Cloaking Inequity: Using Data and Research to Unlearn Chait’s False Opinion About Charter Schools

Cloaking Inequity: Using Data and Research to Unlearn Chait’s False Opinion About Charter Schools

In this blog I respond to Jonathan Chait’s grossly unfounded opinions in the New York Magazine article entitled Unlearning an Answer with data, peer reviewed research and by highlighting the work of scholars who have conducted extensive research about charter schools. I will also recognize when the predominance of the research supports his opinions.

Political support for Charters is waning among Democrats Chait writes that “political support among Democrats has collapsed.” Chait is right on this point, it’s true political support amongst Democrats has dropped. In a recent meeting I was shown internal polling from the November 2020 election that indicates this fact. I also saw in the same data that Republicans are bigger fans of vouchers than they are of charters. The memory of Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump’s unwavering support for charters will probably have a longstanding and poisonous political legacy for Democratic party support of charter schools. Also, this past year, I met with legislative staffs on the Hill and they relayed that previously increased federal funding for charters was a requirement for Republicans in previous budgets but in recent years they have had other priorities besides charters— such as vouchers.

Charter Schools do not deliver extraordinary results— in fact on average their results are quite limited. Contrary to Chait’s argument, as an academic, I can assuredly tell you that “education researchers” HAVE NOT been shocked by charter schools gains— I think unimpressed is probably a better word. Check out this extensive list of more than 30 National Education Policy Center “top experts” whose peer reviewed research findings are largely contrary to Chait’s grandiose claims about school choice. Also, Chait cited studies produced by The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) located at the conservative Hoover Institution. CREDO studies are not blind peer reviewed. But Chait and charter school supporters point to CREDO’s 2015 urban charter study to say that African American and Latino students have more success in charter schools. Leaving aside the methodological integrity of the study for a moment, what Chait and charter proponents don’t mention is that the performance impact is .008 and .05 for Latinos and African Americans in charter schools, respectively. These impact numbers are larger than zero, but you need a magnifying glass or telescope to see them. Contrast that outcome with policies such as pre-K and class size reduction with far more unequivocal measures of success than charter schools— often more than double and triple the impact of charter schools. Also, CREDO doesn’t usually compare schools in their studies. Instead, researchers use statistics to compare a real charter school student to a virtual (imaginary) student based on many students attending a limited subset sample of neighborhood public schools. Considering the limited impact, criticism of CREDO’s methods, and lack of blind peer review— Chait problematically leans on the CREDO as important evidence demonstrating charter school success.

New Orleans is not a charter success story. Chait mentioned New Orleans as a charter success story. Notably, New Orleans charters and Louisiana have been last and nearly in most educational data (NAEP, ACT scores, and Advanced Placement scores, dropout, and graduation). Further, a near majority of charters schools in New Orleans are rated D or F. Does that sound like a success story to you? Where education reformers actually succeeded in New Orleans was in realizing their goal to close NEARLY ALL the neighborhood public schools and replace them with (primarily poorly performing) charters.

Virtual and for-profit charters are performing poorly. Chait is correct when he says, “One variant of the charter-school model — schools operated by for-profit organizations, which account for about 12 percent of the category — tend to do badly. Another kind, “virtual” charters that conduct classes online, are regarded by experts almost uniformly as a scam.” Research using federal data by the Network for Public Education (NPE) will soon show that the national percentage of for-profit charters is actually underestimated nationally by charter school lobbying groups— it is a larger proportion than reported by Chait (stay tuned). For research on the problematic performance of for-profit schools and virtual schools, I recommend you take a look at research by Kevin Welner (University of Colorado) and Gary Miron (Western Michigan University).

Charter school admissions and student retention is not as simple as “lotteries” and “voting with your feet.” Thus, due to widespread access and inclusion issues. Charters are NOT a perfect laboratory for research or— on average— bastions of student success. While students may enter charters via lottery, student attrition is an extensive problem for charter schools. For example, we conducted an analysis of state data and published the work as a peer reviewed study in the Berkeley Review of Education. We found that approximately 40% of Black students left KIPP before graduation and identified a similar problem in other independent and network charters. This is not an unusual finding in peer reviewed research. I asked several nationally known scholars of school choice research to share articles that the public could consider in the debate surrounding charter access and inclusion. You can read that crowd sourced list of research here. The research they cited indicates that charter schools have extensive issues with access and inclusion. 

The Chait talking point that charter schools provide an ideal laboratory for elite studies because of lotteries is not grounded in fact. First, from my experience, charter schools don’t particularly like to be studied by academic researchers. One of my former doctoral students at the University of Texas at Austin sought to study access of special education students to charter schools in Texas. She contacted hundreds of charter schools in Texas and less than ten agreed to participate in her dissertation research. Also, years ago I had agreed to conducted a study to explain extensive African American student attrition at KIPP Austin. KIPP Austin changed their mind once they discovered we planned to publish the study in a peer reviewed journal. Second, Chait points out a policy brief about charters and the achievement gap. It is notable that the review he cited stated at the outset that, “a number of which share a no excuses philosophy, tend to produce the largest gains.” It is well known in the peer reviewed research literature that “no excuses” charters school serially crop and suspend students of color which creates a creamed population of students. Scholars of colors such as Laura Hernández (Learning Policy Institute), Janelle Scott (University of Pennsylvania), Terrenda White (University of Colorado), Kevin Lawrence Henry (University of Wisconsin), Chris Torres (Michigan State University), Joanne Golann (Vanderbilt University), and Chezare Warren (Vanderbilt University) have extensively studied the “carceral” practices, pedagogies & experiences of parents/students of color in no excuses charters (The words of Professor Janelle Scott in this thread on Twitter). A quick Google search of any of these scholars will reveal their important and critical work about charter access and inclusion the incorrect framing of the issue by Chait.

In summary, due to extensive access and inclusion issues, the predominance of the peer reviewed research has demonstrated that charter schools have been problematic for students of color and less importantly are NOT a perfect laboratory for studying student success due to student attrition and exclusion. Furthermore, the proposition that charters can produce dramatic learning gains on average and without expunging students is STILL in serious question in the field of education policy analysis considering the extensively documented access and inclusion issues in the peer reviewed research. Thus, Chait’s arguments on access and equity largely deal in charter school talking points rather than research and data deep dives.

Was school choice created to empower students and families of color or instead derived from other ideological goals? Writing in the 1960s, the libertarian economist Milton Friedman, followed by John Chubb and Terry Moe in the 1990s, argued for a profit-based education system where resources are controlled by private entities rather than by democratically elected governments. They recommended a system of public education built around parent-student choice, school competition, and school autonomy as a solution to what they saw as the problem of direct democratic control of public schools.

According to Chait concern about charter schools is primarily from “white liberals.” Actually, there is a long-term history of opposition from communities of color to private-management of public resources and charters schools. NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois, in his essay Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism in the U.S., extolled the virtues of collaborative social and government action. He railed against the role of businesses and corporate control that “usurp government” and made the “throttling of democracy and distortion of education and failure of justice widespread.” Martin Luther King Jr. argued that we often have socialism in public policy for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor. Du Bois and King would have recognized the current pattern we see— charters (on average more segregated than nearby neighborhood schools) located primarily in urban and poor areas rather than wealthy suburban enclaves. Conservative think tanks and other neoliberal proponents pressing for market-based school choice in the name of “civil rights” ignore this history of African American civil rights leaders advocating for collaborative, democratic systems of social support and distrusting “free market” policies. Furthermore, the NAACP has for years been consistent in its critique of charters schools. At the 2010 convention, the NAACP national board and members supported a national anti-charter resolution saying that state charter schools create “separate and unequal conditions.” More recently, in 2014, the NAACP connected school choice with the private control of public education in a national resolution. A 2016 national resolution, voted on by more than 2,000 NAACP delegates from across the nation, called for a charter school moratorium based on a variety of civil rights-based critiques such as a lack of accountability, increased segregation, and disparate punitive and exclusionary discipline for African Americans.

Despite Chait’s attack on teachers’ perspectives on charter schools, unions are not leading the opposition to school choice Another common argument from Chait is that the teachers’ unions are the primary opponents of market-based school choice. But union leadership has been historically sidelined on charters because of an apparent strategy to organize charter schools. The leadership of teachers’ unions could and should take a much greater role in this conversation since they represent millions of teachers nationwide. Ironically, Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, first popularized the charter school idea in 1988. But he argued that he saw the idea misappropriated in the creation of anti-democratic, privately managed public schools. He later realized that charters were going to a group of people who were “eager for public funds but could care less about public education.” Actually, civil rights organizations, grassroots parent community groups and independent public education advocacy groups are leading the critiques of charter schools.

Who is supporting charters schools behind the scenes? What Chait didn’t discuss is where the money is coming from to support charter school advocacy. Betsy DeVos is the most influential supporter and now probably the easiest proponent to identify. However, a peer reviewed article with Jameson Brewer (University of North Georgia) and Frank Adamson (California State University Sacramento) extensively documented that in the shadows is hundreds of millions of dollars spent to promote privately managed schools from foundations of billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Smaller organizations including the Libre initiative and the Democrats for Education Reform— and many, many other astroturf organizations at the local level– have accepted tens of millions of dollars over the years from billionaires and their foundations to press for market-based school choice. Notably, Chait publicly acknowledged in his article that his family budget is linked to charter schools. He stated, “part of my wife’s job involves providing technical assistance to a state association of authorizers.”

What will Biden do? I served as a co-chair of the Biden Campaign K-12 Education Policy development work. If the work of the committee is an indication of what the Biden Harris administration will do, the next four years will be a substantial departure from Betsy DeVos, John King and Arne Duncan’s focus on top-down, privately-managed education reform. The education legacy of these secretaries includes nearly a billion taxpayer dollars spent on hundreds and hundreds of charter schools that never opened or closed after only one year according to two analyses of federal and state data. I do view Secretary of Education-designate Miguel Cardona as a wildcard because he didn’t reveal a perspective on the research about privately-managed charters and education privatization while he was education commissioner in Connecticut. Cardona simply doesn’t have an extensive record in education policy.

In conclusion, I didn’t spend time on everything Chait discussed, but I corrected the most egregious opinions in his article about charter schools that do not concur with the predominance of the peer reviewed research. I do not think that it is lost on readers of his opinion piece that Chait failed to discuss literally ANY of charter schools’ extensively documented issues noted by academics in the research literature. Setting aside the politics of school choice, I suspect the well-documented issues in charter schools are actually the primary reason why public sentiment is turning against an education reform that is primarily focused on private management and privatization of public schools. 

We do have one major point of agreement: Poor students in the United States have less opportunity for a high-quality education than students living in wealthy areas. So what should we do instead? Education reform focused on community-based, democratically controlled education policy instead of privatization as the primary course of action for historically-underserved families and communities.

January 29, 2021

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