Charter News on Fire
Charter schools are all over the news these days, and the cool reception to charters by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is at the center of all this attention.
The media has had a field day with the high drama of de Blasio, the new progressive standard bearer, putting dozens of black and Latino children out of district public school buildings by reversing the facilities plans for Success Academies. Unless Success can broker a deal or find some other space on short notice, the kids may be booted entirely out of their schools, which are well-known for attaining high scores in standardized tests. (Update: the city may in fact help them find space.) To add to the drama, the governor has pitched his tent with the charter networks, promising to “save” charters and setting up a proxy war between the state Capitol and City Hall.
Reading the past couple of weeks’ news articles, one would think that two opposing sides in the Democratic Party and in the charter movement have evolved and are looking for a showdown.
What’s Really Going on Here?
As an insider, I reject the “two sides” description of this debate because I happen to agree on at least some points with both of the so-called sides. Instead, my view is that we the people have created this monster by developing and endorsing a patchwork of reforms to address the crisis faced by our schools.
Specifically, I believe that the lack of a school system-wide and society-wide agreement about how enrollment should work is the main cause of this controversy. We have had at least 60 years to come up with such agreement; the Brown decision in 1954 desegregated schools and led to everything from “magnet” schools to busing kids across town and even to school vouchers and charter schools.
In New York City, I don’t think we have even come close to a shared civic understanding of how enrollment ought to work. People with integrity and passion for the same goals are fighting each other instead of the shared problems of inequity in education, lack of access to high quality educational environments for certain communities and a stratified post-secondary enrollment profile that mirrors our widening society wide income inequality problem. Since we don’t agree on the first principles required to form a strong set of enrollment policies across the city—and because of that, we have a patchwork of procedures and rules that are at best confusing and intimidating to parents and at worst unfair and polarizing—we are all trying really hard to accomplish entirely different things and getting angry at each other for not having our efforts and accomplishments recognized and valued.
Charter Enrollment: School Choice
Why would I argue that this debate boils down to enrollment?
When charters were introduced to New York State in 1998, a different enrollment structure based on school choice was a key, though not the only, innovation promised. Never have the implications of this simple switch been fully debated in the public sphere, yet after 15 years of charters, we now have a lot of information about the pros and cons of this version of school choice.
Who signs up? Who stays? Who leaves and does anyone replace them?
No one can argue with the incredibly high test scores of the Success network, as well as those of charter networks across the city. However, critics argue that because they are schools of choice, either (a) only motivated parents sign up or (b) only really motivated parents finish because the others either transfer out in frustration or are purposely pushed out by the schools.
Whether those observations and assumptions are true or false, what we know as fact is that most of the highest performing charter schools (the Icahn network, I think, is a notable exception) do not enroll new students after a certain point, something like first or second grade.
At our school, which continuously enrolls students all the way to fifth grade, we know the challenge of integrating new students to our school years after kindergarten, when everyone else has been with the program, understands the rules and has made great academic progress.
Time and again, new students in the upper grades absorb a hugely disproportionate amount of time and effort from classroom teachers and intervention specialists alike. We are constantly robbing Peter (our longtime students who are doing well but could do much better with more attention) to pay Paul (the new kids who require enormous effort just to get up to the baseline). It would be much easier—and better for our test scores—to keep the kids we have, shrink the cohorts over time as students whose families are less stable or less invested move on to other neighborhoods and schools, and work with the “survivors.” Given this choice legally available to charter operators (that is, not to replace those students who leave in a process inhumanly called “backfilling”) there does not need to be anything nefarious at work in order for school choice-enabled enrollment changes to positively impact student test scores at a school.
A parallel issue—that is, separate but related—is the narrowing of the curriculum. We the people agreed through our democratic process to enact No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, despite vociferous opposition from many educators. The rules became explicitly about standardized test scores. Who can blame Eva Moskowitz for achieving the incentives set before her by NCLB, and for playing by the rules while doing so?
The pink slime mandate
Let me illustrate the quandary faced by charter operators with a personal story. The family of a friend of mine owns a farm that produces, among other things, the pink slime meat product that made headlines a couple of years ago. Pink slime, called “lean finely textured beef” by the industry, consists of the “leftover” bits of meat, or trimmings, that are left on the bone after a cow has been butchered to make higher value cuts. These sinews, tendons, and connective tissue are mechanically stripped, then heated and separated from the fat in a centrifuge, and ground up and recombined into a sort of paste that is used as filler for ground beef. Along the way ammonia gas or citric acid is used to sterilize the meat product (perhaps giving it the eponymous pink tint), and it is soon ready to appear at fast food chains and school cafeterias.
When activists complained about the frankly disgusting nature of this process, the presence of ammonia in school food, and the lack of transparency over what is otherwise called “ground beef,” school districts and fast food companies responded and dropped the product from their kitchens.
Farmers, according to my friend, are livid. To paraphrase him: “They complained that we were wasting a lot of meat, that we were inefficient because we were leaving edible parts of animals on the bone and only selling the higher value stuff, and mostly that we were not producing enough lean beef because Americans were eating too much fat. We worked hard to innovate and now we are told they don’t want it after all.”
Farmers perceived a mandate—sell leaner beef, and do so efficiently—but it was an incomplete one, and when the results of their efforts came out, the public reacted with distaste.
Charter operators have taken up our own mandate: close the achievement gap. Give poor families the chance to send their kids to college, by any means necessary.
Haves and have nots
One reason why we haven’t come to a consensus, as a nation or even as a city, on how enrollment should work is that it’s darn complicated.
Every time I talk to a parent who says, “Thank you for providing a safe and structured environment for my child,” I find myself saying, “Thank you for looking out for a safe and structured environment, and for being supportive of our expectations.”
And when I hear a parent with the opposite attitude say, as I have on more than one occasion, “I don’t think my child needs to show up to school on time or follow all y’all’s rules,” I know that despite all of our positive outreach, relationship building and co-planning, this parent may eventually choose to head out the door and enroll in the zoned school in his or her neighborhood, where the reality or the perception is that “that school won’t bother me all the time with this crap.” The zoned school will see a predictable pattern and say, “There goes another charter school, sending us the kids that they don’t want,” and we will shake our head and say, “What could we have done differently? We can’t lower our standards.”
In these tug-of-war scenarios, the youngest people involved often have the least input. But when their educational environment shifts beneath them or turns out sub-optimal, it’s those little people who suffer, not the grown ones arguing.
I’m not blogging to say that I have any answers; I don’t. I’d like to hear the conversation focus more on the first principles behind what fair and equitable enrollment looks like, so we can move away from that patchwork of inconsistent plans, and use our uniquely American talent for coming up with a compromise that moves us, inch by inch, closer to a truly fair and equitable system.
After all, fair and equitable describes the system our kids and families—all of our kids and families—deserve.