Wow! Check out the fancy website for National School Choice Week. It’s polished, it’s colorful; it features kids of all races with bright smiling faces. They even have their own dance! The videos are tearjerkers, reminiscent, in emotional value, of the highly touted documentary film, Waiting for Superman, which propelled school choice advocates into the national conversation back in 2010.
I must confess that when I first watched that movie, seeing the tears of kids who lost the charter lottery and were doomed to attend terrible public schools hit me right in the gut. It struck me as so unfair that they’d have to miss out on… hold on a second. Something didn’t feel quite right. Was I being manipulated? Why did those kids and their parents have to gather in an auditorium to be publicly devastated by not being selected for their choice school, anyway? Wouldn’t a letter or email have done the trick?
Turns out, I was totally taken in by a slick, well-made film that played a bit loose with the facts about school choice. Given how much Americans love the idea of choice, I’m sure I’m not the only one. So in honor of National School Choice Week, here are a few actual facts about charter schools you may want to consider before jumping on the bandwagon.
1. There are no data that support the idea that charter schools are superior to public schools. Even using data from the high-stakes tests school choice folks admire so much. According to Data First, an initiative of the Center for Public Education, on math assessments 17% of kids in charter schools perform significantly better than their peers in public schools. But 37% perform significantly worse. For the rest (46%), scores were comparable. According to a national study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), “less than one hundredth of one percent (<0.01 percent) of the variation in test performance in reading is explainable by charter school enrollment.” Not exactly proof of a winning formula, no matter how you slice it.
2. Unlike public schools, charters can pick and choose their students. Children with special needs are not chosen. Children with behavior problems are expelled. According to Julian Vasquez Heilig, “KIPP and other charters faced a federal lawsuit in New Orleans for not serving special populations and/or doing so poorly.” According to Diane Ravitch in her book, The Myth of the Charter School, some charter schools “counsel out” or expel students just before state testing day. Lower-performing students tend to mysteriously drop out. Throws that “better performing” 17% into serious question, doesn’t it?
3. Children who are better resourced with more family support are the winners in the school choice game. Children from disorganized families don’t even enter the lottery. Children with significant special needs are not well served in charter schools that lack the appropriate resources. The privatization of our schools puts public schools at a huge disadvantage, stranding the least advantaged and disabled in underfunded, under-resourced schools. Much like Lady Liberty, public schools welcome all who end up on their shores:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me….”
Just don’t send them to a charter school.
4. It’s family income, stupid. Ravitch and many others have pointed out numerous studies linking income and test scores. One study demonstrates how SAT scores favor students from wealthy families. Another study at Washington State University confirms the correlation between parental income and ACT and SAT scores, while a different article on the widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor shows how the gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier. In fact, though good teachers are important and account for 10-20% of student achievement scores, University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber has shown that nonschool factors such as family income account for 60% of achievement. That’s a mighty high percentage to try to overcome with uniforms and sustained eye-contact.
5. Public schools, in some communities, are doing just fine. The idea that our schools are falling behind and our students will not be able to compete globally is, according to a number of education experts, off base. Diane Ravitch, among others, has written that the notion that American students’ scores on international tests have declined is a myth. A recent article by Ken Bernstein highlights the point that poverty is the real issue, noting that, “US schools with less than 25% of their children in poverty perform as well as any nation [on international comparisons], and those with 10% or less of their children in poverty outperform Finland.” And The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss agrees:
“It bears mentioning that nations with high-performing school systems—whether Korea, Singapore, Finland, or Japan—have succeeded not by privatizing their schools or closing those with low scores, but by strengthening the education profession. They also have less poverty than we do.”
Again: it’s the poverty, stupid. And privatizing schools won’t cure it.
Circling back to that fancy website with its cute dance, I want to encourage us to be more critical in our evaluations of what is good for our children. Yes, it makes charter schools and voucher programs look shiny, happy and successful. But it’s worth remembering that School Choice Week is basically a giant commercial, paid for by a huge list of corporate sponsors. It’s pushing a product. Like all ads, I know it is a misrepresentation designed to make me want it. But just because I can buy it, doesn’t make it worth having. And I’m not buying.