School Choice: Trick or Treat?

Boo! Halloween is a scary time of year, so I suppose it’s an appropriate week to talk about “school choice.” Tomorrow evening, A+ Schools is sponsoring a panel discussion with Dr. Howard Fuller, a well-known advocate of charter schools, vouchers, and tax-credit programs. Dr. Fuller will also be the keynote speaker at a full-day seminar sponsored by the Heinz Endowments at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m not sure if anyone will be handing out chocolate, but as we consider whether these programs actually work for students I hope folks will ask: is school choice a trick or a treat?

A former civil rights activist and superintendent of the Milwaukee Public School district, Dr. Fuller is now a professor of education at Marquette University. He serves on the Milwaukee Region Board of Teach for America, and the Milwaukee Charter School Advocates, and is an Advisory Board member of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and the National Association for Charter School Authorizers. His Black Alliance for Education Options is funded by the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, Betsy DeVos of the American Federation for Children, and many others who like to talk about school choice as a way to “rescue” poor black and brown children from “failing public schools.” [See “Big $” for a rundown on many of these organizations.]

Let’s start with charter schools. As I have argued before, there are a handful of “good” charter schools, but most are not serving Pennsylvania students well at all. [See “12 Problems with Charter Schools”] The state considers a score of 70 or above on its new School Performance Profile (SPP) system to be in the acceptable academic range. (I have also argued that the SPP system is highly flawed, but let’s go with the state’s own data here.) Pennsylvania’s public schools average 77.1, but charter schools lag more than ten points behind, with an average of 66.4.

Here in Pittsburgh, only 4 of the 9 charter schools authorized by the district received an SPP score above 70 last year. And crucially, not one of those schools is serving the same population as the Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) district. For instance, 18.1% of PPS students have special needs, but none of the top ranked charter schools comes close to serving that proportion of kids with special needs. Two of the four also do not educate the same proportion of students living in poverty or African-American students. (This includes City Charter High School, whose founder, Richard Wertheimer, will be speaking on the A+ panel with Dr. Fuller.)

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The situation is much the same in Dr. Fuller’s Milwaukee: the charter schools there are not educating the same students as the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). One recent report found that “MPS educated three times as many students learning English and twice as many students with special needs, compared with independent charters. The charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of white students and lower percentage of students in poverty than MPS.” What’s more, the two Milwaukee charter schools with the lowest grade “were Milwaukee Math and Science Academy and Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, formerly called CEO Leadership Academy and connected to voucher school advocate Howard Fuller.” [Journal Sentinel, 9-23-13]

In addition to those charter schools listed in the chart above, Pittsburgh pays to send students to another 13 charter schools (authorized by other school districts and not accountable to the city’s school board) as well as 9 cyber charter schools. [Post-Gazette, 10-14-14] Not one of Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charters schools scored over 70 on the SPP system; in fact, eight of those schools had scores below 50! And over half of all Pennsylvania brick and mortar charter schools (55%) also scored below 50. [Rep. Roebuck Charter Update, 4-14] These dismal numbers are backed up by recent research: a national study last year concluded that Pennsylvania’s charter schools are the third worst in the entire country. It found that charter students here cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013]

This evidence strongly suggests that charter schools are far more “trick” than “treat” for our students. Yet Dr. Fuller argues that poor students, and especially students of color, need access to more charter schools. Presumably he means the “good” ones. But remember, even the “good” ones in Pittsburgh are not educating the same students as the public school system. Let me be clear: schools like the Environmental Charter School are gorgeous and all of our students deserve the small classes and other opportunities offered there. I want all of our children to have theater training with someone as amazing as my friend Hallie Donner at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School.

Will Dr. Fuller talk about how to (finally) feed innovative ideas from charter schools back into traditional public schools so that all students can benefit? Will he talk about how to get rid of the under-performing charter schools that are costing our district a fortune and preventing us from spending desperately needed dollars on student programs? Will he suggest specifically which public schools we should close if we open more charter schools (because that is, in fact, what we will actually have to do)?

Maybe he would like to comment on the recent report released by 27 (!) Pennsylvania school superintendents from five different counties in the Lehigh Valley area calling for desperately needed charter reform. Explaining the need for a revised charter funding formula, one superintendent noted, “The charter school concept is a caterpillar that never became a butterfly … In this story, the caterpillar eats the green leaves of taxpayer dollars and deprives the larger community of children from receiving valuable supplies and interventions.” [Morning Call, 10-17-14]

Perhaps Dr. Fuller will comment on the situation in Hazelwood, where the district created an education desert when it closed all the local public schools. It shifted the neighborhood’s students to Pittsburgh Minadeo in Squirrel Hill and then sold the former Burgwin school to Propel, which opened it as a charter school this year. Now Propel Hazelwood has 123 students paid for by Pittsburgh – almost exactly the number of students (113) that Minadeo lost in enrollment this year, causing it to lose teachers and leading to increased class size. [Post-Gazette, 10-14-14] How does Dr. Fuller want to account for this constant churn and displacement, and the consequences (such as larger class size and fewer resources) for those “left behind” in the public school system?

I suspect Dr. Fuller will also talk about vouchers, which Milwaukee has had since 1990. In her book, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (2013), journalist Barbara Miner explains, “After more than 20 years, one of the clearest lessons from Milwaukee is that vouchers, above all, are a way to funnel public tax dollars out of public schools and into private schools. Vouchers, at their core, are an abandonment of public education.” Wisconsin state test scores show that poor children are not performing any better in voucher schools than in traditional schools (and actually had worse math scores in voucher schools).

The people of Pennsylvania have joined citizens in numerous other states rejecting voucher systems. In a nutshell, vouchers are unconstitutional, expensive, not supported by research, and funnel money away from public schools to private institutions that lack accountability, both fiscally and academically. [See “Vouchers, Coming Again Soon”] So would vouchers really be like candy for our children, or a nasty trick?

Finally, Dr. Fuller promotes tax credit programs, such as those initiated in recent years in Pennsylvania. These programs are actually tax cuts for corporations that cost us $150 million per year by funneling revenue that should have gone to the state for our budget needs into the hands of private and religious schools instead, with zero accountability to the public. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”; Keystone Research Center, “No Accountability,” 4-7-11]. Yet Dr. Fuller’s Black Alliance for Education Options (BAEO) actually boasts about its role in creating those programs here in our state.

Even more shocking, the BAEO claims it was “instrumental in passing the law that led to the state takeover of the School District of Philadelphia, which has led to an increase in quality educational options for poor families.”  That’s right — the BAEO is proud of the state takeover of Philly, which has mercilessly defunded that school system and created horrific conditions there. It’s even worse than that Halloween when you thought you would get a full sized Hershey’s bar from the house down the street and wound up getting a toothbrush, instead.

Tomorrow’s A+ event is being co-sponsored by PennCAN, which will be giving away copies of Dr. Fuller’s new book, No Struggle No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform, to the first 100 people in the door (costumes are apparently not required). PennCAN is an off-shoot of the Connecticut based ConnCAN, founded by hedge fund managers with a long history of funding charter schools and charter management organizations (CMOs). These are not educators, they are financiers who know about making money for their portfolios, and view schools as investment opportunities. [See “Can or Con?”] Here in Pennsylvania, PennCAN promotes charter expansion, a statewide authorizer of charter schools (that would remove control and accountability from democratically elected local school boards), vouchers, funding for early childhood (something we agree on), the elimination of teachers’ seniority, and teacher evaluation based on high-stakes student testing.

Are these the answers we are looking for to help all of our children? Why aren’t they talking about things like smaller class sizes, libraries for all students, the restoration of art and music, tutoring programs, and wrap-around services? Charter expansion, vouchers, and tax credit programs don’t get us great public schools for all our kids. So you decide: is school choice a trick, or a treat?

8 thoughts on “School Choice: Trick or Treat?

  1. I’ve compared Charter Schools in PPS not against the entire school district as in your example, but on a school to school evaluation. Anyone can do this thanks to the Corbett funded web site There you can compare ECS vs Pittsburgh Colfax and see that scores are similar while demographics are also similar (actual ECS has more special ed population, less black population, econ. dis students same). I believe that the district thinks of Colfax as a great school why wouldn’t we say the same of ECS versus demonizing it? Also compare Pittsburgh Lincoln vs Urban Pathways. In my opinion both schools are failing, but Lincoln is actually outperforming Urban Pathways in many categories. In education everything is local and school-to-school comparison is much more valid than these individual schools versus the average stats of PPS, IMHO. I’d also like to note that this blog has lobbied to opt out of testing while it uses this same test data to demonize other schools. Without testing there is no data to compare schools. Which do you prefer? Happy Halloween!

    • Steve, your question about comparisons is a good one. The point is not whether an individual charter school can outperform (or is under-performing) a single school in the district. Charter schools ought to be educating the same range of students as the district they pull from. Otherwise they are not representing the local student population. So the comparison to the district as a whole is appropriate. I believe if you read this post you will agree that I am not demonizing any charter school. In fact, I compliment several of them! I think we all want what ECS offers — for all our kids in PPS. An important question is: how are we going to get that?

      It is also fair to think about the use of SPP scores — I note in this very piece my concern with using those scores. I have written extensively about that issue here:
      We have plenty of ways of determining student achievement and success without a whole bunch of high-stakes tests (for instance: grades, retention and drop out rates, graduation rates, proportion of students taking AP courses, etc.) One big problem with trying to reduce “school performance” to a single number so that it can easily be used to rank order and compare schools, is that it completely over-simplifies what is essentially a complex system of human relationships. It doesn’t come close to “measuring” the learning community in a school building. It doesn’t capture all the wonderful things we know go on in a place that wind up being labeled “failing” or “needs improvement.” And most of those high-stakes-tests don’t really tell us anything new — they are great at measuring poverty. That’s what all standardized tests do really well. And we already know which kids are living in poverty, which schools and communities are struggling with poverty. Worse, of course, is that rank sorting and comparisons are not being done to help students, and send needed resources, but to label and condemn. What are your thoughts on school comparisons without high-stakes testing?

  2. Charter school, which are PUBLIC schools, provide competition for local public school districts. This forces districts to keep their constituents happy or risk losing them to a public charter school.

    A lack of options produces a system of indentured students. Parents with enough money can buy their way out of the school district that doesn’t meet their expectations by purchasing a new house in another district or by sending their children to schools where they would have to foot the bill themselves. Parents must have a way to opt out of a district that doesn’t meet expectations without having to pay for a new house in a more desirable district or join a pay-to-learn private school.

    This is not just about the quality of education, which is also suspect in many public school district. It is also about breaking up the monopoly that is the public school system and providing options to parents and students. Undesirable charter schools will fail and close as Career Connections did. Public school districts need to face the same challenges and competition.

    • We have years of data now that clearly show that “choice” and “competition” do not create better schools. Yet Americans love the idea of “choice.” It fits with our view of the world as consumers. But public schools are not boxes of cereal to choose from in the grocery aisle. Schools are public goods, not consumer goods. Think about other public goods and services that you use, such as public safety. We don’t want to choose from different police providers, we want our local police department to be great: to offer high-quality service that meets the needs of our local community.

      Choice is a free market ideology. Markets do a good job making stuff and selling it. But they also create extreme inequality, with winners and losers. Choice alone doesn’t guarantee quality: you can stick five kinds of dirt in those cereal boxes and offer them as a “choice,” but nobody wants to eat that.

      We really don’t need more choices in public education. We need great public schools in every community, that any parent would be happy to send their children to, and that meet the needs of local families. We don’t really have any choice at all if our local public school is not a high quality option. Consider the suburbs that generally have great public schools: students go to their feeder school and charters barely exist. In fact, “choice” is really only talked about for poor kids and communities of color. Why is that?

      • I may be in a unique situation here but in State College there are multiple charter schools (brick and mortar) and students attending cyber schools as well. I think that we can agree State College, Bellefonte, Penns Valley, etc. are good school districts yet there are many charter schools here and they are not all serving students of color or poor families.

  3. I have noticed that you have gone a bit soft of Governor Corbett these last few posts. With the election being in just a few short days I must say I am a bit surprised by your choice of topics. Why are you not taking these last few opportunities to review all the terrible things our current Gov has done and continues to do to education? Do you know that in the history of Pennsylvania we have ALWAYS given our governor a second term. That is scary right now!! Please at least do a review of all of your posts on Corbett before the final election which will decide his, and dare I say our educational systems, fate for the next 4 years.

  4. Steve, you mention special education populations and I’d like to address that. It’s not enough to compare the overall percentage of students receiving special education services in a school. The costs associated with providing special education services differs widely depending on the needs of each student. For instance, ECS has an overall 10% population but 34% of those students only receive speech and language services, a low cost service compared to services needed for students with more significant disabilities. Unfortunately, charter school funding doesn’t take this difference into account and traditional public schools must overpay charters for these students.

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