What Are Charter Schools Good for?
I'll stipulate that charters are, or can be, good schools. My question is different: what are charter schools good for? Charter operators like to call their schools "public," but what good are they to the institution of public education?
When we interviewed her years ago for Learning in L.A., the book about institutional change in the city's school system, Caprice Young, then the head of the California Charter School Association, noted that there were three reasons that people start charters. One is as a rescue mission, saving some children from a bad education by providing them a better one. Another is to build a replacement for existing public schools, leaving the old system to further decay. Finally, there are those who see charters as a way to fundamentally change the system.
I'd add a fourth purpose for charters, one enumerated in the California charter school law, the second oldest such statute in the country. Charters were intended to be laboratories: research and development sites freed from many of the constraints that public schools face so that they can try out new ideas in what to teach, how to do it, and how to organize a school.
The recently revealed Broad Foundation plan to increase the market share of Los Angeles students in charters to half the students in the district, raises this question to high visibility. L.A. has long since passed the "rescue" stage of chartering. The Los Angeles Unified School District contains far more charters within its boundaries than any school district in the country: 240 of them, enrolling more than 130,000 students.
On its face, the Broad Foundation plan calls for replacement. It contains not a single sentence about how the existing school district would benefit, except perhaps through the spur of competition. But replacement is not benign. It leaves behind a school district less capable of transformation, more obsessed with fulfilling its statutory duties with fewer resources. For all those who missed Economics 101, in periods of decline, marginal revenue—what school districts get per student—falls faster than their costs.
For a broad swath of people who call themselves school reformers, replacement is just dandy. The sooner that we can rid ourselves of school boards, union contracts, old fashioned due process job protections, and requirements for transparency, the better, their logic goes. But there's a problem that will quickly confront those who want to vastly increase the numbers of charter students in Los Angeles. Charter schools are parasitic.
Like mistletoe and Spanish moss, they depend on the health of their host to keep them alive. Only because LAUSD is at least semi-healthy can it maintain a charter schools office, process applications, have some small measure of quality control over renewals, and operate the schools to which students return when they don't fit with charter school's program. Public school districts also absorb students when a charter or charter management organization fails.
When there is no district, or not much of one, charter schools have to reinvent one, and it is the process of school district reinvention that make the New Orleans example most interesting. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago, New Orleans has become nearly an all-charter district. The early years were of necessity spent building and making individual schools work. The current challenge in New Orleans is to rebuild the system of schools, and both sides of the charter school war in Los Angeles could learn from their effort. (I volunteer to lead a field trip.)
Los Angeles didn't have a hurricane, but the Los Angeles Unified School District has suffered five decades of hollowing out. It has been discredited to the extent that any public official or journalist can use the phrase "failing public schools" without being questioned. Activism, unionization, and lawsuits have stripped its ability to raise revenue or control many of its functions. A "hero" superintendent can't fix what ails LAUSD. It needs to be a different kind of system.
Charter school advocates have not been very good at systemic thinking, because they haven't had to be. They—and not just Eli Broad—think like real estate developers: because they build nice houses that people want, they should be allowed to build as many as the market will bear. It's someone else's job to think about the infrastructure.
Think again. Think more. Think deeper. As Los Angeles enters the charter school war, every combatant—charter advocates, school board, teachers union, and anyone else who wants to fight—should be required to describe the 21st Century school system that would result if they won.