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Are Charter Management Companies a Laboratory for Effective School Systems?

Mike Petrilli, one of the most thoughtful members of this country's education commentariat, wrote a note to me the other day about a blog I'd recently written.  The blog was about the need for more research to determine why some education systems at the scale of states and nations are more effective than others.  He liked the blog, he said, but wanted to know why was I not writing about the growing systems of charter schools, run by charter management companies, which he clearly views as viable examples of systems that work.

I can see why Mike would take that view.  As charter systems have grown, they have had to do what any well-run business has to do: figure out how to hire, train and support first-rate staff, produce the best possible results at an acceptable cost, find efficiencies and improve productivity.  As these charter school networks grow, they have to face the challenge of growing without compromising quality, creating leadership structures that will preserve the culture the founders created without suffocating the initiative of the people on the ground and so on.

Freed of many of the political and legal constraints that public school systems face, some of these charter management companies have been rather innovative as they have dealt with these and many other challenges.  It would be natural to see them as a test bed for better ways to organize and manage public school systems.  Why, Mike wanted to know, was I so uninterested in viewing them that way?  A very reasonable question. 

Part of the answer is the strategy I prefer to use to search for better ways to organize and manage school systems at the scale of a state or nation.  The approach that makes the most sense to me is to start by ideinitifying the systems that produce superior results and then try to find out if there are common principles that inform the structure of those systems that distinguish them from less successful systems.  I know of no top-performing systems at the scale of a state or nation the success of which can be attributed to their charter-like characteristics.  There are top-performing systems that feature choice, but choice does not explain their success.  What does explain their success is their adherence to principles that they share in common with systems that do not have strong choice-oriented policies.  The Netherlands and Flemish Belgium are good examples of such countries.  So is Hong Kong.

Still, why not look in the United States to see if we can find highly successful charter management companies and see whether their success can be explained by their embrace of the same principles as those that undergird the top-performing national education systems, or whether something else is at work.  Actually, I did that years ago when I took a good look at what many observers believe to be the nation's most successful high school charter management company: BASIS Schools.  I was so impressed that I ended up accepting their request to serve on the board of trustees of their Washington, D.C. school.

But BASIS proved the rule.  In D.C., as in the posh Arizona suburbs where it started its network, BASIS was building its system on the same principles we had observed animating the top-performing country's regular public education systems: very high academic standards, high expectations for all students, a very demanding curriculum taught by first-rate, very well-educated teachers.  That is certainly not all of the litany, but it is enough to give you a flavor.  The lesson I drew from this is not that we ought to have more charter schools and charter networks but that we ought to have more regular public school systems built on these principles. 

Maybe that seems perverse to you.  If BASIS works so well, and BASIS is a charter school network, then why not have more charter school networks?  Because the syllogism is wrong.  The logic does not work. Charter schools and networks are run on all sorts of principles and embrace very different values.  Increasing the number and reach of charter networks would not flood the country with schools that produce the kind of achievement that BASIS schools do.  Indeed, the very principle of charter systems is that the charter operator has wide latitude to determine curriculum, teacher qualifications and so on.  No one is interested in finding a particular charter model and then telling all charter schools they have to do it that way.

Because choice for parents and students among significantly different alternatives is the core principle of the charter idea, the question we should be asking about the charter idea is not whether any one charter school is better than the typical public school serving a comparable student body, but whether charter schools as a group produce better student performance than regular public schools as a group, when serving comparable students.  It is, of course, possible to find very good charter schools but it is no less possible to find equally outstanding regular public schools.  When we look in the aggregate at all the charters in any given state, and compare them to all the regular public schools in that state serving the same demographic, virtually all studies show no conclusive advantage for the charters. 

But my reading of the data produces a more troubling conclusion.  Both in the United States and abroad, choice policies tend to exacerbate racial and socio-economic segregation.  The minority, low-income parents who have the time, education, drive and cars to take advantage of the choices offered, do so and those who do not have these things, do not.  The result is that the low-performing schools are drained of the students and parents who have the desire and means to take advantage of the options offered, leaving behind those who don't, leaving in their wake schools that are even more isolated, chaotic and desperate than they were before.

If you are among those who have given up on the regular public schools, at least in our cities, and see charters as a way to offer inner-city parents and students an option they would not otherwise have, then perhaps the most you can hope for is saving some of the kids who might otherwise be consigned to a very doubtful future. 

I have not given up on our public schools, in our inner cities or anywhere else.  It is not just the lowest-performing schools that are in trouble.  The students in every quartile of performance in the entire country are behind their counterparts in the top-performing countries.  I would spend the rest of my career studying charter school management systems if someone could present any evidence that implementation of charter systems at scale would lift the performance of American students to globally competitive levels.  But I have yet to see that evidence.

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