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.