When Will I Love Charters?

I'm probably a liberal. Or at least liberalish. I've never worried too much about what political label I'm supposed to wear. But I feel liberal enough to respond to Jonathan Alter's piece in the Daily Beast, "Why Liberals Should Learn To Love Charter Schools."

If you want to read a fact-based takedown of Alter's piece with a clear explanation of why he's wrong about pretty much everything, I recommend Mercedes Schneider's piece.

But for my part, I'm going to address the question implied by Alter's piece-- what would it take for me to love charter schools? After all, I'm not categorically opposed to them on principle. My aunt ran a "free school" in Connecticut decades ago, and it was pretty cool. I have a friend whose son has been seriously assisted by cyber school, and I know a few other similar stories. I think it's possible that charter schools could be an okay thing. But the charter systems we have now in this country are so very, very terrible I can't even like them a little, let alone love them.

So when will I love charter schools?

I will love them when they're fully accountable.

Public schools have to account for every dollar spent, every student who falls under their jurisdiction. Charter schools are only "public" when it's time to be paid. The rest of the time they are non-transparent and non-accountable. We have charter scandals over and over and over and over again in which somebody just makes off with a pile of money, or isn't really providing services they claim to be, or doesn't really have a plan in place. This is bananas!

We're learning that in the New Orleans Wide World O'Charters, nobody is accountable for the students. A school can purge a child from its records by essentially saying, "Yeah, she went somewhere" without even having to confirm what happened to the student. In New Orleans, there are thousands of students missing-- school authorities literally do not know where those children are.

Charter schools will be accountable when they are just as transparent and just as accountable as public schools. Financial records completely open to the public. All meetings of governing bodies completely open to the public. And run by people who must answer to the public and whose first responsibility is not to the nominal owners of the school, but to the actual owners of the school-- the people who pay the bills and fund the charter-- the taxpayers.

I will love them when they're fully funded.

The biggest, hugest lie about charter schools is that they don't add any costs to the total funding numbers for education. If you believe this, then you must also believe that if your household budget is getting tight, the best solution is to buy a second house.

I would have the greatest affection for a politician or policymaker or thinky tank writer who said, "Yes, we can offer a system with choices, but the public is going to have to pay for it." Because right now every single charter school promoter keeps pushing the fiction that it's free, and that's just the biggest pile of bovine fecal matter ever.

Why do cash-strapped districts close school buildings? Because running one building is cheaper than running three. Clever policy makers invented co-location (much like the way a leech co-locates with an animal's blood supply) but we are still talking about a system that, in total, runs an inefficiently huge amount of excess capacity.

As regulated now, it's a zero-sum game. Every dollar a charter gets, a public school loses. In many places, the total cost of education does go up-- the charter strips some dollars away and the public school raises taxes to replace it. In other places, the total cost doesn't budge much, but the services provided by the public school are reduced.

I will love charters when policymakers say, "Yes, we will have six high schools instead of one, and the government will use your tax dollars to fully fund all of them" instead of just claiming that charters are an educational Free Lunch.

I will love them when they make a long term commitment 

The rise of charters has introduced a great deal of financial instability to the world of education, and while the public schools bear the brunt of that, plenty of charters suffer as well. But public schools are created and maintained with the understanding that they are supposed to be around forever. When the public hears the word "school," they think "place that will be around for generations," but charter operators think "place that will be around as long as it makes business sense to keep it open." Well, unfortunately, in places like Ohio, they may also be thinking, "I have no idea how this works, and I don't have a plan, but let's give it a whirl."

I will love charters when they enter a community with a commitment to become part of that community and stay part of that community. That does not mean just hiding in one neighborhood while recruiting students from some other neighborhood. That means not simply viewing students as cash-transfering receptacles. And that definitely means getting to know the community, getting involved in the community, and staying for generations in the community. "Wham, bam, thank you, ma'm," is rarely the beginning of a long, fulfilling relationship.

I will love them when education is their primary mission

Private industry is plagued with a disease in this country, a disease that has convinced business leaders that the purpose of their widget company is not to make widgets, but to make good ROI for investors. This has led to all manner of stupid, destructive behavior, as well as a glut of really lousy widgets.

Modern charters all too often port that bad business attitude over to the world of education, with everyone from hedge fundies to pop stars getting into charter schools because someone told them it's a great investment. If financial returns are located anywhere in your success metric for your charter school, just get the hell out. Because all that can mean is that you will view every student and staff member as a drain that is taking money away from you. You'll want to select students based primarily on how they can help you achieve your financial goals (by looking good on paper and not costing much). I can't think of a much worse attitude to bring into a school.

Other

There are other things that might help me love charters. Take every student in your geographic area of coverage and not just the ones you like. Stop implementing stupid educational malpractice. Stop acting like you're doing missionary work for the poor, black folks who are incapable of setting their own course. Stop employing people who are not actually teachers. Stop using political connections to protect you from actual market conditions or any necessity of knowing what the heck you're doing. Stop wasting tax dollars on marketing campaigns, and stop lying to people in those campaigns. Etc etc etc.

But I think if a charter could manage the four major points above, I could give it a chance. We could talk a few times, get to know each other, maybe see where things take us. I can't promise love-- heck, nobody can. But those four criteria would certainly work better than Alter's reality-impaired exhortations.

Originally posted at Curmudgucation