Charter Schools: Friend or Foe?

Area men, women panic as Key, Banks unveil December surprise.

Charter schools are coming. Should we be concerned? I think there are some reasons to be cautious about charter schools, but they are not the reasons that have dominated the New Zealand commentariat.

"Charter schools will only select great students"
Some say charter schools will cherry-pick all the great students, and that they will therefore appear better than public schools without actually being any better than public schools.

Not necessarily. Government can regulate how charter schools select their students. In many US States, charter schools are required to accept anybody who applies up to their enrolment cap, and to hold a lottery for places if the number of applicants exceeds the number of seats. No picking and choosing.

"Charter schools create winner schools and loser schools"
Some say charter schools are bad because they stigmatize those public schools that lose many students as a result. Students at these progressively abandoned schools suffer psychological and educational harm as a result.

All school systems feature winner and loser schools. In our current system, some public schools have highly motivated, proud kids gliding around sparkling, well-located facilities steeped in tradition and dripping with alumni-funded extras like stone cricket pavilions and endowed theatres. Other schools straddle motorways or sit on old landfills, feature a hodge-podge of cheap, cold prefabricated classrooms, and have no little or big extras. Those schools also tend to have more disadvantaged student rolls. Then students from those schools visit each other, and see the difference. We already have winner and loser schools, and (if carefully located) a few charter schools have the potential to lift some current occupants of our loser schools and put them into winner schools instead.

"Charter schools do not work"
This is the big one. This argument states that the educational benefits of charter schools are a myth, and that kids at charter schools do no better than kids at regular public schools.

Wrong. To be sure, some charter school experiments have not succeeded. No question. But there is also robust statistical evidence showing that other charter school systems really do produce better educational outcomes. See here and here. In Boston, for example, one study showed that sending an African American child to a charter school for four years eliminates the otherwise yawning racial gap in maths ability that otherwise exists between blacks and whites.

How do we know it is the schools actually producing these improvements and not just stacking the deck with great students? The lottery. The demographics of charter school lottery winners and losers are the same, meaning any subsequent difference in outcomes is due to factors other than the students. Very likely, it is due to the school.

We should be asking what makes successful charter schools successful, not declaring all charter schools a failure on the basis that some charter schools failed. More on that later.

"Charter schools are a tool for the rich to get even richer"
Some see charter schools as basically publicly-funded private schools. Private schools are for rich people, so charter schools are just a way to subsidize rich people. Right?

Not necessarily. If charter schools could be set up anywhere and do whatever they want, that could be a real issue. But governments do not typically give charter school movements that much license. Government, if it wants, can direct charter schools into areas of poor educational outcomes. It can make them run enrolment lotteries, place restrictions on bringing in kids form far away, prevent them from making kids pay extra for anything, and so on. If it wants. In the US, many charter schools are directed towards badly performing areas. In Boston, for example, 72% of charter school students are black. In their public schools, it is 43%.

The unintended consequences of charter school strategy
Having discussed reasons why many current arguments in New Zealand may not hold water, now I turn to an area where concern really is warranted, but that hasn't been discussed much. How do successful charter schools succeed, and what does that mean for kids in other schools?

Boston's charter schools succeed by having low teacher/student ratios. How can they afford that, given they get the same per pupil funding as regular public schools? They have very young teacher pools. In Boston, over 65% of charter school teachers are under 32 years old. Less than 10% of their teachers are over 49. (For public schools, these numbers are about 30% and 40% respectively.) So charter schools succeed by hiring a large quantity of junior teachers, then paying them more than junior teachers would get elsewhere, but less than the average wage across all teachers elsewhere. Because of the relatively generous salaries, they get the cream of the crop. In return, the teachers are not covered by existing collective bargaining arrangements, which mean the teachers can be hired on fixed-term contracts. At the end of the contract, when the teacher has more experience and expects higher compensation, they are let go and the school goes back to the teachers' college pool.

What is the problem? This strategy is not demographically viable on a large scale. If you have only a few charter schools, then the practice of disproportionately hogging the great young teachers only marginally distorts the pool of teachers available to all the other schools. And, if the charter schools are located carefully, they can provide real educational benefit to some previosuly disadvantaged kids, and give some maltreated areas some hope through their kids. But if you end up with a large number of charter schools all going after the great young teachers, then either:

  • if they are successful it enormously distorts the pool of teachers available to the public system, leaving that system with all the older, more expensive teachers and the unwanted young, cheap ones. That harms the cost-effectiveness of public schools; or
  • if the charter schools become less successful at targeting these particular teachers when there are many of them in the market, the added value of charter schools rapidly diminishes towards zero.

Either way, it is hard to see how a large-scale charter school system, which relies for its success on hiring all of the most cost-effective teachers for themselves at the expense of other schools, is good for the education system as a whole. But that is very different from saying that no charter school system can help alleviate some of the most glaring inequities in our current schooling arrangements.

People who are about progressive educational outcomes should ask hard questions about the government's proposal. Where will the schools be placed? How will the schools select their students? How many will there be? The answers to those kinds of questions will determine how supportive I am.

What we should not be doing is writing off charter schools en masse. There is evidence that charter schools, done right, are progressive institutions. Our challenge is to make sure the government does them right. That will involve battling the natural instincts of ACT. But it should not involve battling the very idea of charter schools.