Earlier this month was National Charter Schools Week, but I was not celebrating. To explain, let me start by saying what equity is, and what it’s not.
A common social justice definition of equity is everyone getting what they need to thrive. Equity is not improving outcomes for some, while others get the same or worse outcomes as before. It is important to clarify this because many charter schools and charter school networks claim to be fighting for racial equity, but in reality, they will never bring this to fruition.
It is important to clarify this because many charter schools and charter school networks claim to be fighting for racial equity, but in reality, they will never bring this to fruition. Click To Tweet
I know many good educators who teach in charter schools. I know they have great intentions for their students. I know many charter schools and their educators are in fact achieving remarkable accomplishments. However, when we talk about equity and racial equity, in particular, we must keep our focus on the entire education system. And in spite of positive achievements that come out of some charter schools, they inherently will never transform our education system towards racial equity.
False Premises and Promises of Charter Schools
There are several false premises undergirding the logic of charter schools. Three that come to mind are the following:
1. Charter schools have freedoms that public schools do not (especially freedom from those meddlesome teachers’ unions!). This freedom leads to innovations that not only help charter school students but eventually benefit all schools and the students that they serve.
2. A second claim about charter schools, especially favored by conservative leading policymakers is that through introducing competition into the system, public schools are forced to “step up their game.” This argument stems from an anti-socialist/anti-communitarian worldview, in which any public good is inherently flawed.
3. Another major argument in favor of charter schools is they lead to better outcomes. It’s hard not to look at the disparate racial outcomes for kids of color in this country and favor any alternative. Charter school proponents look at the failure of our public school system to adequately educate kids of color and imagine charter schools as the solution.
What Charter Schools Actually Achieve
The promise of charter schools is greatly exaggerated. The first U.S. charter school opened in Minnesota in 1991. Almost 30 years later, the dream of educational excellence through charter schools has yet to come to pass. Let’s take another look at the aforementioned arguments in favor of charter schools.
1. Do charter schools actually innovate? If so, do these innovative practices lead to change in traditional public schools? Research and my own experience as a New York City public school teacher generally say, “No.” A 2017 article from the Education Writers’ Association about charter school innovations describes student-centered learning, personalized learning, and STEM-focused curriculum as examples of innovations. None of these practices are unique to charter schools.
Generally, charter schools tend to replicate traditional teaching models. In many cases, charter schools adopt more conservative teaching practices such as an emphasis on direct instruction and behavioralist classroom management. Perhaps this is because many charter schools churn through teachers, and inquiry-driven teaching and progressive classroom management require more skilled teachers.
2. What about competition? First of all, competition with whom? Is competition an appropriate lever for change when we’re discussing a public good? In New York City, former Mayor Bloomberg was a passionate proponent of this approach, opening charter schools and closing public schools at a feverish pace. This may have improved outcomes for some kids, but it did not move the needle significantly toward racial equity. There’s a lot of research that shows charter schools actually sap resources from already under-resourced schools. This happens in more direct ways such as taking physical space or funding away from public schools. Another way this happens is by absorbing kids who are demographically similar (i.e. low income, Black). In other words, families who are likely to navigate the charter school application and admissions process are likely to possess more social and political capital. When these families leave public schools for charter schools, the public schools are left with a higher concentration of kids who lack the same level of support.
Ultimately, the competition argument for charter schools is based on a fallacy, because competition as a driver of positive outcomes only works in a world void of racial discrimination. But in a system defined by racial bias, the market will still avoid giving quality goods to consumers they deem inferior. Because of racism, “competition” doesn’t serve Black communities equitably. I live in Harlem, a predominantly Black community. Competition may lead to lots of Michelin starred restaurants in New York City, but these are concentrated in neighborhoods that serve white clientele. Unless we dismantle systemic racism, competition cannot magically provide better outcomes for communities of color.
3. Overall, the argument that charter schools lead to better student achievement has been debunked. Numerous studies show that on average, charter school outcomes are comparable to public school outcomes. In system’s like New York City, where there is more oversight and accountability, we tend to have some successful charter schools as measured by standardized test scores (KIPP, Success Academy, Uncommon). But even here, there are many mediocre charter schools. And even after a decade of charter school expansion, the overall performance gap between white and Asian students and Black and Latinx students persists. Better outcomes at some charter schools can be linked to many factors. Some of these public schools can and should replicate, for example, the practice of consistent and continuous coaching and feedback. Other factors would be great if they were made available to public schools, for example, large amounts of money donated by hedge fund managers that enable more teachers, social workers, and extracurricular activities.
I have tremendous respect for any teacher. I especially admire teachers that commit themselves to racial equity. But when we discuss charter schools and racial equity, it’s crucial to keep in mind that equity means everyone getting what they need to thrive. Charter schools may improve outcomes for some kids, but they also indirectly cause harm to others. Furthermore, by claiming the mantle of racial equity while only serving a subgroup of kids of color, they act as a diversion from the true work required by society. Even as charter schools expand, and serve more kids, they are not fundamentally changing the racist nature of our education system. As long as that systemic racism remains intact, racial equity cannot be attained.
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