Winning the War on Charter Schools

by Reihan Salam

The public charter school movement is entering a new phase. To put it bluntly, charter schools are finally becoming genuinely frightening to the powers-that-be in traditional public education, and for good reason. Charter schools have always been frightening to traditional public schools for the simple reason that they are granted wide autonomy to develop new instructional models, and most of the people associated with traditional public schools are afraid of change, or rather afraid of change that doesn’t involve increasing compensation levels. This is true of the people associated with most organizations, public or private, but public schools have long been shielded from the entry of new start-ups that leave them no choice but to start doing things in new ways. Brick-and-mortar retailers might resent Amazon.com for forcing them to experiment with new pricing models, or to have to learn how to deliver their products across vast distances quickly and inexpensively, but they often have a hard time strangling innovative business models in the crib — for one thing, incumbent businesses are often divided amongst themselves as to how to respond to new threats. In contrast, traditional public educators benefit from (a) enormous political influence, a product of the size of the public education workforce and the organization of large swathes of this workforce into effective labor unions, which are keen to protect the interests of their median members; and (b) the fact that “business-as-usual” has prevailed for so long makes it easy for people to assume that newness is bad. You don’t generally have competing unions of public school teachers with dramatically different attitudes towards charters, despite the fact that you have individual public school teachers who might be sympathetic, or who might think that the competition for talent among charter schools might actually leave them better off than they are under the unionized status quo. But unions, like all democratic organizations should, represent the interests of their median members, and it is generally true that the teachers who think they’d be better off in a more diverse, competitive educational landscape represent a minority.

So unionized public school teachers have, from the start, fought to limit the expansion of public charters and, to the extent possible, their organizational autonomy. For example, if public charters are required to be subject to the collective bargaining agreements that prevail in a given district, you’ve kind of defeated the point of having a charter school, which is to allow school administrators and teachers to experiment with new ways of doing things. This is all old news. The new news, or the newish news, is that after years of fighting these battles, public charters have nevertheless kept growing. In 2010-2011, public charters represented 5 percent of all K-12 public schools in the United States and approximately 3.65 percent of total public school enrollment. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools claims that public charters enrolled 2.3 million students in 2012-2013, a number that, if correct, would represent a 4.6 percent share of all public school students. I find the notion that public charter enrollment experienced such a big leap from one school year to the next a little implausible, so we’ll take these numbers with a grain of salt. But keep in mind that public charter enrollment is much higher than the national average in many jurisdictions. New Orleans, in which 79 percent of public school students are enrolled in charters, is the most prominent example, followed by Detroit (51 percent), and Washington, D.C. (43 percent). We now have living, breathing examples of “charter school districts,” in which the local school district has largely abandoned command-and-control, and is slowly evolving into a new role as a regulator and as a guarantor of quality across a network of autonomous schools.

It is worth emphasizing that while critics of traditional public education tend to fixate on unionized public school teachers as the bitterest foes of new ways of organizing schools, public school administrators are also a big part of the problem. They too are accustomed to old ways of doing things, and they worry that unleashing new instructional models might create new headaches — how do we assess performance? how do we comply with existing regulations? Even when (supposedly) rigid union contracts don’t get in the way of changing established practices, administrators are often unwilling to even attempt to do so, assuming they’re even aware that they can. This defensive, risk-averse mentality is hardly limited to teachers.

Charter schools are in the news in part because the new mayor of New York city, Bill De Blasio, doesn’t seem to like them very much. De Blasio has garnered outsized attention because he is the mayor of America’s media capital, and his often-strident rhetoric on inequality neatly aligns with the sensibilities of many of those who cover him. And De Blasio has decided that treating public charters as public schools (which they are, insofar as they are government-financed, tuition-free schools established by the government in cooperation with teachers, parents, and civil society groups) is no longer an acceptable approach. In the past, public charters in New York city were allowed to share space with traditional public schools, thus allowing public charters to avoid having to rent space on the open market. Commercial rents in New York city are quite high, and schools require a fair amount of space. De Blasio has called for reversing this policy, and charging market rent to public charters that locate in public school facilities. What is left unstated is that the city government has wide discretion to determine whether or not space is available for rent, and it is easy to imagine that the city will see to it that the supply of seats magically starts to shrink. Carmen Fariña, the city’s new chancellor, has announced that she intends to review charter school expansion plans, including plans that are well underway. She has also called for diverting resources from public charters to new efforts to expand the traditional public school model into early education. Essentially, the city’s Department of Education has shifted from a stance of benevolent neutrality towards public charters towards one of hostility. Charter schools in New York city enroll a far smaller share of students than in New Orleans or D.C., and it looks as though the De Blasio administration intends to keep it that way. It is true, however, that many New York city public schools are granted limited autonomy while operating within the traditional system, complete with union contracts.

We don’t know exactly how the political dynamic in New York city will play out. Public charters are unpopular within the De Blasio administration, which is led by people with strong ties to organized labor (the mayor and his chief deputy were both paid by 1199SEIU, the most powerful labor union, and arguably one of the most powerful entities of any kind, in New York state), yet they are considerably more popular with the wider public. Moreover, Matt Yglesias recently observed that charter schools are at the heart of the most serious ideological divide among Democrats at the national level, which means that De Blasio doesn’t enjoy the support of all members of his expansive left-of-center coalition on this issue.

Even if we see significant backsliding on charter schools in New York city, the success of the Recovery School District (RSD) experiment in New Orleans has attracted considerable attention across the country. Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans and a champion of the public charter movement, has argued that the RSD model can be replicated across the country. Its central features are as follows: (a) instead of seeing itself as the operator of all local government schools, the RSD serves as a market creator that breaks the local government monopoly by attracting new charter schools and charter school networks into a given market, and that makes it easier for talented people to become teachers even if they haven’t come through the traditional pipeline (e.g., midcareer professionals); (b) RSD leaders serve as ambassadors and talent recruiters for all local schools, regardless of who is running them; and (c) the RSD serves as a bankruptcy steward which intervenes when schools fail, either to bring in a new team to fix them or to close them down while facilitating the expansion of more successful schools. (In The Urban School System of the Future, Andy Smarick offers an even more ambitious blueprint, in which urban school districts evolve into stewards for all publicly-funded schools, including private schools that agree to operate within certain strictures.)

The real barrier to the future success of the charter school movement isn’t hostile local politicians like Bill De Blasio, who if anything is concentrating the mind of his opponents. Rather, it is the fear among teachers that the shift to a more diverse educational landscape won’t be in their best interest. But New Orleans and Washington, D.C. are demonstrating that public charters aren’t terrible places to work — in many cases, they’re better places to work than traditional public schools, and they give teachers who’ve grown frustrated with one instructional model the opportunity to embrace another one. Champions of charter schools have tended to emphasize the good they can do for children, and for good reason. As the debate around charter schools enters a new phase, they ought to consider emphasizing the good they can also do for teachers.