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The Charter School Lawsuit

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In their last conversation together, Jack Schneider and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville discuss an impending lawsuit over the limit on charter schools in Massachusetts.

Schneider: The state of Massachusetts limits the number of charter schools that can open in low-performing districts—capping enrollment at 18 percent of students in the district. Consequently, there are only 80 charter schools statewide. And though Boston has 34 of them, the city has reached its limit.

This cap represents a compromise—one that has fostered a thriving charter sector, while also protecting district-run schools from being strip-mined. But an upcoming lawsuit is threatening that compromise.

The lawsuit will allege that the charter cap restricts the civil rights of minority students. The logic here is that Boston charter schools are more effective, that Boston has a higher percentage of minority students than the rest of the state, and therefore that the cap is limiting minority access to good schools.

I think this logic is weak—grounded more in ideology than fact. Charter schools get higher test scores than traditional public schools for a lot of reasons. Some may have to do with effective instruction, sure. But other reasons are more troubling. Charters cream from the public school population, they often have very high rates of attrition, and the emphasis on test-prep can be unbearable. Maybe you can tell me what I'm missing.

Reville: It's so hard to generalize about charter schools. Some are excellent, and we're blessed with a disproportionate share of those in Massachusetts. Others are only average performers, while some do so poorly they have to be closed. Nationwide, it's clear that simply possessing a charter is no guarantee of educational superiority any more than would be the possession of more money or more time. What really matters is what schools do with the autonomy permitted by their charter status. Some use it well, while others waste the opportunity. Consequently, I see charters as just an instrument, a tool to enable educators to achieve better results with students. I think it will be difficult to make a civil rights case out of access to charter schools when the performance data on these schools, in general, is variable and inconclusive.

So much ideology swirls around charter schools, the subject has become so divisive and such a preoccupation in our field that I try not to engage in the charter wars that are using up so much of the education reform oxygen. I try to be neither pro charter, nor pro mainstream schools (these are just delivery mechanisms), but rather pro good schools. Whether the good school is a charter school or a mainstream school, shame on us if we don't seek to learn from it and make its advantages available to others. 

Because there are costs associated with charter schools and those costs come at the expense of mainstream schools, a fierce competition has developed over the years. Rather than being the virtuous cycle that many charter advocates had envisioned, the competition has bred hostility and created an enormous distraction for reformers and the media. Twenty-two years since the historic Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 which established charter schools in the state, we still have only 4% of our students enrolled in these schools. Expansion has been limited due to the pressures created by the methods of funding charter schools.

Last year, the legislature had a chance to selectively lift the cap to enable more charters in Boston and several other cities which are at their cap limits. I thought they should have done so. Unfortunately, the legislation, strongly resisted by charter opponents, failed to pass and that failure has created enormous backlash and a desire by charter proponents to apply maximum pressure on Beacon Hill to pass a cap lift measure as soon as possible. I see the lawsuit as part of the effort to increase the pressure on the legislature to act. Simultaneously, charter opponents are entertaining the idea of a statewide ballot initiative. If we're not careful, Massachusetts will become consumed in a new outbreak of the charter wars, and it will be all charters all the time while the 96% of students in mainstream schools and their parents will continue to wonder how policy-makers intend to improve their schools.

Schneider: You argue that "simply possessing a charter is no guarantee of educational superiority any more than would be the possession of more money or more time." But I think that's overstating the case. Sure, charters have more autonomy than traditional public schools; and that's a tool they can use. Additional time and resources, however, are hard to use in a way that can actually hurt schools. Time and resources can be wasted through poor implementation, but rarely can they do damage.

Autonomy isn't like that. In the hands of great leaders, autonomy is an incredible affordance. Coupled with a clear vision and sufficient school capacity, it can help schools develop context-specific strategies that really work. But in the hands of weak leaders, or implemented in sites without sufficient capacity, autonomy is a recipe for disaster—leading to very high levels of turnover in the staff, very questionable decisions with regard to the curriculum, and a slew of other problems. No wonder that some of the lowest performing schools in the country are charters. Even charter supporters recognize this.

There are those who make the case that strong charter authorization procedures will address this challenge. Only some schools will be granted charters; and not all charters will be reauthorized. But that places an awful lot of faith in the authorization (and reauthorization) process. And there isn't much evidence that such faith is well placed.

So let's be clear: being a "charter" not only isn't necessarily better, but also might be worse.

The other problem to consider here is the effect charters can have on other schools in the system. As first envisioned by those like union leader Albert Shanker, charters would actually benefit the larger system—serving as laboratories for experimentation. But the vision today is of market-style competition that situates parents as consumers. As a result, charters spend a lot of time on marketing, recruiting, and branding. They don't bill their work as experimentation. They bill it as a better product. That not only damages the reputations of traditional public schools, but it also leads to quality-conscious parents departing. And even if such parents are merely buying into a charter's hype, their collective actions can have devastating effects on the schools they leave.

So I see this lawsuit as exactly backwards. Because the most disadvantaged students are actually being harmed by the charter sector. They're the ones who end up at the worst charter schools. They're the ones left behind at traditional public schools that have been stripped of their resources. And they're the ones who will end up at the weakest charter schools.

Can charters work? Absolutely. Some are great. They can even work to strengthen districts. But only when they are carefully managed and incorporated into a wider district strategy.

Reville: I have never believed that municipal government is uniquely qualified to deliver public education and should be granted monopoly status as a provider. For example, we have a rich tradition in this country of education services being effectively provided by the independent sector and by parochial schools. It stands to reason that the country would experiment with publicly accountable schools which would be operated by non-municipal government providers. I think that's a worthwhile experiment and where it has yielded positive results, I think we should learn from that experience and strengthen our mainstream systems. When those experiments fail, as some of our mainstream schools regularly do also, they should be closed. We need to have strong enough leadership and systems to close out chronically under-performing schools of all kinds, charter and mainstream. In Massachusetts, we have proved that we can do this, especially in the charter sector.

I don't want, any more than you do, a Darwinian world in education where it's all about consumer choice and "getting what's best for my kids" in a balkanized system that would leave mainstream schools in a position comparable to public housing, serving only the neediest. But, I don't think choice means we have to go there. I have seen wondrous examples of mainstream schools which do every bit as well as the top charters. I believe mainstream educators can and will rise to the challenge of charters and embrace the kinds of autonomies charter schools have embraced. We've seen tentative movement in that direction with our turn-around schools and Innovation Schools. I expect we'll see much more as both educators and systems develop their capacity to seize the leadership opportunities associated with autonomy.

So, in the end, I don't see access to charter schools as a civil rights issue nor do I see charters as an enemy to progress in our sector. Some of the most inspiring schools I've ever visited are charters. Some are mainstream schools. I'd rather see us focus on educational strategy rather than governance.

Schneider: I think we're in basic agreement here. Though I would say we need to pay particular attention to the way charters are currently being pitched as silver bullets. First of all, because they aren't. And second of all, because if quality-conscious parents become convinced that their children will get a better education in charter schools, we'll increasingly see traditional public schools serving only the neediest, as you noted. 

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