Jonathan Kallay's Blog

Thoughts on society, education, and politics.

Charters, School Closures, and Public Control

Mari Taylor, vice president of the Washington State School Directors Association, wrote a fairly effective anti-charter school op-ed in yesterday’s Seattle Times which raises some issues worth analyzing. She goes straight for the heartstrings with:

Communities across the state have dealt with the wrenching process of shutting small schools down to close budget gaps. The new privately run I-1240 schools, with new facilities and costly overhead, would take $100 million away from communities that need every available resource for their existing schools.

The implication is that charter schools will reproduce the pain of budget cuts, by adding overhead. But this is false. Budget cuts are painful because they are all pain and no gain. Schools have to be closed to fill a gap, and this is not only disruptive to the families forced to change schools, it means that the schools receiving them become more crowded, leaving everyone worse off than before. With new charter schools the case is totally different: the money follows the students. So while losing students to charter schools may lead districts to consolidate some of their schools, the net result is that the number of schools, and the overhead of running them, remains unchanged.

To give the loss of a district school to a charter school some bite requires an argument that the charter school is somehow worse than the district school was. The way that Taylor does this is with the specter of the loss of local and, strangely enough, parental control. Because the charter schools are overseen by a state commission, losing a district school to a charter means the community loses its democratic control over its schools.

To consider this a real loss we have to believe in a rosy, pastoral picture of local school politics. But the “wrenching” nature of school closures, which, as Taylor herself points out, happen regularly without charter schools, paints a different picture. The fact is that school closures are an expected part of running school districts with changing demographics. But they are wrenching to school board members like Taylor because they are contentious. For a district, with relatively constant per-school fixed costs (such as administrative salaries), a small or under-enrolled school requires high per-pupil expenditures. This means that students at such schools effectively receive more resources than at large or over-enrolled schools. Closing these schools evens out the distribution of resources; from the perspective of the families attending those schools, however, resources are being taken away from them. This is most troubling when there are several candidates for closure across a large district, but in neighborhoods with substantial differences in political and financial resources. The choice is then between closing schools attended by the well-off and the politically powerful and those of the poor and politically weak. I need not say which is the more likely choice.

This actually spells out why we need charter schools: to fill needs that remain unmet by the political and bureaucratic processes of local school districts. Without charter schools, when a struggling, under-enrolled neighborhood school gets closed by the district, its students are at the mercy of whatever reassignment policy the district comes up with. With them, the need for a school in the neighborhood can be met by a different organization, even in the same building. As far as public expenditure is concerned, the charter school would be cheaper because it would only be allotted the average per-pupil rate. The reason a charter school could succeed in a location the district had to abandon is that it would be free to make different choices about its overhead to make the small school environment feasible; it could pay its administrators less than the prevailing rate, for instance. And because it specifically targets that neighborhood and its population, it might be able to raise funds a district, or district  foundation could not.

Families who do not agree with the tradeoffs a charter school chooses would remain free, of course, to choose a different one, or the district reassignment. In this way charter school law creates power that is more local than the control exercised by school districts, not less. To be certain, it takes away some power from the democratic majority and cedes it to individuals. But balancing the power of the majority with the power of the individual is how modern liberal democracy works.

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Finding Inspiration for the Washington Charter School Push

The Washington State charter school movement suffers from an enthusiasm gap, at least according to an offhand remark made by The Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat: I-1240, the charter school initiative, has had to be backed by “a few rich folks” who had to “buy their way onto the ballot” by spending $6 per signature, “probably because there was no army of impassioned volunteers burning to go door to door in the name of charter schools.” Westneat brings this up to contrast what has been a legitimately grassroots campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.

But is Westneat’s comparison fair? Same-sex marriage is, after all, one of the defining social issues of our day. Participants in the debate over charter schools, on the other hand, are by-and-large are education wonks–Westneat’s aforementioned “rich folks”, the Gateses, included. Leaving alone Westneat’s objection to the influence of large donors on elections, or the question of what issues should tackled via voter initiative rather than the legislative process, should the supporters of an issue be embarassed if it isn’t a blockbuster like Referendum 74? Surely not.

But while it is true that gay marriage is a hot-button issue, what is truly remarkable is its rapid trajectory towards being a settled one. Even if the outcome of R-74 is still up in the air, in the eight years since the last charter school referendum same-sex marriage has attained an aura of inevitability, with its opponents quickly finding themselves on the wrong side of history. Charter schools, meanwhile, still seem to be viewed by many Washingtonians as an educational fad they’d rather this state just sit out. Since I-1240 and R-74 will appear on the same ballot, charter school supporters have a natural opportunity to draw inspiration from the highly successful marriage equality movement.

After all, both movements seek significant changes to cherished social institutions. And in both cases, supporters have had to recast these changes as less significant, which is to say less threatening, than they might otherwise appear. Same-sex marriage supporters have had to refute the implication that a straight couple’s marriage is in any way affected by the marriage of a gay couple down the street. I-1240, meanwhile, with its limit of only 40 charters in the whole state in the first five years, further restricted to only non-profit and non-religious organizations, is an exercise in the art of being non-threatening.

The problem with the strategy of appearing harmless, is, of course, that it creates a risk of being seen as irrelevant. This, I believe, is what differentiates the two movements in Washington: beyond just dispelling the fear of change, the marriage equality movement has an affirmative narrative whereas the charter movement has none. The marriage equality’s narrative comes in the form of the personal stories of same-sex partners and their families, stories which have tapped into our shared understanding of what marriage, and only marriage, fully symbolizes: the love of two people sharing a life and growing old together. It is not just that voters’ reasons for saying no to same sex marriage now seem increasingly foolish and parochial; we can say yes to same-sex marriage in an affirmation of the kind of love we all would like to have.

Charter schools have no such narrative because they have too often been put forward as an implicit criticism of traditional public schools. Their two main promises made been that they will perform better than traditional public schools, in absolute terms, and that they will force traditional schools to improve through competitive pressure. Even today the language of I-1240 backers relies on criticism, albeit heavily qualified: traditional public schools are good on the whole, but they let too many students “fall through the cracks.” Voters should be given something to say ‘yes’ to.

There is a compelling story charter supporters can tell, which is itself about the unique story of every childhood. At their best, charter schools are opportunities to weave tightly-knit school communities around particular educational approaches, philosophies, or themes, such as language immersion, environmental education, or even classical Greek and Latin. They therefore increase each child’s chances of having an education that is special, meaningful, and nourishes his dreams and aspirations. While it is true that many school districts attempt to offer a diverse portfolio of programs, doing so is at odds with what school districts are designed to do, which is to provide a comprehensive, consistent, and conveniently accessible educational experience to the majority of children who do not need, or want, more specialized programs. Relieving districts from the burden of having to be everything to everybody makes charter schools complementary to district schools, not adversarial.

Admittedly, making school special and meaningful for children is not as obvious a sell as marital bliss. Traditonal public schools provide consistency because of a laudable egalitarian ideal of providing children with comparable educational experiences regardless of their origins and means, an ideal which must be carefully reconciled with the idea of making every school experience meaningfully unique. But the real problem is the more recent narrowing of our schooling vocabulary, as if nothing could be said about schools other than their test scores. To appreciate how absurd this is, imagine that the only thing anyone could talk about when considering same-sex marriage was whether it would lower divorce rates. But expanding the conversation about education with an affirmative narrative is a noble task for charter school supporters to engage in. And as the success of the marriage equality movement shows, with the help of good messaging, the electorate can come around remarkably quickly.