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Equity for Some

Can we have equity for some, or are we in danger of making the perfect the enemy of the good? How big a lifeboat should we build?

Andy Smarick has been slowly unspooling a series of Fordham blogs in which he considers the areas of tension between conservative thought and modern ed reform. His latest considers the issues of equity and reform, and while he accurately identifies some issues, he misses a pair of critical ones.

One of the reformster guiding ideals is "that every child have access to great schools." On the face of it, that's a noble goal. But it's not the same as the goal that every child attend a great school.

Mike Petrilli has famously defined the role of charters, saying essentially that their mission is to save some students, the students deemed worthy by charter operators. While charters exist who are willing (like actual public schools) to take all comers, many charters argue loudly for school's choice-- their right to select only the students that they want in their building. Arguments against backfilling, true random student assignment, and mandatory acceptance of more special needs students all boil down to the same thing-- most modern charters want to accept the students they want to accept under the conditions they want to accept them, and that's it. This is unsurprising; many (if not most) modern charter operators came to education from the world of business, and part of the baggage they brought with them is that nobody should be able to tell them how to run their business.

Charters do not want to take over the whole public education business-- just the parts they think they can make profitable.

Well, so what? If they can actually improve education in America in a cost-effective manner, who cares if they make money in the process?

And that's our problem. They can't make money and improve education and keep the total cost down-- not without redefining the mission of public education. And unfortunately, their redefinition is problematic.

We have an equity problem in education in this country, and I'm not sure it's all that complicated-- we don't want to spend enough money to get the job done. If education is a really good pair of shoes, we've said, "The government will kick in part of the costs. You'll have to make up the difference locally. If you can't, your kids will just have to wear cheap, ill-fiting shoes." Charter operators are the guys who say, "Give me that money. I've got a supplier who could get perfectly okay shoes-- as long as I only have to shoe the kids with regular-sized feet. The kids with flat feet or high arches or odd sizes-- they will cost us too much to get shoes for, so you just keep those."

Smarick asks a legitimate question-- is it okay to save the very, very needy if that means leaving the very, very, very needy behind? Unfortunately, that's not the choice we're facing.The piece includes this paragraph that backhandedly highlights the problems with charters and equity:

Newark's charters are extraordinary. But superintendent Cami Anderson is concerned these "speedboats" save only some passengers from "the Titanic" and might make the liner sink faster.

Problem 1: Newarks charters aren't extraordinary at all. Solid research shows that they serve a different population than Newark public schools (what is extraordinary is how they tried to use the courts to silence those researchers).

Problem 2: Those speedboats do make the liner sink faster.


One of the basic assumptions of a blended public and charter system is that we can operate two or more separate schools for the cost of one. We can't. Nobody can. (Auditors in Tennessee just certified that Nashville can't do it.) Smarick quotes Mother Teresa-- "If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one." I don't think that applies. First, why can't we feed 100 people? We're one of the richest nations on earth. Second, why are we taking food away from ninety people so that ten people can eat better?

Smarick pulls out an old article in which Rick Hess suggests that fans of an equity-driven approach to schools "refused to confront its costs and unintended consequences." But so do the fans of the charter inequity approach. Opening charters in a city is an absolute guarantee that some schools in that city will not be fully funded.

This is what I find infuriatingly frustrating about the charter approach to "fixing" a school sysem. We walk up to a building where 100 students live, and we say, "This building is falling down, poorly maintained, and slowly crumbling. Let's take half the money being spent on it now, build a nice new building for ten of these students, and leave the other ninety in this now-even-more-undersupported crumbing mess." Why not fix the building with all 100 students inside? Because it would cost money.

If we push ahead as-is, some of these costs will be forced upon--in the short term at least--affluent families.

Well, yes. That's the problem, isn't it? Despite protestations to the contrary, we can't provide educational equity without at the very least changing how we spread around the money on the table for education, and likely not without coughing up more money, period. But we don't like that answer. Instead, we keep looking for ways to cut and resew a blanket that's too small to cover the bed instead of coughing up the funds to buy a full sized blanket that can cover everybody.

Financing public education is the very definition of a zero-sum game. Too many charter proponents have decided to abandon public education and the expensive-to-educate children who go to school there. Too many charter proponents are arguing that equity for some should be our goal. Smarick says that we don't discuss tradeoffs enough, but like most charter fans, he does not discuss the tradeoff of robbing Peter to pay for Paul's charter school. I understand the nobility of the impulse to rescue just one starfish, but the metaphor does not apply here unless we're talking about some bizarre deal where for every starfish that's thrown into the sea, ten must be stuffed in a bucket.    

I believe that on the road to equity for all, we have to travel through the valley of equity for some. As long as we seem to be traveling in the right direction, I'm okay with that. But reformsters don't seem to have a plan beyond "Use charters to rescue some students by re-distributing the resources earmarked for all students." I understand that "Get unlimited money from a magic money tree" is also not an option. But equity for some is not good enough.* We need a better answer.

*Somehow, this sentence sat here without the critical word "not" in it for the longest time. I have since fixed it.

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