Tag: charter schools

Why Don’t Public Schools Give Parents What They Want?

The Washington Post reports today that it’s “harder to describe” the mission of one of the magnet schools in Arlington County, Virginia: Arlington Traditional School. Not that hard, if you just read the quotes from the principal and parents:

“Our emphasis is on basic education,” Principal Holly Hawthorne said….

“The word ‘traditional’ implies a cachet to us,” said Craig Montesano, a lobbyist for the shipping industry who visited Arlington Traditional with his wife. To him, the word conjures ancient Rome and Greece and the promise that his daughter will be “grounded in the learning that has come down through the ages in Western civilization.”

Some parents say the selective nature and more disciplined culture remind them of private school. 

And it seems to work:

The federal government has twice named Arlington Traditional a National Blue Ribbon School for its academic performance. And its students routinely outscore district averages on the Standards of Learning tests.

And parents like it:

Last spring, 298 families applied for 72 slots.

So why doesn’t the Arlington County School Board expand it, or build more such schools around the county to accommodate all the parents who want their children to get this exotic thing called “traditional” or “back to basics” education? Maybe they just didn’t realize until today – or last spring – how popular it is? Well, as it happens, I live in Arlington, and I recall that the Washington Post has been reporting on the popularity of Arlington Traditional School since the late 1970s. Parents used to camp out overnight to get their children into the school until they created a lottery system. Through the Nexis service, I found some of the stories I recalled. Most of these articles are not online. 

Here’s what the Post reported in September 1982 when the school, then called Page Traditional School, was three years old: 

For Arlington school board member Margaret A. Bocek and her husband, the first day of school this year began late Monday night when they and 40 other parents camped out on the lawn of the county’s Page Traditional School to ensure that their 3-year-old children could attend there on opening day, 1984…. 

In the last three years, such parent stakeouts have become commonplace at Page, a public alternative school that stresses a traditional format of self-contained classrooms, regular homework and strict standards for behavior and appearance. Page parents have been lobbying recently for expanding the program to the eighth grade and for expansion of the school’s program to other schools.

And here’s a report from September 1985:

This year, the line began to form at 10 a.m. on Labor Day, 23 hours before Page Traditional School in Arlington would begin accepting applications for the kindergarten class of 1987.

By the time Principal Frank Miller arrived at 9 a.m. the next day, about 80 parents were waiting on the lawn – more than triple the 25 slots that would be available in the school’s one kindergarten class.

Seven years after its much-heralded establishment as a back-to-basics, structured alternative to the open-classroom schools popular in the mid-1970s, Page is a cause of both enthusiasm and consternation in Arlington.

Each September, eager parents camp out on the lawn at 1501 N. Lincoln St. to put the names of their 3-year-olds on the kindergarten waiting list.

December 1991:

In an effort to stop overnight campouts by parents eager to register their children at Arlington’s three popular alternative schools, county school officials have proposed dropping the first-come, first-served admissions policy in favor of a random drawing.

An October 1999 headline:

School’s Excellence Is in Demand

Now you’ll notice that the 1991 story mentions three “popular alternative schools,” and indeed the other two, Drew Elementary and H-B Woodlawn Secondary, offer a very different alternative, a more informal, individualized style of education reflecting the “alternative” ideas of the 1960s and 1970s. The Post referred in 2004 to Woodlawn’s “quirky, counterculture ways.” In November 1991 the Post reported that “Last weekend, dozens of parents camped in front of H-B Woodlawn to register their children for the 70 sixth-grade slots.”

In 2012 the Arlington school board did vote to expand Arlington Traditional School by 12 classrooms. But why did it take so long? And why not open more “back to basics” schools, and also more “counterculture” schools, if that’s what parents want?

I wrote about that years ago in a book I edited, Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City.   

In the marketplace, competition keeps businesses on their toes.  They get constant feedback from satisfied and dissatisfied customers. Firms that serve customers well prosper and expand. Firms that don’t respond to the message they get from customers go out of business. Like all government institutions, the public schools lack that feedback and those incentives.

No principal or teacher will get a raise for attracting more students to his or her school. A successful manager in a private business gets a raise, or gets hired away for a bigger salary. A successful entrepreneur expands his or her store or opens a branch. Can one imagine a public school choice system allowing a successful principal to open another school across town and run both of them? 

If Virginia were even a little bit tolerant of charter schools, or if Virginia allowed real private school choice, parent groups or entrepreneurs could organize to deliver the kinds of schools – from traditional to counterculture – that families want. But in a bureaucratic monopoly, the local paper can run thirty years of stories about parents desperate to get their children into particular types of schools, and the central planners can ignore them. 

Understanding Disappointing Charter School Results

Here are two things that everyone interested in education should know: some of the top performing schools in the country are charter schools, and, on average, charters do not perform significantly better than traditional public schools. The former point is exemplified by the likes of the American Indian Public Charter Schools in Oakland (which the local board recently voted to shut down), and the second by the latest national report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

There is no necessary contradiction between these two findings. It could simply be that there is higher variance in charter schools than in regular public schools, which would cause charters to be over-represented among top and bottom performers without necessarily differing from regular public schools on average. 

Charter optimists believe that to be the case, and they expect that consumer choice and the ability of low-performing charters to fail and close down will gradually raise average performance as good charter networks crowd out bad ones. There is even some evidence that things may be moving in that direction—results of the latest Stanford U. study are less bleak than those of the previous one. 

The most dedicated charter school optimists are perhaps the philanthropists who are subsidizing their growth. But this is where the problems become most visible. A couple of years ago, I studied the many dozens of California charter school networks to measure the correlation between their academic performance and the amount of philanthropic funding they had attracted. In a nutshell, there isn’t one. There is, in fact, a stronger correlation between the length of a charter network’s name and its academic performance than there is between its grant receipts and its performance.

Philanthropists are indeed helping to scale-up charter school networks, but they are doing so effectively at random—much like the lotteries by which over-subscribed charters must admit their students.

This should not be too surprising. Many philanthropists talk about getting a return on their investments, but, in practice, they lack the incentives to do so that characterize for-profit investors. Philanthropists are in the business of giving money away. Investors are in the business of bringing it in. The former do not expect a financial return on their investments; the latter do.

Scientology in the Public School Classroom

Are charter schools uniquely susceptible bad ideas?

Yesterday, NPR reported that a group of charter schools in Arizona are employing a teaching method called “Applied Scholastics,” which is based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, the eccentric science fiction author and founder of Scientology. A teacher at one of the schools described the training sessions as “very weird.” Last year, the Tampa Bay Times reported that a charter school in Clearwater, Florida was also using the Scientology-influenced teaching method. 

Some charter school critics leapt on these stories to discredit the entire charter school movement. Responding to the Clearwater revelation last year, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post argued that the use of Applied Scholastics “underscores continuing oversight problems with some charter schools across the country.” Apparently Strauss would prefer students to attend traditional government schools that have lots of oversight, like Prescott Middle School in Baton Rouge:

Inside the industrial looking brick walls of one of Louisiana’s poorest performing middle schools, Scientologists finally have achieved a longtime goal.

A study skills curriculum written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard is being taught as mainstream public education.

All the eighth-graders at Prescott Middle School are being taught learning techniques Hubbard devised four decades ago when he set out to remedy what he viewed as barriers to learning.

The state eventually took over Prescott and now a charter school organization is seeking to make it a charter school.

The reality is that no entire group of schools – public, private, or charter – are immune from adopting silly education fads or outright quackery. We should hold schools accountable for their performance, but using such examples to smear large swaths of unconnected schools without even attempting to demonstrate a systemic problem is intellectually dishonest.

School Board Votes to Shutter Three of California’s Top Schools

On Wednesday, the Oakland school board voted 4–3 to close three of California’s highest performing schools: the American Indian Model (AIM) charter schools. When Ben Chavis took over the American Indian Public Charter School just over a decade ago, it was the worst peformer in Oakland—an utter shambles. Today, it and the two sister schools Chavis created are among the highest-performing in the entire state. I know—I did the math. In a 2011 study comparing the performance of all of California’s charter school networks, I found that AIM was #1 by a wide margin. For contrast, I included in the study two of the state’s most elite, academically selective high schools: Lowell in San Francisco and Gretchen Whitney outside of Los Angeles. After controlling for student characteristics and peer effects, the AIM network beat them both—not just on the official state tests, but on the Advanced Placement tests administered by the College Board as well. More remarkable, AIM accomplished all that while spending less per pupil than the Oakland Unified School District, whose performance is abysmal by comparison. And that’s the great irony of the school board’s vote to close the AIM schools: the board accuses Ben Chavis, who is now retired, of fiscal irregularities or mismanagement during his tenure. Think about that: The board’s own schools are expensive failures. The AIM network is an incredibly cost-effective success. Yet somehow Chavis is the one accused of mishandling a budget? The core of the allegations seems to be that Chavis, who has a real-estate business, leased space to his schools and made money from that transaction, while vaulting AIM schools to stratospheric success. So, naturally, we should punish his schools. $#%#?!?

“Nice Charter School Bill You Got There… Shame If Anything Were To Happen To It”

The latest politician to blur the lines between legislating and running a protection racket is Representative Dan Eaton, division chairman of the New Hampshire state legislature’s powerful House Finance committee.

In what Charles Arlinghaus of the New Hampshire Union Leader generously described as “a rare moment of candor”, Rep. Eaton recently stated during a committee hearing that he was going to hold up an entirely uncontroversial bipartisan charter school bill purely for political purposes. As he explained, “I’m looking at this as political. We have a [budget] negotiation [with the state senate] coming up in June and I want to have a trump card or two, and this is … a very healthy trump card.”

Arlinghaus breaks it down:

Consider what he’s saying: He liked the bill and supports the policy, but he believes he can use the bill as part of a hostage negotiation with the Senate. He wants to say to the Senate “I know you want this, but we’ll kill it even though we like it too unless you do something else we want that is completely unrelated.”

Without question, some give and take and normal compromise will be part of a budget process. Everyone expects the House and Senate to pass different budgets and to then negotiate over the details of what gets included. But this bill isn’t part of that process and wouldn’t be part of that negotiation unless Eaton gets to keep it captive in a back room. In effect, he’s looking at charter schools and saying, “I’m sorry you got caught in the crossfire, but I think I can sell you for a good price.”

The bill in question was intended to clear up a misunderstanding about a recent change to the Granite State’s charter school law that the state attorney general’s office understood to mean the opposite of what the legislative authors had intended. The bill, which restored the previous statutory language, had already received a positive recommendation from the NH House Education Committee and passed the full NH House on a voice vote, meaning that the support was so overwhelming that it was unnecessary to count the votes in favor and opposed. What seemed like common sense to most legislators apparently looked like an opportunity for political hostage-taking for Rep. Eaton.

Without the fix, the five new charter schools that are already in the governor’s budget cannot be authorized. Even a delay until the budget negotiations in June will jeopardize the ability of these charter schools to be ready to open in September.

As a former member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, I can attest that the “Live Free or Die” state’s citizen legislature often embodies the highest ideals of self-government. Most of the legislators I encountered in both parties were principled and completely dedicated to making New Hampshire an even better place to live. Unfortunately, these sort of legislative shenanigans leave a stain on the august institution. Let us hope that sunlight proves to be a sufficient disinfectant.

Public Prefers Education Tax Credits to Charters, Vouchers

In a recent public opinion study conducted by Harvard University researchers, education tax credits were found to attract more public support (72%) than either charter schools (62%) or vouchers (50%).

The authors seem to find this puzzling, in part due to their belief that “most economists think the difference between vouchers and tax credits more a matter of style than substance.” I have no idea whether this is an accurate assessment of economists’ opinions, but it is certainly a mistaken view, for several reasons.

First, based on a set of regression studies I reported last year in the Journal of School Choice, vouchers, but not tax credits, impose a large and highly significant extra burden of regulation on participating private schools (the link is to an essentially identical pre-publication version). In that study, I offer a suggested explanation for why this pattern may exist.

Second, tax credit programs confer freedom of choice and conscience not just on families but also on taxpayer/donors. As I argued in U.S. Supreme Court amicus briefs in ACSTO v. Winn, and a subsequent op-ed on the Winn verdict, this avoids the compulsion that has plagued state-funded school systems since their inception and has precipitated our endless “school wars.” Vouchers, by compelling all taxpayers to support every type of schooling, perpetuate that compulsion and so perpetuate the conflicts that flow from it.

To my knowledge, in the whole history of the world there hasn’t been a system of government funding for the education of children that has long avoided extensive regulatory constraints. Those constraints defeat the purpose of “school choice” programs, by homogenizing the schools from which parents are permitted to “choose.” There is evidence that tax credits, which make use of only private funds, avoid that fate. Perhaps many economists have not yet become aware of this distinction, but it is one they should take a keen interest in.

Would You Let a Quack Treat Your Child?

Cases in which parents deny their children modern medical treatment are increasingly rare. In medicine, the days of snake-oil selling quacks are mostly behind us. Sadly, the same isn’t true in education policy.

Medical researchers precisely define and test their proposed treatments. Compare that to a recent bit of education policy “analysis” in which the writer purports to assess Milton Friedman’s market-inspired proposal (minimally regulated school vouchers) by reviewing the outcomes of charter schooling. This is like testing insulin by administering Flintstones Chewables. Charter schools are opened and closed at the discretion of government authorities, lack market-determined prices, and cannot be operated for-profit or offer religious instruction. In many states, they cannot hire teachers who lack government credentials. Friedman’s voucher proposal shared none of these characteristics, and so to treat the two interchangeably is a sign of ignorance or intentional equivocation.

Even when relevant evidence is presented, the presentation is frequently inaccurate and unsystematic. To see just how serious this problem is, it helps to look at an example in detail. Consider a recent discussion of voucherizing U.S. federal education spending that drew lessons from Chile’s voucher program. Many of its facts are wrong, others are misrepresented, and key pieces of information are omitted.

The author claims that Chilean education spending as a share of GDP shrank between 1980 and today. But, according to the United Nations, it rose from 4.4 percent to 4.5 percent. And, due to the sustained growth of Chile’s economy since the mid-1980s, inflation-adjusted per pupil spending has more than doubled.

The author acknowledges that Chilean students are now the highest-performing in Latin America, but claims that his fabricated “budget cuts have led to overall decline in quality.” In fact, Chile is one of the fastest-improving nations in the entire world on international tests of academic achievement. He goes on to claim, without support, that vouchers have led to growing inequality, benefiting only upper-middle-income families, yet a Yale University study reports that the voucher program has reduced inequality in educational attainment and raised earnings equally for both the poor and the non-poor.

Finally, the author notes that lower-income students are more likely to attend public rather than private schools in Chile, but neglects to mention that public schools serving the poor receive a varying amount of additional funding that is not given to private schools serving similar students. Chilean economists Sapelli and Vial report that public schools receiving vastly higher funding per pupil outperform private schools (which explains their appeal), but in the rare cases in which the public sector’s funding advantage is 25 percent or less, it is private schools that perform better.

This is not an exhaustive list of the commentary’s errors, omissions, and misrepresentations, but it should suffice to show the level of quackery being doled out to the public by purportedly serious publications (it was published in the Washington Post’s education blog). We’re not exactly talking House or Doc Martin here.

Few parents would administer the medical equivalent of this claptrap to their children–they are generally protected from such errors by the health-care field’s comparatively careful, systematic research practices. But in education, they still suffer under the ministrations of charlatans. The result can be seen in the virtually unique productivity collapse that has beset American education for generations.

So what can we do about it? A first step would be for well-intentioned education policy analysts to make more systematic use of the high quality research that is available, and to add to that literature. But it is harder to conduct experiments on the impact of state or national policies than on the impact of drugs. Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem–one that we also owe, incidentally, to the medical field. I’ll be writing about that soon, and will update this post with a link when it’s available.

Update: My article in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

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