I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Embarrassingly Bad Reformy Metaphors: Charter Schools & Uber

Derrell Bradford, a professional reformster whose incoherence I have long chronicled on this blog, has an uncanny gift: every time he makes an argument for a reformy policy, he seems to wind up undermining the very ideas he's trying to promote:
I am a fan of Uber. I stump for the service to just about anyone. And why not? The experience is near seamless—you might call it magical. I get picked up when I want, no questions. They come to get me wherever I want, and they take me wherever I want to go. No driver asks me where I live, how much money I make, or where I am going before grabbing me. And maybe most importantly, if I don’t like something Uber does—or don’t want to pay during surge times—I don’t have to. 
It’s as easy to use Uber as it is not to. This is a priceless taste of transportation freedom formerly reserved for the oligarchs. As a non-driver, it’s almost enough to make me even like cars. 
I’m also a fan of charter schools for many of the same reasons I like Uber. 
The chartering power, like the awesome functionality folks now command from their cell phones, enables the creation of new schools that are nimble, creative, and customized to the needs of students. And with a mission that isn’t bound by location and that doesn’t bow to the notion that some kids who live in the wrong borough or who have the wrong parents just won’t get a great education, they bring the same sort of “freedom” to the people that Uber does. In New York in particular, Uber and charter schools are opposite sides of the same disruptive, empowering coin.
Oh, my lord. My sweet, sweet lord. Derrell, do you actually know how Uber works? Let me explain it to you:

When you pick up your smartphone (yes, you need a smartphone -- does everyone have a smartphone, Derrell?) and put in a request for a ride, Uber's drivers look at your rating as a customer. That's right: the "choice" to use Uber isn't merely on the consumer's side -- it's also on the provider's.

If you don't have a high enough rating, none of Uber's drivers are going to come get you. So you'd better be polite, and not request rides to inconvenient destinations, and make sure you tip well. Maureen Dowd learned the hard way that getting on the bad side of the Uber workforce can limit your ability to access the system.

Golly, what does this remind me of in education policy? Thinking...
Charter advocates say it's a fair fight because both types of schools are free and open to all. "That's a bedrock principle of our movement," said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association. And indeed, many states require charter schools to award seats by random lottery.
But as Reuters has found, it's not that simple. Thousands of charter schools don't provide subsidized lunches, putting them out of reach for families in poverty. Hundreds mandate that parents spend hours doing "volunteer" work for the school or risk losing their child's seat. In one extreme example the Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove, Illinois, mandates that each student's family invest in the company that built the school - a practice the state said it would investigate after inquiries from Reuters.
And from New Hampshire to California, charter schools large and small, honored and obscure, have developed complex application processes that can make it tough for students who struggle with disability, limited English skills, academic deficits or chaotic family lives to even get into the lottery.
Among the barriers that Reuters documented:
* Applications that are made available just a few hours a year.
* Lengthy application forms, often printed only in English, that require student and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, teacher recommendations and medical records.
* Demands that students present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered, even though such documents cannot be required under federal law.
* Mandatory family interviews.
* Assessment exams.
* Academic prerequisites.
* Requirements that applicants document any disabilities or special needs. The U.S. Department of Education considers this practice illegal on the college level but has not addressed the issue for K-12 schools.
Many charters, backed by state law, specialize in serving low-income and minority children. Some of the best-known charter networks, such as KIPP, Yes Prep, Green Dot and Success Academy, use simple application forms that ask little more than name, grade and contact information, and actively seek out disadvantaged families. Most for-profit charter school chains also keep applications brief.
But stand-alone charters, which account for more than half the total in the United States, make up their own admissions policies. Regulations are often vague, oversight is often lax - and principals can get quite creative. [emphasis mine]
As Bruce Baker pointed out the other day when describing research we've been doing, these "second tier" charters, which enroll large numbers of students, appear to engage in practices quite different from high-profile networks like KIPP and Success. Yet those are usually the only networks reformsters like Bradford tout when making claims of charter school "successes."

But even if we set aside the admissions practices above, it's become increasingly clear that "choice" systems, by their very nature, segregate students by observable characteristics -- economic disadvantage, race, special education need, etc. -- and by characteristics we can't observe in the data -- family involvement, academic talent, "grit," and so on.

I've talked quite a bit lately about Molly Makris's work, and how her research lines up with others' that have shown that charter schools, perhaps unintentionally, do attract a different type of student than neighboring public schools.

In that sense, Bradford's analogy is actually quite apt: "undesirable customers" are not served well by either Uber or charter schools. Students at Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies, for example, are not admitted into free seats after Grade 4; they're like the Uber users who've racked up poor ratings and are left waiting on the curb for medallion cabs/district schools.

Over the years, Bradford's excuse for this behavior is that we can't wait to "save" everyone; we should offer "choice" to those few the system deems are worthy of it, and everyone else can go fend for themselves.

As I've acknowledged many times: you can't blame parents for wanting to endow their children with the positive peer effects and increased funding that some charters offer when affluent (and largely white) parents move to the suburbs and buy expansive houses to gain those same advantages.

But it's utterly disingenuous to pretend that these advantages are due to "charteriness": peer effects and funding advantages could just as easily be offered by public schools without the harmful side effects of too many charters. And it's even more mendacious to pretend these advantages don't come at a steep price for students who remain in the public district schools -- students who are more likely to have special education needs, or who don't speak English at home, or who are in greater economic disadvantage.

Derrell Bradford's flippant analogy ignores the plight of those who can't access his beloved system of "choice." Until he's willing to have a serious talk about increasing taxes on those who pay his salary so we can fully fund all schools and provide the "bells and whistles" he enjoyed, his goofy little metaphors just aren't worth pondering.

Sorry, kid: Eva's not going to pick you up.

1 comment:

Ajay Srikanth said...

Great as usual. Dean Baker wrote a great piece on Uber which reminded me of how there is an unfair playing field (obviously Bruce's research along with yours has shown that charters have an unfair advantage in student populations and funding):


Also I find the comparison of the public school system to any type of taxi or ride sharing to be flawed. Public schools remind me a lot more of public transportation systems like the bus and the subway. Both are generally relied upon by those with less income, both are vastly underfunded, both are flawed but ultimately do the best they can with the resources they have. Taxis and Uber to me are like private schools for those that opt out of public system.