Because the argument I often hear from the "reform" industry is that people like me have no business expressing our skepticism about charter schools (nor should we ever dare to call out the incoherence of those who make poor cases for chartering) because charters represent a "choice" that urban families of color -- who are often at economic disadvantage -- make, and no one has the right to take away that "choice" if the only alternative is a "failing" school.
As I've said many times: I'll never blame a parent for enrolling their child in a school that they believe best meets their child's needs. But the idea that the "choice" an urban parent makes when enrolling their child in an urban charter is somehow equivalent to the "choice" a suburban parent makes for their child's schooling is just wrong:
Charter "choice" is not suburban "choice." Shuffling children around within the borders of their district into schools that have unequal access to resources and unequal commitments to educating all students is not the "choice" offered in the suburbs. Offering families either underfunded, crumbling, filthy public schools or charters that are not state actors and do not afford students and parents the same due process rights is not the "choice" offered in the suburbs. Requiring students to submit to excessive punishments for trivial infractions is not the "choice" offered in the suburbs.That said, I'd like to step back a bit and think about another difference between affluent suburban schools and less affluent urban schools. It's becoming increasingly clear that the cost of a "choice" system of schools is democratic, local control of that system -- a privilege increasingly being denied to citizens in urban communities of color.
Let me start by saying first that I'm hardly naive enough to believe that local control is always going to lead to good governance; we have enough examples of local system failure right here in New Jersey to dismiss that idea outright. States have a duty to intervene when local school boards are behaving badly.
But school governance often moves away from local communities not on the premise that local authorities are engaging in malfeasance, but that better outcomes will be realized if control is either moved to a larger governing body, or given over to the executive. That's been the argument, as I read it, in Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia for moving school governance away from locally elected boards and towards a big-city mayor or the state.
And what do all those communities have in common? An explosion of charter schools.
It's as if the people in charge are saying to local communities: "Look, we can't trust you to make decisions about how to structure and oversee your school system. But we'll trade you that control for parental control over where to enroll a child. Of course, we'll control the menu of options for that child, and we'll run the oversight system, and we'll maintain control over the consumer information parents will use to make their choices, even if that information is flawed."
Again: is this actually "choice," or is there something else going on? I'm starting to look at this closely; let me share some early analysis using New Jersey as an example.
About two decades ago, New Jersey decided several of its districts could no longer govern themselves. Again, part of the problem, admittedly, was some bad behavior on the part of the leaders of these districts. However, there was plenty of bad behavior in other large districts, but they never saw officials from Trenton come in and take over. Why were some districts subject to takeover -- and remain under state control to this very day -- while others were not?
If your local school district has a large population of black and/or Hispanic students, it's more likely to be under state control. If your local school district has a large population of students who qualify for free lunch, a measure of economic disadvantage, it's more likely to be under state control.
This is so obvious no one even tries to debate it. That said, there is a layer of subtlety that sometimes gets ignored. Because there are plenty of other districts in New Jersey that have many socio-economically disadvantaged students -- the so-called "district factor group" (DFG) "A" or "B" districts -- that aren't under state control. So why Newark, Camden, Jersey City, and Paterson, and not the others?
Here's a clue: state controlled districts tend to be much larger than those under local control.
A word about how I've done this, and what follows: I've "collapsed" the charter school population for each district into the total district population, so it reflects all the students enrolled in the district schools plus all the students enrolled in the local charter schools. Which is a bit problematic, because a charter school can enroll a student from another district. That's not going to affect our accuracy for large districts much as the out-of-district enrollment is proportionately small for charters in large districts; in other words, most of a Newark's charter students live in Newark, so the above is fairly accurate. Still, others' numbers may be somewhat different.
Keep that in mind as we look at the characteristics of state controlled districts in more detail:
Four of the five largest school districts in New Jersey are under state control.
If you had a franchise with McDonalds and you wanted to plan a site for a new restaurant, where would you go? Where the customers are, of course -- but it would be enormously helpful to you if those places happened to have zoning boards that were amenable to bringing in fast food chains.
So it is with charter schools in New Jersey: they tend to be clustered not only where there are many students in economic disadvantage, but also places that are under state control, which means they have large "customer bases" of students and local school leaders friendly to the chartering movement.
State controlled districts have large charter school populations. Again, these districts are attractive to charter operators for two reasons: first, they have a large population of students, so there are more potential "customers" to market toward. Second, they are controlled by a state government that is amenable to charter school expansion.
Let's look at this a couple of other ways.
Of all districts that have more than 3000 students enrolled, here are the ones with charter enrollments over 2 percent. Hoboken is missing here because it's a relatively small district with relatively big charter market penetration, but the rest show an interesting pattern: districts subject to state intervention see lots of their students enroll in charter schools.
"State monitor" is a lower level of state intervention; fiscal monitors that report to Trenton exert some governance over schools, but not to the extent of "state controlled" districts. Six of the seven large districts with the largest charter market share have some sort of state intervention.
Here's another view:
Four of the five largest DFG-A districts are under state control -- and they have some of the largest charter school enrollments by percentage in the state.
What's even more interesting is who doesn't have many charter schools. Elizabeth is a very big district, but there aren't any charters there. Trenton and Camden are roughly as big as Passaic, which has a much smaller percentage of charter students enrolled. Union City doesn't have any charters, something David Kirp pointed out in his book on that city's schools. It's also worth pointing out Atlantic City just recently came under a state monitor's watch; what do you think is going to happen there next?
In New Jersey, state control and charter schools appear to go hand-in-hand. The question, of course, is "why"? Could it be that local control somehow keeps parents and families from getting the charters they really want? Or is it that charter growth is being forced on communities against their will?
Or could it maybe be that state controlled districts are so poorly managed that charters -- even when they are less than impressive -- still look good in comparison?
More to come...
"Oh, we're VERY innovative..."