Let the Best Charters Grow, Make the Worst Charters Close

Conor Williams of the New America Foundation laments that charter schools are at best “a mild corrective to inequity,” drawing on his own experience as a parent enrolling his child in the District of Columbia public schools. He observes that because high-quality neighborhood schools are inaccessible to those who can’t afford to live in their catchment areas, middle- and low-income parents have turned to charter schools:

So ambitious parents of modest means have turned to the city’s charter schools as an alternative. These schools offer (some) freedom: 1) from deadening public regulations and union contracts, 2) from staid curricula and pedagogy, and perhaps most importantly, 3) from the ironclad link between zip code and school quality.

And lo and behold, demand for seats in high-performing charter schools has skyrocketed: in 2012, there were more than 35,000 students on charter schools’ waitlists (though some were duplicates). There were only 77,000 students in the city that year.

As [Sam] Chaltain illustrates throughout his book [Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice], this is how you’d expect a choice-driven market to work. This is what markets do. But when the good being transferred and traded is something that should be a baseline public good for all students, the market solution starts to run into trouble. We can’t address the imbalance of supply and demand by allowing others to pay more to squeeze others out of charter seats. That would simply reestablish the hegemony of privilege that made zip code such a strong predictor of school quality. So we use lotteries.

Williams goes on to explain the nature of the District’s lottery system, and how it favors parents with the resources and the time to enroll in several charter lotteries rather than just one:

If each one is neutral, a system of lotteries can still tilt in favor of families with sufficient resources and free time to get around town and apply to as many as possible. A student entered in ten charter school lotteries has a better chance at enrolling at one than a student entered in just one. And while D.C. unified its district and charter pre-K lotteries this year, a handful of high-performing charters stayed outside the system. You’d better believe that my wife and I applied to every one of those within two miles of our house.

On a related note: some charter schools rank their waitlist in terms of the order in which they receive lottery applications. Guess what? Parents line up outside these schools as early as 3:00 am  to be first in line on the day they begin accepting applications.

The problem with Williams’ analysis is that we actually should not expect a choice-driven market to lead to long waitlists. Waitlists are a product of price controls and regulatory constraints on supply. Markets are best understood as decentralized trial-and-error discovery mechanisms. In a well-functioning market, school operators would see waitlists as an opportunity that would lead either to an increase in the number of seats in high-performing schools or new firm entry, i.e., the establishment of new high-performing schools. So why haven’t we seen firms increase supply? One reason is that schools operating in the D.C. charter market don’t have particularly strong incentives to expand. School operators might see long waitlists as a reflection of their desirability, and they might decide that the obstacles to expansion are such that they’re better off resting on their laurels. But we can’t blame waitlists on the existence of a choice-driven market as such. Rather, we ought to see them as a reflection of an imperfect market that hasn’t gone far enough to encourage high-performing charters to achieve scale.

While addressing the imbalance of supply and demand by having parents pay tuition might be objectionable, there are other ways to address the imbalance of supply and demand, as demonstrated by the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans, a district in which the vast majority of students are enrolled in charter schools and the district leadership has devoted considerable effort to increasing the supply of seats in high-performing charter schools while winding down low-performing charter schools. In the District, roughly 43 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools, not all of which high-performing; in New Orleans, 79 percent of public school students are enrolled in charter schools, and the proportion continues to increase. Though not all charters in the RSD are high-performing, the general consensus is that the average quality is improving over time.

It turns out that the RSD has done much to address the problem Williams identifies in the District. Whereas the District has a lightly-regulated enrollment system, New Orleans has a unified enrollment system with transparent rules, and in which various preferences (for siblings, for local students in the lower grades) are formally codified. Parents aren’t obligated to roam around tone signing up for various lotteries, and it wouldn’t help them even if they were inclined to do so. There is no handful of high-performing charters outside the system.

Williams posits that a choice-driven charter market is an alternative to “a school system that provides access to an excellent education for all students.” But this is a peculiar way to frame the issue, as the really hard question policymakers are wrestling with is how to create such a school system in a dynamic world in which the definition of an excellent education, the needs and challenges of the students enrolled in the school system, the teacher talent pool, and the technologies and instructional models available to educate students all change over time. A school system that provides access to an excellent education is not a fixed outcome, as a school system that works well for one population won’t necessarily work very well for another. As Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, a non-profit organization that works to facilitate the growth of high-quality charter networks in New Orleans and to attract and retain effective teachers, has argued, charter districts are proving to be the best way to raise quality over time, and to foster the kind of specialization and innovation that will allow the system as a while to better serve a diverse student population. And while Williams frets about the limits of “procedural justice,” it seems that his most pressing concerns can be addressed pretty straightforwardly by a well-designed unified enrollment system.

Given that the District already has a number of high-performing charters, our goal should be to get them to grow. High-performing charters clearly face bottlenecks in their efforts to grow, and the role of a school district should be to help high-performing schools address them. This isn’t a deep philosophical issue.  As they grow, and as average quality increases, the stakes of enrolling in your first (or second or third) choice school won’t be quite as high.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...