Analysis: Education Rhetoric Is Poisoning Our Policy — Particularly in States Like Massachusetts

"Hedge Funds Underwrite Political Networks to Privatize K-12 Education"
"Are Charter Schools the New Subprime Loan?"
Headlines such as these can be found with a quick search on charter schools – and these are just from the last few weeks. For anti-charter advocates, links like this are deliberately provocative, designed to manipulate public sentiment at a time when many states are engaged in an intense fight over the future of school choice. (I am currently a masters student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and right here in Massachusetts, one can see the rhetoric boiling over as the state faces lawsuits over its charter school caps).
But regardless of where you live, or what local legal fights may be underway, these sorts of catchy headlines are yet another example of the inflammatory language used in a debate that is now too often devoid of nuance, context, and rationality. Not to me.
Heated rhetoric ignores the more important, urgent and better questions we should be asking about charter schools: How are charters performing compared to their district counterparts and why? What is the ideal accountability structure for charter schools? In the case of Massachusetts, are charter caps the right public policy solution to ensure high quality education for all children?
To cut through the rhetoric, we can, and should, approach such issues as charter caps empirically. A Stanford study finds an association between a high number of charter authorizers and low academic performance. This makes sense — one can infer that multiple authorizers may lead to more relaxed standards. The same Stanford study also finds that states with charter school caps realize significantly lower academic gains than states without charter caps. Therefore, the quantity of charter schools is not the issue, but rather the accountability structure in place overseeing these charters.
Newark, New Jersey offers an illuminative case study around ideal accountability structures. Historically one of the lowest performing urban centers in the country, Newark has experienced a growing charter sector since the 1990s. The student test score gains in Newark charter schools are about four times higher than the rest of the state’s charter schools. Looking even closer, one charter network, North Star Academy, is actually reversing the achievement gap in math, reading, and science.
(Richard Whitmire: Impressive scores at North Star Academy raise the awkward question: Did Newark pick the wrong school strategy?)
New Jersey has a single charter authorizer, the State Education Agency (SEA), which also implements performance evaluations. While there are currently no charter caps in the state, the SEA seems to prefer the expansion of existing high performing charter schools and networks. This makes sense. If a network has a proven track record in a specific community, like Newark, more students and parents deserve this choice, especially when one compares them with their other options.
Can we extrapolate results in New Jersey to other states facing charter caps? No, and we should not. From a Stanford CREDO study, we know that not all charters are created equal. On average across the nation, charter schools do not perform any better or worse than their district counterparts. But, upon closer analysis of 41 urban communities, CREDO finds that a typical urban charter student receives 40 and 28 days of additional growth in math and reading respectively.
Importantly for Massachusetts’s policy-makers, Boston is one such urban community that has shown this jump in student growth.
Economists in Boston studied the effect of winning the lottery to an over-subscribed charter school on student test scores — essentially a randomized experiment. They found that in about two years, over-subscribed charter schools could close the black-white test score gap in math. It is no surprise then that when students lost a charter school lottery and were forced to enroll in a nearby district school designated “underperforming,” they sued state lawmakers to raise the charter school cap. Limiting highly valued charter schools is arguably more repressive than expanding low performing ones.
Putting it all together, what does this data tell us? That over-subscribed charter schools in places like Boston should be allowed to expand. That high quality accountability structures are a better policy solution than charter school caps and that reducing the number of authorizers may be part of that structure.
Expanding charter schools and strengthening accountability policies are not antithetical ideas, and could be, should be, implemented together.
At least that’s what the numbers show. Unfortunately though, this data-driven education reform conversation is too often drowned out by the accusations, op-eds and inflammatory rhetoric. By reducing all charter schools, regardless of performance, to flashy headlines that read like a conspiracy theory only fuels the flames.
The fairer version of the charter story is that there are weak charter schools that should be held accountable and strong ones that should be incentivized to expand. In my current home of Massachusetts, a better policy solution than a statewide charter school cap is to grant expansion based on performance.
Both “sides” of the charter debate need to admit their own flaws and the other’s facts. Rather than allow binary politics to determine blanket and ineffective policy solutions, lawmakers should use empirical evidence to acknowledge a more nuanced reality. Otherwise, our nation’s children, especially those who are low-income and black or brown, are not only losing a lottery, but their civil rights.

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