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A System Entirely Composed of Charters?

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In this post, Andy Smarick—a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education—joins me in a conversation about charter schools. Specifically, we consider whether charters are a systemic solution for urban education.

Schneider: I see a place for some charters in the K-12 system, created under particular conditions, and governed by a specific process. 

Some, however, claim that we'd be better off with a system entirely composed of charters

You're a charter booster. Where do you land on this question?

Smarick: In short, I envision a future where all or nearly all of a city's public schools are charter schools. (Note that I'm only discussing city school systems here.)

Though I'm generally disinclined to fundamentally alter longstanding institutions, urban districts have, for 50 years, proven themselves wholly incapable of producing the results our kids deserve. And we're talking about tens of millions of low-income kids who have been assigned to schools in these persistently failing institutions. While I admire the people who have tried their best to improve urban districts, the results fall miles short of what's needed. So we need a dramatic break from how things have been done.

Now, I remain open to the idea of the government running a few urban schools, for example a selective-admissions high school or some other specialty program. But, in general, the government should prepare to get out of the business of operating urban public schools and hand that responsibility off to civil society. 

Schneider: You're right that we see persistent problems in urban districtslower achievement scores, lower graduation rates, lower rates of college matriculation. But the question is: how much of that is a function of school quality? Because the fact is that urban schools tend to work with a very different population of students than their suburban counterparts do.

Urban schools serve roughly twice as many students of color as their non-urban counterparts. And research tells us that, nationally, white children grow up in households with far more income and wealth, far less intergenerational poverty, and far greater access to healthy environments and social capital.

Additionally, urban schools have far more concentrated poverty to deal with. 38 percent of city schools are high-poverty schoolswhere between 75% and 100% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And in large citiesplaces like New York, Los Angles, and Chicagonearly half of young people attend schools with high concentrations of poverty. The suburbs, by contrast, simply don't have this problem.

These are the root problems affecting urban school quality, and charters simply aren't going to address them.

In my mind, the only school-based solution for these issues is desegregationcreating truly diverse schools where no student feels abandoned by society and where no school is overwhelmed by challenges.

Smarick: I still get frustrated by the suggestion that we can only expect so much from poor kids until we fix poverty and residential segregation.

First, we have 40 years of "effective schools" research showing that there are and have been countless high-performing high-poverty schools. We probably have more of them today than ever, thanks to great charter management organizations. So it can be done.

Second, I'm worried that the "poverty and residential segregation" refrain ultimately serves to insulate current arrangements from tough criticism, and it reduces our aspirations and urgency. When we fail to provide city students with great schools, we can always refer back to that refrain and say, "Well, we tried our best, but until we solve these other problems, there's nothing we can do." But no child ever learned more because a grown-up said, "Poverty is too overwhelming for us to succeed." Lots and lots of kids learn more when grown-ups say, "Poverty is a tragedy, but our schools can still make a huge difference in kids' lives."

Lastly, there are thousands of economically and racially diverse schools with gigantic achievement gaps. This is precisely why NCLB required disaggregated school-level data. We should absolutely aspire to end concentrated poverty, but accomplishing that goal is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for providing low-income kids the schools they deserve.

Schneider: I actually agree with you that student poverty can be an excuse for poor performance. But while I appreciate the sentiment that kids of color and low-income kids deserve everything that their whiter and more privileged peers get in school, I think it's naïve to believe that a new governance structurein this case, charterswill change that.

Sure, there is research indicating that schools can make a huge difference in kids' lives. And there are absolutely effective schools that have done remarkable things. Deb Meier's work at Central Park East always stands out to me as a particularly great (and a particularly well-documented) example. But the problem is that much of what makes such schools special is difficult to replicate, particularly at scale. So much of what goes into successful schools is about relationships, individuals, and the right context.

And that seems to play out in charters. Some of them are great. Some are abysmal. Simply being a charter, though, doesn't appear to be much more than an opportunity to do things differentlybetter in some cases, worse in others. And insofar as that's the case, I'm just not sure they're particularly relevant in a conversation about improving the lives of low-income and minority students.

Smarick: I subscribe to the "three-sector," "sector-agnostic," or "high-quality seats" approach. In short, I don't care who runs schools, so long as they work for our disadvantaged kids. Incidentally, that's why I'm so strongly supportive of voucher and tax-credit programs for private schools, as long as those programs hold participating private schools accountable for results. If the private-schools sector has schools that can well serve low-income kids, let's make those schools accessible.

Given that after half a century of work we still have no high-performing urban districts, I fully expect urban districts to continue to be unable to operate high-performing schools. So while it's conceivable that an urban district could maintain some number of schools in a system in which the principles of portfolio management are rigorously applied, I find it extraordinarily unlikely any urban district would end up running more than a few open-admission schools. There's simply too much evidence over too many decades for me to suspend disbelief and say that an urban district will remain as a significant schools operator in this kind of environment. 

Schneider: District governance doesn't have a perfect track record by any means. But I'm not sure that's the case against an all-charter system. Particularly when there is no compelling evidence that the charter model—I'm not talking about particular charter schoolswill be much better. Maybe we can pick that thread up in our next post.

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