a shortage of admissions slots. But this 54 percent included not only schools using standardized tests but also those using criteria like teacher recommendations, counselor recommendations, "student interest in the focal area," parental involvement, and sibling attendance. Considerably less than half of federally subsidized secondary magnets utilize standardized tests to admit students, and these are schools where the tests are specifically related to the magnet's character ("gifted and talented" magnets, for example). The purpose of these mechanisms (and the reason for federal subsidy) is to provide incentives for voluntary integration, because white parents are more likely to send their children to an integrated school if it is academically selective. Charter schools, too, use effective and subtle selection mechanisms—though not for purposes of integration but simply to assure student bodies compatible with school designs.

I do not conclude from this that charter schools are necessarily worse than regular schools, only that there is no reason to believe they are better. Even if they were found to be better, it is unlikely to be the case that they are so much better that a radical expansion of charters is worth the risk of a wholesale "creaming" of the most motivated children from regular schools.

In the previous issue of this magazine (with debate continued in the current one on page 62), Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips described the substantial improvement in test scores recorded for African-American students attending regular public schools in the last generation. Jencks and Phillips conclude by asking: How can the test score gap be narrowed further? Thus the question is not whether charter schools can succeed where regular schools have failed, but rather whether charter schools can improve overall student achievement while accelerating the narrowing of the test score gap—between children of all races and income levels—beyond the pace at which regular schools have already shown they can succeed. Prudence calls for caution in answering this question.

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