Opinion | Can We Stop Fighting About Charter Schools?

As an education researcher, a writer, and a former teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with people all over the country about public schools. And wherever I go, there’s one question I can usually count on being asked:

“What do you think about charter schools?”

I know people want a cut-and-dried answer. Unfortunately, the discourse about charter schools has become more of an ideological debate, split neatly into opposing factions, than it is a policy discussion informed by facts. As long as Democrats play by those rules, they miss an important chance to reframe the debate altogether.

Instead of splitting across dogmatic “pro-charter” or “anti-charter” lines, the Biden administration should take a simpler, more transformative stance: demanding high-quality, well-financed schools for all children.

The research on charter schools gives fuel to both sides of the debate. Studies have found, at varying times and in varying contexts, all of the following: Charters have improved in effectiveness, but are less effective than their non-charter peers — yet are more effective for low-income students and students of color than for white and more affluent students. Charters are more likely to suspend their students than their non-charter peers.

Charter schools can improve standardized test scores and the likelihood of taking an Advanced Placement course. They are more racially isolated than their peers, and increased charter enrollment is associated with increased residential segregation. In high-poverty areas, attending a charter school can be advantageous, but less so in low-poverty areas. Charter schools hire more teachers of color.

In one especially telling Economics of Education paper, Devora H. Davis and Margaret E. Raymond of Stanford found that “charter school quality is uneven across student demography and geography,” and only 19 percent of charter schools outperform their non-charter peers in math and reading. Of course, for the students attending that 19 percent, these effects can be life-changing. But unfortunately, as Ms. Davis and Ms. Raymond write, “media attention toward charter schools tends to either demonize or canonize their practices, and data is regularly marshaled to strengthen the case.”

In other words, after two generations of research, scholars have repeatedly asked, “Do charters work?” and the answer is a resounding “Sometimes! It depends!” Not exactly the stuff of great headlines.

I know that as a sociologist and education advocate who is vocal about racial justice and the rights of teachers as workers, I’m expected to just say that I’m against charter schools. My real beliefs are much more complicated. Here are a few:

When the education scholar Ray Budde wrote “Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts” in 1988, his idea was that communities and teachers would partner to imagine radical new ways that schools could work — and use those ideas to transform an entire district. Dr. Budde’s vision was not that schools would compete in a marketplace, pivoting to keep up with the rival down the block. Schools don’t work that way, because they involve both a constrained set of resources, and the magical unpredictability of children.

Efforts to push forward the “disruptive” innovations that charters promise rely on a narrative that paints traditional public schools as outmoded, and their teachers as inept — while those same schools have the mandate to serve all students, not just those whose parents signed them up for a lottery. Large charter networks, sometimes bankrolled by hedge fund money, overshadow smaller homegrown charter efforts. When many people think of “charter schools,” they think of the glowing profiles or troubling revelations at networks like Success Academy. But unlike Success Academy, most charter schools are not receiving $35 million donations.

Meanwhile, more than two million students of color are enrolled in charter schools. Those families should not feel guilty for seeking the education they felt was best for their children in districts that have failed them, in a system that lacks other pathways for community members with big ideas to create public schools that meet their needs.

Yet from all the attention this debate grabs, you would never know that only about 6 percent of public school students attend charters. More students have parents who are undocumented, and far more are disabled. More children live in states where corporal punishment is still permitted in schools. But these students’ needs generally don’t have the kinds of impressive “change agents” associated with them, the smiling faces who attract big donors and awe-struck media coverage. They lose in the financial economy and the attention economy.

By succumbing to a binary view of charter schools, Democrats miss the bigger picture. Many parents choose charter schools because they want their child to get a great education. They want their kid to learn a language, study the arts, have a clean building, and books in the library.

What would it look like if we built an education policy agenda dedicated to ensuring those resources for all students? Not just the students who win a lottery, but the students who lose, or who never get to enter because they’re homeless or their families are dealing with substance abuse, and the adults in their lives don’t have the information or resources to participate in a school choice “market?” What if our system was built not to reward innovation for the few, but rights for the many?

What if we insisted that all our schools, for all our children, should be safe and encouraging places? What if our new secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, focused on a plan as audacious as the New Deal, as well-funded as the war on drugs, dedicated to an all-hands-on-deck effort to guarantee every child an effective learning environment? What if we as a society pursued the dream of great schools not through punishment (as in No Child Left Behind), and not through competition (as with Race to the Top) but through the provision of essential resources?

That pivot would require political leaders to abandon some of the principles that have guided education policy in our generation. It would mean that education philanthropists couldn’t set the agenda by funding the latest trendy reform idea. It would mean ditching the philosophy that we attain excellence through private consumer choice — the idea that a great school is something in-the-know parents “shop for” the way we shop for cereal — in favor of a commitment to excellence for everyone.

It would mean charter school supporters and avowed skeptics alike taking seriously the “educators don’t get paid enough” realizations of 2020 and addressing the teacher shortage that is going to worsen in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Beyond education, schools provide food, shelter, mental health care and a frontline defense against abuse and neglect. The pandemic has reminded us of how essential they are. We need to replace the fight over charter schools with the assertion that every child deserves a great school. And we need the political courage and imagination to make that happen.

Eve L. Ewing is a sociologist of education whose research is focused on racism, social inequality, urban policy, and the impact of these forces on American public schools and the lives of young people. She is the author of “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.”

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