May 21, 2020

Charter Schools On Ice

Many education unions talk about wanting to freeze new charter schools in their districts. Some have tried. None have accomplished it yet (please email me if I’m wrong). This article is about one way to make it happen during the present crisis.

In my last post, I wrote that the two major values decision makers are focusing on are “safety” and “continuity”. Safety is obvious: it describes how any decision may affect the spread of coronavirus. Continuity describes keeping government, institutions, and businesses functioning in the face of a pandemic and a sputtering economy. There are some decisions that overlap both of these two values, the largest of which is when to lift or reimplement various shutdown and stay at home orders. However, they largely exist in two different lanes.

Policy making is about earning attention, not about changing minds. Any policy proposal now that can support making schools safer and more stable than current policies has a fair chance of garnering attention and making its way onto the agenda.

I don’t see how a freeze on new charter schools would improve safety. But continuity? I think there’s a strong case to make there - here’s how:

Charter schools want to disrupt the status quo of public education. Explicitly, they were touted as experiments that would bypass the bureaucracies and practices of traditional K12 schools. Implicitly, they were a Trojan horse to weaken the membership numbers and dues income of education unions. Covertly, they largely bypass the authority of local voters by removing any input local school boards have over the creation and oversight of individual charter schools.

Charter schools cite the instability they introduce to local school ecosystems as a feature, not a bug. The growing practice of portfolio management relies on this cycle: the metrics of each school and teacher are closely monitored, with underperformers fired, restructured, or replaced with a new set of schools, executives, and educators.  

Charter schools create a negative feedback loop in school districts. Early adopters enroll in charter schools, the local school district loses per capita funding, the district has to cut services and delay capital investment, more parents enroll their children in charters, etc..

[Sidebar: I think there’s a intriguing study to be had on relationship between 1. the age of local school buildings compared to 2. local charter enrollment rates. I often wonder how much of the appeal of new charter schools comes from shiny new buildings…]

Flash forward to this moment. Public and charter schools alike will suffer from state revenue shortfalls. Layoffs and closures are possible. It makes no sense to introduce more uncertainty into the situation. Right now, the disruptions of charter schools have reverted from a key feature to a bug.

Anyone - education union, school district executives, parent groups - that wants to freeze new charter schools has an opportunity to do right now:  call for a freeze as a means to stabilize local schools, both public and existing charters. No one wants layoffs, deferred repairs, or school closures, so you can earn attention by pushing to keep them from happening.

The cost of doing nothing may be quite dire. Many commentators are saying that similar historic epidemics have had an accelerating effect on social changes that were already occurring. Every headline that talks about the struggles of the local school district boosts the stock of charter schools. The negative feedback loop of school districts due to losing students to charters will likely continue over the next decade, leading many to the brink of insolvency. Barring any change in the charter school pipeline, we will likely see more school districts like Chester Upland in Pennsylvania, which may outsource its elementary schools to a charter operator to balance its budget.

Earlier, I talked about how schools boards in most states have no control over how many charters are started in their districts. So who could even implement a charter freeze? In my next post, I’ll talk about one group of powerful stakeholders that has received little attention in the quest for charter school accountability: local city and county governments.

May 5, 2020
All Bets Are Off

Why times of crisis invite big policy changes

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