Charters, disadvantaged students, and arguments about education

Jack Schneider is an education historian who studies the arguments people make about schools, and host of an Education Week blog on that topic. Recently, he contended charter schools were harming the most disadvantaged students, and I took issue with that claim.

To his credit, he let me state the case, and I think the resulting exchange was fair.

He’s right that charter schools, by their nature, are going to draw students who have certain advantages (namely, parents who care enough about their education to actively seek other options). And the evidence he cites on “peer effects” raises a real issue for the school system as a whole. But I also think so-called cream-skimming isn’t inevitable:

There is a stereotype that low-income or disadvantaged families are less likely to be engaged in their children’s education, and therefore less likely to participate in school choice. Participation data from the Florida tax credit scholarship program (Disclosure: My employer helps administer this program)—which is open only to low-income families—suggest it’s not true. We’re seeing the opposite. Students who actually use the scholarships to attend private schools tend to be from families with even lower incomes than the overall pool of low-income families who qualify, and annual program evaluations show that tendency is getting stronger over time. Their test scores also tend to be lower than their peers. Yet their parents are engaged enough to actively choose to send them to other schools.

This is a means-tested private school choice program, so the experience of those parents might be different from those who enroll in charters. But there’s also evidence to suggest that school choice is fungible for at least some families. That is to say, some families who accept private school scholarships might just as well opt for charters, career academies, or other district-operated schools of choice when those are accessible to them.

It’s a long post, so check out the whole thing.

Schneider, meanwhile, takes issue with horse-race comparisons between public schools and charter schools, especially those that rely on narrow measures like test scores.

(There’s) also a lot of marketing, as well as a lot of misinformation about charters—and that has led to an inflated public faith in charters. Roughly 70 percent of Americans think that charters are more effective than traditional public schools, yet only a tiny fraction of Americans actually have any direct experience with charters. So what is that opinion really grounded in? And, as I noted earlier in our conversation, the opposite is true when it comes to perceptions of traditional public schools.

I’d also like to point out that even though using standardized test scores to document the success of schools is standard practice, it isn’t a particularly robust measure of school quality. Standardized tests are only a very narrow snapshot of school performance. And it’s quite possible to produce high standardized test scores and deliver a low-quality education to students (though, to be clear: the reverse might not be true, and it is clear that standardized tests do measure something). So all of the pointing to standardized test scores among charter school advocates fails to really inspire me.

On some non-test-related measures, like parent satisfaction, charters are likely to score well. Others, like diversity, are thornier.

These issues are never going to be resolved in a war of soundbites – especially since people tend to approach the school choice debate with vastly different goals and assumptions. Schneider’s dialogue with Michelle Rhee last year remains one of the best examples of what can happen if we start to peel those assumptions back.  It’s a lot more illuminating than simply talking at each other.

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