Charter Hysteria! And, It’s Not All About NY You Self-Centered Snobs!

Yesterday’s NYT editorial about charter schools has basically sent everyone into their respective bunkers. The charter community is up in arms, here, here, and a little bit here, AFTie John is almost orgasmic with glee, measured response from Joe Williams here.

I’m left feeling like conservative judicial critics of Harriet Meiers must have: I agree with the result but don’t much care for the method. The Times is basically right that some states have not done a good job on oversight. I’ve overseen a ten-state (soon twelve state) series of case studies on charter schools in various states and this is much the same thing we’ve found and said.

But, a couple of issues with how The Times reached this conclusion. First, the reason we’re doing case studies is that charter school policies and context varies so much state-to-state that it’s irresponsible to generalize about charters in one state based on another as they did. Sure, NC’s got some problems and so does OH but that doesn’t tell you much about charters in CA. And, because of the diversity of charters it’s quickly reaching the point where it’s irresponsible to generalize about charters much at all. After all, what does the out-of-control Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow have in common with, for instance, KIPP or Green Dot or MATCH?

Second, and this is important, the achievement picture is more mixed than The Times lets on. In most states charters are posting faster gains than other public schools which means that in a few years the charter picture is going to look a lot different. In addition, though I’ve only seen this data in a handful of places, if you throw out the lowest performing charters and a comparable number of the lowest performing public schools, the charter to traditional public school comparison looks a lot more favorable to charters. Why? Well in no small part because of what The Times gets at, in some places a lack of oversight has resulted in some really shoddy schools opening up. Why is this important? Because politically the time horizon issue is the driving force behind the “kill them in the cradle” strategy we’re now seeing from the AFT, NEA, and others (and yes, I know, I know…they support charters with all the right conditions….spare me, more on that BS later). In other words, all else equal (leave aside if the quality issue really gets tackled) the numbers will look different in a few years and make it politically harder to attack charter schools. By the way, the top performing charters ought to really want to take this on because their phenomenal work is getting lost in the averages because of the laggards.

Now some think the real point of The Times editorial was not national but rather NY specific because the legislature there is considering raising the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. That would make the editorial really peculiar because NY has a pretty good track record on charters and they’ve closed charters that are not performing well academically even if they’re doing OK on other measures. Besides, in New York City the overall graduation rate is in the 50 percent range, lower for minorities, only about one in three students overall get advanced or “Regent” diplomas and only 10 percent of minority students do. I have trouble getting worked up about how various initiatives might really screw-up this stunning success story…

In fact, I think the editorial has more to do with an unfolding debate at the National Governors Association where some anti-charter school governors are seeking right now to revisit the NGA’s basically pro-charter school policy position. That would be a mistake, there are plenty of good examples of how to do this right and NGA should be focusing on those rather than watering down their policy.

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