"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Diane Ravitch's Balanced Appraisal of Charters

Diane Ravitch, in Reign of Error, argues that school reform heedlessly replaced the old-fashioned geographically-based system of public education with a competitive market-based system that includes traditional public schools, private schools, privately managed charter schools, for-profit providers, and virtual schools.

The roots of this movement, she argues, are “fundamentally libertarian” but, today, it includes reformers who see the education system as obsolete. Some reformers sincerely believe they are helping poor children of color, while some are more interested in profits.

Once upon a time, Ravitch explains, “education reformers thought deeply about the relationship between school and society. … They debated how to improve curriculum and instruction and what the content of the curriculum should be.” But, today, “Reformers are the “status quo.” We now live in a market-driven world, and the debate is over the relationship between corporate and school governance.

Even though reformers complain vociferously about Ravitch’s criticism of charters, her analysis is actually quite balanced. While acknowledging that it would “it is impossible to make a generalization that applies to all charters,” she describes two decades of evidence about charters and concludes, “Some children have gained; most have not.”

They may not like to hear it, but Ravitch is on solid ground in complaining that reformers close their eyes when charters don’t enroll their share of children from troubled homes.

Often, the debate over Ravitch’s arguments is focused on her use of the “P word.” She says, however, that reasonable people can disagree on whether charters are truly public schools. She cites Bruce Baker’s characterization of charters as a hybrid of sorts. Charters, however, may claim to be private institutions when it suits them. For instance, charter operators have claimed to be private institutions when appearing before the National Labor Relations Board.

Ravitch then tackles the most dangerous incarnation of charters – charter management organizations (C.M.O.s) These chains are particularly destructive when used for the mass closing of traditional public schools.

Ravitch makes sensible suggestions for restoring charters to their original constructive purposes. She writes, “Charters could become a positive force in America education if the conditions under which they are authorized are changed.” First, she concludes, “no public school should be operated for profit.” They should be managed locally, not as a part of charter chains. She calls for regulation of administrative costs and close regulation of online virtual charters. Surely we could have a system where a significant portion of charters for children who are not succeeding in traditional public schools.


  1. Profit is a funny word in the ed biz. Take the non-profit College Board, for instance--would you call an outfit that has almost a billion dollars in the bank a not-for-profit organization? Or KIPP, which has collected hundreds of millions of tax-sheltered dollars (on both the giving and receiving ends) from philanthrocapitalists and their foundations. The designation, "for profit," turns out to be cop-out on the question of charters.

    Your suggestion that we may benefit from "a significant portion of charters for children who are not succeeding in traditional public schools" misses a couple of important points, I think:
    1) Schools that are funded with public dollars deserve public oversight, and charters do not provide this. The vast majority of the 6000 charters in the US are essentially private schools with corporate boards chosen to rubber stamp the agenda of the "non-profit" corporations that run them at public expense;
    2) Charters have demonstrated that, on average, they are no better or worse than the public schools. In the CREDO comparisons where charters outperform matched public schools, we should keep in mind that these matched publics are most disadvantaged schools that the charters were designed to replace. When compared to a state's average public schools, most charters are worse in terms of either test score growth or proficiency rates.
    3) The reasons that children are not succeeding in public schools can't be fixed with charters that continue, as do the publics, to ignore the effects of poverty. Charters essentially are corporate welfare handouts that focus on cultural sterilization and psychological modification to counter the effects of poverty, which remain unaltered. As Jean Anyon says, pretending to fix schools without fixing the communities where schools are located is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.
    4) Charters encourage apartheid schooling.

  2. Anonymous12:29 PM

    Thank you Schools Matter for the summary of Diane Ravitch's thoughts on charters. I would add to regulation of administrative costs a note about facilities. Public facilities rented and renovated by publicly funded charter schools and those purchased with public funds for the use of publicly funded charter schools should remain public facilities owned by the local government. If not, then why are local governments paying per pupil facilities allotments? The primary objectives of this investment are to educate children today in quality facilities and long term to improve the capacity of local government to educate the population. Enabling private entities to purchase real estate with a regular cash stream of public funds (not just tax incentives or subsidized interest rates) just doesn't make good long term public policy. A DCPS parent and frustrated DC voter.

  3. Anonymous,

    Ravitch went into more detail on that than I did, but clearly you are right. Jim, it was Ravitch's suggestion that we need a significant portion of charters to address children who have behavioral needs. I suspect she, like I, would see that as a return to charters' roots where many were influenced by Anyon. Regarding alternative schools, there is always a danger of stigmatization, even apartheid. But, we don't call it segregation when hospitals have Intensive Care Units. I've taught at alternative schools for felons and none of their issues are easy. On the other hand, I don't think many privatizers will rush into serving those kids well. Serving the most troubled requires people who see it as an act of love, and I think Ravitch, like Bruce Fuller and I, see the charter impulse of 20 years ago as one option.