With recent confirmation of Betsy DeVos leading President Trump’s Department of Education, it appears liberals, conservatives and libertarians need to have a discussion on the school choice issue. They need a discussion that isn’t steeped in rhetoric or wild accusations, but rather one looking at the facts and evaluating whether or not such a policy is actually a good idea moving forward.
While DeVos has many platforms and reform goals, the most important of those is the charter school question. It’s here that we will examine both the theories behind charter schools and their record, for better or for worse, against comparable public schools.
First, let’s start with the theory behind charter schools. As our society has advanced, it has become the belief of many that our public school system is likely failing to keep up with the rest of the world when it comes to key areas of education. It’s also believed this is particularly the case in heavily urban areas. A common stereotype of the lazy, irremovable union teacher is used to show that many educators don’t care about American youth. Simultaneously, it’s providing a commentary on how teachers who don’t perform should be fired rather than kept on indefinitely, destroying thousands of children’s educations in the process.
The noble solution, was creating the charter school. If we opened up government funding to heavily deregulated schools, we would allow for teachers to educate again and the free market to provide the best possible service for the lowest cost.
It was believed charter schools would give parents legitimate options to move their children from schools that they didn’t believe were working to ones that were. By subsidizing these schools, no family would be too poor to afford a pseudo-private school experience.
It was also believed not only would teachers be forced to teach, but they would also be held accountable in this system with little to no union protections for underperformers. Teachers would finally be held directly responsible for the success of their students as opposed to being protected by the union boss utterly disconnected with the system.
While this theory sounds great, it has quite a few alternative problems pointed out by the opposition. The first of these is in direct response to free markets, in that they only work when the individual is aware of the quality of the goods being provided and has the education required to compare like goods and services for the best value.
Unfortunately, in the education system the people receiving the service are children who are not sufficiently educated in order to determine the quality, or to express the lack of quality to their parents, especially in a culture which demands respect of figures of authority despite their qualifications.
A second mark against the system is that the parents of the most vulnerable children are many times themselves significantly under-educated, and in some cases are functionally illiterate, and therefore cannot make decisions using real data and are instead forced to use decisions tied to beliefs rather than facts.
This double dose of ignorance means a free market system can’t work. Because of the reasons outlined at the start of the paragraph, the consumer must be aware of the quality provided and have the ability to compare similar goods for changes in that quality.
Additionally, there is the pesky issue of deregulation of charter schools, which ironically makes them less, not more, accountable in terms of a parent or states ability to determine competency. The less regulation on an industry, the less accountability that industry will always have. Without uniform standards, it is impossible to compare one group to another.
Make no mistake, I am not necessarily advocating for increased regulation, but that without uniform defining systems the quality of a product is impossible to measure. Without the definition of gasoline and the standard of octane rating, there would be no way to compare Loaf and Jug’s Supreme to Exxon’s.
Once a group is allowed to operate outside the scope of another, it becomes increasingly difficult to compare the two services. Having covered the theoretical arguments by both sides, we must now turn to what little data we have to see which argument is more likely correct.
Currently, there exists one sole metric that can be used to measure school performance, the dreaded standardized test score. This metric is intuitive, easy to understand and is our best chance at measuring how well a teacher is able to communicate key concepts to their students. Based on these tests, charter schools do not work.
According to a 2009 study of charter schools across more than 16 states provided by Stanford University’s CREDO, only 17 percent of all charter schools outperformed their local counterparts, while 37 percent did statistically worse, and the rest did about even.
This shows that in terms of scores and comprehension, you are statistically more likely to be better off in a public school than a private one, which is hardly the type of information the pro-charter school groups want to disseminate and is problematic for proponents such as Betsy DeVos.
Third, the charter schools that did the best tended to be in the states which most strictly regulated the quality of those schools and exercised the greatest authority to shut them down, whereas the less regulated states tended to have increasingly worse charter schools when compared to their public school system. This only supports the argument that the schooling systems require government intervention to ensure quality standards.
In short, while individuals such as DeVos are right to be skeptical of concepts such as tenure and quality in low-income districts, it’s clear charter schools are not the answer we are looking for.
All quantifiable data we have available shows if one picked a random district, the charter school is two times as likely to be worse than the public school, and three times as likely to be equal to a public school than be better. In short, despite nearly two decades of charter schools, the evidence has shown that the experiment has failed.
Charter schools do not work and are not the solution American children deserve for the future.
Dave Owen is a copy editor for The Dakota Student. He can be reached at [email protected]