Monday, January 05, 2015

More Hyperbole on Charter Schools

Marty Solomon is correct to be concerned that Kentucky might adopt a weak charter school law which would surely lead to all manner of financial abuses and other shenanigans - all for very little or no benefit. But the bulk of his overstated claims should be ignored. In states with strong accountability for charters, they have not proven to be cancer. Rather, charters are most often indistinguishable from other public schools.

I consider myself to be a very weak charter school supporter. But what I can't stand in some charter school supporters is their tendency toward hyperbolic claims of wonderful effects derived from charter schools. There is nothing magical about being a charter operation that improves the education of children. I can't abide their lies.

Similarly, I don't see any reason to accept the hyperbolic claims of those who oppose charters either. There is nothing toxic about a well-regulated charter school.

The issue is whether charter schools are regulated effectively. When they are not well-regulated, Solomon's concerns are valid. When they are well-regulated, his concerns are not. Blanket indictments are overkill.

Nationally, charter schools are funded at about 70% of their traditional public school counterparts with no provisions made for facilities. Where accountability and operational transparency are written into the law charters tend to operate like any other school. Some are good. Some are bad. Most are in between - just like all public schools. None of them provide magical solutions for educating children from poverty. Where charters thrive, there is a lot more going on in the school community to support the students - just like in the best traditional public high schools - just like in the best private schools - just like in the best parochial schools. Solomon's criticisms apply best when considering for-profit charter school operations in states with weak oversight - many of which are terribly fradulent and indeed...cancerous to the system.

By contrast, my son (a certified teacher) teaches AP Economics at a charter/magnet high school in Atlanta and I can't distinguish the school from any other high school in town. In fact,the school is considering dropping its charter, and returning to operation as a Fulton County school next year. No problem.

My hope is that Solomon will turn his attention to the specific language in proposed charter school bills for Kentucky. There I'm sure he will find specific concerns that he can accurately rail against without the overstatement - which does not help the conversation and which ought never come from professors.

Further, I believe there is a constitutional question regarding charter schools in Kentucky. As the court has made clear, the General Assembly has the duty to provide adequate schools throughout the state. And the General Assembly may not satisfy their obligation by transferring that responsibility to another entity, whether that be a local school board or a charter school authority. The legislature must remain in control. But that also means that the General Assembly could argue that it cannot allow persistently low-performing schools to exist and accordingly, justify taking that authority away from a local school board. 

This from Marty Solomon in the Herald-Leader:

Charter schools would be unwise investment for Ky.

Marty Solomon
Charter schools are a cancer on public education. Kentucky should continue to reject their creation.
This is because they suck scarce funds away from our public schools, thereby making quality public education more difficult. At the same time, the vast majority of charters fail to deliver on their hollow promise to provide a superior education.

Charter schools are essentially private schools, run by private operators, under private rules, with private teachers, operating with far less accountability than public schools, and are exempt from all state statutes and administrative regulations.

The state would have absolutely no control over them. Because they swipe public funds from public schools to operate, they misleadingly call themselves public schools to hide their private nature.
While they promise to save children from failing public schools, charter schools are notoriously incompetent.

The track record for charter schools is abysmal and shameful. But that is what you would expect since they can hire teachers without any teaching experience or training — not even one college course in education — and can hire administrators without even a high school education.

The nation's report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is administered by the U.S. Department of Education every two years. It is given to children in every state to measure their academic ability.

On math and reading tests in grades 4, 8 and 12, over the last eight years, public schools outscored charter schools in every category every year.

And when comparing test scores between poor and middle-class children, charter schools again failed. They were out performed each year by public schools. So, the claim that they rescue kids from failing public schools is totally bogus.

In Ohio, in 2010, for example, while only 10 percent of charter school children scored proficient, 40 percent of public school kids were proficient. In 2012, while 12 percent of public schools were graded poorly as D or F, 64 percent of charter schools got those grades.

The largest study of charter schools ever performed was by Stanford University in 2013. It included 95 percent of all charter school children in the U.S. It found that while there are some good charter schools, 71 percent of them were either worse than or no better than public schools.

So don't let charter proponents fool you. Their scheme is to point out problems with public schools, with the tacit assumption that charter schools will solve those problems, but facts emphatically counter their exaggerations.

The proposed charter-school legislation for Kentucky is a sweetheart deal for charter-school operators. In addition, everyone working for a charter would automatically become eligible for health care and retirement and the Kentucky system is already billions in debt.

Further, it would create a commission of charter-school advocates to uniquely monitor and approve new charter schools while having the ability to pay themselves lush salaries. Ever hear about the fox and chickens?

While advocates claim that poor-performing charters would be shut down, an initial charter would be licensed for five years, then could be allowed probationary status after that.

So a corrupt charter school could operate for maybe eight years before being shuttered and, in the meantime, be given multiple millions in state money. Worse, failed schools could reopen with some different personnel or simply walk away with public school money.

Charter schools are also ripe for fraud and abuse. Even though they propose annual audits, such audits rarely catch fraud. It is almost always a newspaper/TV station that spills the beans. To see the extent of charter fraud and abuse, go to to see over 800 cases of misuse of public funds.

Kentucky doesn't need to expose its public schools to cancer.

A much more balanced assessment of charter school issuers can be found in a new report from Jon Valant at the American Enterprise Institute, "Better data, better decisions: Informing school choosers to improve education markets." 

Unlike Solomon's opinion (rant), this work is grounded in solid scholarship and data from existing choice research and it makes useful suggestions regarding how choice might be more effectively implemented. Still, like far too many charter school reports, it makes unsubstantiated claims about the power of choice to reform schools and to improve educational outcomes within a mythical school "marketplace." Valant writes,

Today more than ever, school choice is a centerpiece of American school reform efforts. Policies enabling families to choose from an assortment of charter, private, magnet, and traditional public schools are plentiful in the United States, with advocates describing these policies as a pathway to—and sometimes even a panacea for—school improvement.

A common argument for school choice policies appeals to the potential efficiencies that derive from market-based choices. The essential argument goes like this: Most parents profoundly love and know their own children, which provides parents with a strong desire and ability to find schools that are good for their children. In general, parents should choose high-quality schools that suit their children well so when schools are subjected to market pressures, schools must either offer sufficiently high-quality, desirable programs or succumb to low enrollment.
Unfortunately, getting school choice to work as intended is not quite so simple. There are many ways in which increasing school choice could fail to have its desired effects. For example, if a child cannot get to a school because of transportation hurdles, his or her family could have fewer choices. If a school lacks the autonomy to offer an educational program distinct from nearby schools, then families might have “choices” that are not all that different from one another.

Perhaps the greatest obstacles to fulfilling the promise of school choice, however, are the school choosers themselves. Choosing a school for a child is difficult. Questions about what schools should do and how we should assess performance can perplex education researchers, reformers, and policymakers. Yet the market-based logic for school choice relies on school choosers to answer these questions sensibly, even though many choosers have limited information about schools, limited training in conducting a school search, and limited resources to commit to the process. If few school choosers are up to this task, then school choice markets might not produce their hypothesized benefits.

Today, many governments and third-party organizations offer support to school-choosing families by providing the public with information about schools and helping families navigate their options. A recent proliferation of school performance data—sparked by test-based accountability and a broader societal embrace of data-driven decision making—has supplemented these efforts. School “report cards” and online parent reviews, for example, are cornerstones of today’s information-dissemination efforts, despite each being largely a 21st-century phenomenon.

These dissemination efforts are fraught with challenges. Creating high-quality, reasonable measures of school performance—which is not the focus of this paper—is certainly not the least of them. Yet even if we were somehow equipped with perfect metrics, the work of informing school choosers would be far from complete, because providing the public with information and ensuring that the public is truly informed are not one and the same.

Even a hypothetically ideal school report card will only have its desired effect insofar as people obtain, interpret, and appropriately use the information they derive from it. And unfortunately, people are flawed as information consumers and decision makers. Our cognitive abilities are limited, we are vulnerable to a wide range of biases, and we have only so much time and effort to invest in school searches.
Valant describes in the report how successfully informing the school-choosing public requires understanding which information best describes school quality and how people interpret information and utilize it as they make decisions. He offers theory on how people make decisions, before discussing what school-choosing families desire in schools, where they go for information, how information affects their attitudes and behaviors, and how adults and children might respond differently to the same information. He concludes with implications for the design and dissemination of school profiles and performance reports.


Anonymous said...

"And the General Assembly may not satisfy their obligation by transferring that responsibility to another entity, whether that be a local school board or a charter school authority. The legislature must remain in control. But that also means that the General Assembly could argue that it cannot allow persistently low-performing schools to exist and accordingly, justify taking that authority away from a local school board."

What should this mean for Fayette County? How many years of decline = persistent?

Not arguing for Charter Schools; the Charter School model of public education is not even worth the effort of a rant IMO.

M Winkler

Anonymous said...

I like Dr. Marty Solomon. He doesn't belittle the people with whom he disagrees. I've head he is not the type to constantly correct people who share differing views, and he is not so new to higher education that he claims to know the whole narrative of education reform. Please print more on him.

Anonymous said...

I also have heard good things about Dr. Solomon. He doesn't come across as a know-it-all. I think if he had his own column, he's be more accepting of differing viewpoints --or even opposition--- than others who view themselves as the experts on education in Kentucky.

Richard Day said...


Charters are a bit like Magnets. Neither are magical solutions. I have probably spent more time bashing charters on these pages than supporting them. I’d just like to see a balanced assessment of their potential…which is modest.
The other is a constitutional argument. Theoretically, if something is wrong with the existing system only the legislature is empowered to fix it. If I’m not mistaken, KDE uses 5 years of decline for “persistently.” If a district is low enough, long enough, the state will step in.

January 6, 2015 at 7:40 PM & January 7, 2015 at 10:56 AM:

I have no reason to think that Marty Solomon is anything other than a great guy. This isn’t about him as an individual. It’s not personal. Plus, don’t sell Dr. Solomon short. He’s a pro, who has decided to write in the public arena and sign his name – and I respect that. Over the years I can only think of a couple of times I disagreed with his positions. It is my opinion that he went a little overboard on this one.