Last Friday, the Washington Post published the first of what will be a four-part series of articles attacking California’s charter school system. As the state with the most charter schools in the country, California’s school choice sector has been under relentless attack by teachers union interests. WaPo’s report is a prime example.
The first piece was written by the executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit co-founded by renowned anti-charter advocate Diane Ravitch. Indeed, it’s not unfair to say that Ravitch is the most famous (or infamous) school choice critic alive today, as a former U.S. assistant secretary of education who renounced her former support of choice in 2010. So her attack should be taken with a healthy grain of salt.
Indeed, the opening paragraph shows the typical tactic Ravitch’s group uses for smearing charter schools:
You can find a charter in a mall right near a Burger King, where students as young as 12 meet their “teacher on demand.” Or, you can make a cyber visit to the “blended learning” Epic Charter School, whose students are required to meet a teacher (at a convenient, to be determined location) only once every 20 days. There is an added bonus upon joining Epic: Students receive $1,500 for a personal “learning fund,” along with a laptop computer. The enrollment site advertised that students could boost that fund by referring others to the charter chain.
This criticism via anecdotal technique seems to be a go-to tactic in the choice critics’ playbook. John Oliver did the same thing last month, as I pointed out in Rare. And while there’s no doubt that abuse does exist in the charter school sector (as it does everywhere), it’s hardly fair to make sweeping generalizations about thousands of schools and millions of children because of a few bad apples.
That’s where the role of statistics comes in. There have been plenty of studies done on California charter schools over the years, with mixed to positive results. Perhaps the most respected is one published by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) in 2014. The report tracks California charters over five years, comparing the charters’ performance in reading and math to that of traditional public schools over many socioeconomic cohorts.
Overall, charter schools were found to have a positive impact on reading and a negative impact in math. However, the results are most remarkable for specific groups. Significant improvements were found in both reading and math for poor students, African Americans, English-language learners, and special education students, among others.
The nuanced reality is that California charters have worked wonders for certain students and have not had much effect for others. That’s because every child is unique, with a particular family background and various educational outcomes available to them. Some students can absolutely receive an excellent education at their local district school. However, this option is not afforded to others – especially those from poor families or minority backgrounds. That’s why charters are and always will be an important option.
There’s no doubt that the charter school sector is imperfect. Any institution, especially one that’s publicly funded, will necessitate constant evaluation and improvement. But voters should be wary of special interest scaremongers that constantly cry doom and gloom about school choice. Public policy is much more complex than pure good or evil, and we should be careful about examining the evidence before making drastic decisions about children’s futures.