As a designated mouthpiece for reform in the pundit world, Alter semi-regularly takes a few minutes off from covering politics and delves into the world of education policy. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to care much about looking past the talking points generated by his reformy neighbors, leaving folks like me with the unenviable task of setting him straight.
So here we go again. Alter's latest piece is a typical collection of received reformy truths designed to support the idea that turning over control of America's urban schools to non-state actors will create a renaissance in education. And the proof, as with all things reformy these days, can be found in New Orleans:
Hang on to that phrase, gentle readers, as we continue:
One finding in particular has stuck in the public consciousness—that charter public schools (and yes, charters are public schools, despite propaganda from unions and their supporters suggesting otherwise) perform no better overall than traditional public schools. This is accurate, but not especially relevant, because many small, inexperienced groups that lack the know-how to run schools have opened charters in recent years.First of all, does Alter think those "supporters" of unions include the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Census Bureau? Because all have said charter schools are not state actors, unlike public district schools.
The court's ruling in Caviness, which was a labor case, may well extend to the rights of students, which would mean the protections and rights granted families in public schools may not be granted at charter schools, even as they take public money. In fact, a body of case law has grown that makes clear charters do not have to extend the same due process rights to their students that are enjoyed by public school students. In addition, many charters have engaged in enrollment practices that would never be allowed at public schools.
Pointing all this out isn't "propaganda," Jon -- it's a look at the facts.
The second problem with Alter's argument here is that he breezily dismisses the idea that many charter schools are not run by his favored operators: KIPP and Uncommon. Bruce Baker and I have been doing a lot of work on this (hopefully, you'll see some soon), and the truth is these organizations are a very small piece of the charter pie.
KIPP, which hogs most of the love from reformies, roughly serves as many students as Academica, one of the most audacious money-making outfits in the education sector. The operators of Charter Schools USA have been making big piles of money while getting questionable results, but Alter doesn't want to discuss this; he'd rather tell you how Doug Lemov of Uncommon is some sort of pedagogical wizard (Uncommon, by the way, has nothing to teach real public schools).
I've stated before that KIPP does a decent job educating the students that enroll in its schools. Alter acknowledges that they are an outlier; what he won't do is dig deep and figure out why. He won't acknowledge KIPP enjoys a resource advantage, both through being the recipient of large amounts of philanthropic giving, and through an employment policy that keeps a younger, less experienced, and therefore less-expensive teaching workforce on its payroll.
It's nice that KIPP enjoys this advantage, but it's highly questionable as to whether it can be extended to all urban schools (at least not while we refuse to raise revenues through taxes for these districts). But, again, Alter apparently would rather parrot reformy bromides than dig deep into those issues:
But the top quintile of charters—the highly effective ones run by experienced and widely-respected charter operators—not only beat traditional public schools serving students in the same demographic cohorts, they often outperform them by 20, 30, or even 50 points on many metrics.I'm sorry to be blunt, Jon, but that is just massively dumb. "50 points on many metrics"? What does that even mean? 50 points of what? Hey, my diet is really working -- I've lost a whole 50 grams!
Worse: are you really making an argument that charters are awesome because the top 20 percent of them are all above average? Do I really have to point out how utterly silly that argument is?
Andy Smarick and his buddies in the "relinquishment" movement been pushing this line for a good long time: we have to concentrate on the places where charterization has worked, and just ignore where it hasn't! They never stop to think that we could make the same construction about public district schools: many are making "miracles" at least as "miraculous" as any charter.
Like Smarick, Alter thinks two of the places that "prove" charter schools are wonderful are New Orleans and Newark. As I said earlier this month, the celebrating over New Orleans is premature at best and ill-informed at worst. There is reason to question whether the gains in New Orleans are due to charterization, as the city's post-Katrina changes were so massive that we can't be sure they can be accounted for in any analysis.
A city like Newark, arguably, is a better "experiment," as the city hasn't seen the huge changes in demographics, social services delivery, and overall education spending that New Orleans has. But Alter, like so many others, has a rather skewed idea of what has actually happened in Newark over the past few years:
OK, let's go over this again (for like the billionth time):
"Poor" students can be defined in many ways. If we say a "poor" student qualifies for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch, that student's family makes 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level. Newark charters as a sector serve marginally more FRPL students than the Newark Public Schools.
If, however, we define "poor" students as those who qualify for Free Lunch only -- and whose families, therefore, earn 130 percent or less of the federal poverty line -- we find NPS serves more "poor" students.
Some have tried to make the case that using FL instead of FRPL is cherry-picking. It isn't -- poverty measures do matter. I think we've reached the point where people who ignore this stuff are doing so willingly, which I find both frustrating and disheartening.
While we're on the subject, let's take a minute and dig a little deeper:
The individual schools that serve the lowest percentages of Free Lunch-eligible students are charters.* Yes, there are some charters, like Discovery Charter School (a school that almost never gets its due from pundits like Alter, probably because, unlike KIPP, it doesn't have a national PR department), that serve high percentages of economically disadvantaged students. But there are quite a few charters that are among the most economically segregated schools in the city.
Since we've got these graphs out, let's notice a few more things. There is a substantial population of Limited English Proficient students in Newark, but almost none of them are being educated in the charter schools. Charters also enroll more girls than NPS -- again, that does matter when comparing outcomes.
We don't have the latest special education figures from NJDOE, so let me go back to my New Jersey charter report from last year:
NPS educates a far greater proportion of special education students than the charter sector in Newark. Yes, there is variation between the charters; however, there is also variation in student learning disabilities:
The concentration of students with profound learning disabilities into the NPS system is a matter of great concern, both in terms of the educational needs of those students and the fiscal implications** for the district. As I and others have pointed out repeatedly, the CREDO report didn't disaggregate students by disability, a large methodological limitation. That, naturally, didn't stop Alter from crowing about CREDO's results once again.
One more thing: as I said in my report on One Newark (the district's universal enrollment plan), there are consequences for the expansion of charters that never seem to be acknowledged by folks like Alter:
Here are the most "popular" schools in Newark as announced by NPS following the first year of universal enrollment. The charters that are the most "popular" have high suspension rates compared to the popular district schools; they also enroll much higher proportions of black students. Are we creating a separate discipline structure in Newark for black children? Does it concern Alter that his beloved North Star Academy, operated by Uncommon, has such high suspension and cohort attrition rates?
I don't know if analyses like these make Jonathan Alter's head hurt. I do know, however, that if he isn't prepared to acknowledge and discuss these facts, he ought not to venture into education policy. The last thing this sphere needs are more platitudes like this:
In a way, I agree with Alter: we should be looking at why some charter schools show gains on standardized tests. We should be asking if the charters have curricular and administrative practices worth emulating. I'm up for a discussion of Lemov's methods: I'd like to know, for example, if Lemov is aware of the work of Jean Anyon, and if he thinks Uncommon's teaching style isn't exactly what she was describing when she critiqued the practices of inner-city schools.
But if we're going to really look at what makes "successful" charters successful, we'd better be ready to go all in. We'd better be ready to look at peer effects, and resource advantages, and attrition. We'd better think carefully about whether a "choice" system provides families with the information they need to make good choices. We'd better be prepared to consider that urban choice is not suburban choice, and that charterization likely advantages those parents with greater access to social and cultural capital, leading to systems that are even more segregated than they were before.
Is Jonathan Alter ready to have this conversation? Or is he simply going to keep repeating the tired, intellectually lazy banalities of his reformy Montclair neighbors?
It's actually a really nice town.
* I took out early childhood centers and special education schools to make the comparisons more relevant. Of course, grade level can also be a factor, but there's no easy way to account for that, as NJDOE data does not disaggregate poverty measures by grade. Caveat regressor.
** Speaking of fiscal implications, here's Bob Braun:
When you simultaneously defund the public schools and protect charters from budget cuts, you inevitably drive enrollment towards charters and away from districts. Who wants their child to attend crumbling, underfunded schools with narrow curricula when they could go to brand-new charter schools, which always seem to have funds available to them for construction that public schools do not?
Golly, you'd almost think someone was planning things to go this way. But that would be crazy conspiracy talk, right? I mean, no one is really making money from the privatization of schools. Especially in New Jersey; everyone knows there are no for-profit charter operators here. It's crazy to think otherwise. Especially in Newark. Only nut cases would claim anything different.