Charter Schools II: Choice & Quality

In the previous essay on charter schools I considered the monopoly argument in their favor. On this view, charter schools break the state’s harmful monopoly on education and this is a good thing. It is worth noting, again, that the state does not have a monopoly on education (there are private, non-charter schools). Instead, the state schools often have a monopoly on public money and charter schools break this monopoly by receiving public money. This, it is argued by charter school proponents, allows for more choice. They are quite right. But not all choices are good choices.

Without charter schools, people face rather limited alternatives to the public-school system. One is home schooling. While this does appeal to some people, it does limit the educational experience and requires a great deal of the parent(s). Another is attending a private school. While these schools can provide excellent education, they can very expensive. As such, they are an option only for those who can afford them. Because charter schools receive public money, they can provide an alternative to public schools for those who cannot afford a private school. However, there is the question of why there should be such choice and why people would take it.

One reason often given in favor of charter schools over public schools is that charter schools are supposed to superior in terms of the education they provide (or in some other relevant way). Proponents of charter schools point to failing public schools as evidence for this claim. While this is certainly a rational argument, there are some concerns with it.

One concern is that while there are bad public schools and excellent charter schools, there are also excellent public schools and awful charter schools. As such, there is nothing intrinsic to the public system that necessitates its badness nor anything intrinsic to the charter system that necessitates its superiority. This raises the question about what causes school quality.

The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding. It is no accident that the best schools tend to be in affluent neighborhoods and the worst schools tend to be in poor areas. After all, a significant portion of the funding for public schools is local and is often based on property taxes. As such, high value property generates more funding for schools. Low value property generates far less. Naturally, this is not the whole story for school funding, but it is an important part. It is also worth noting that not just community wealth is a factor—community health is also important for the quality of education. After all, stable communities that have families actively involved in the school can create a very good educational experience for the children. However, wealth and health often travel hand in hand.

As might be suspected, most parents would prefer their children attend the best schools—this is why parents who have the income buy houses in the best school districts. This provides another limit to choice: while anyone can attend the best public schools, they must be able to afford to live in the district. This makes the best public schools analogous to private schools; one must pay to be able to attend. The promise of charter schools is that children can escape the poor schools and go to a superior charter school, using public money.

While this does have some appeal, there are some obvious problems. One is that the poor schools will become poorer as they lose students and will presumably decline even more until only those who cannot escape remain. This would seem to be like pouring money into lifeboats for an ailing ship rather than using the money to fix it.

Of course, this analogy could be countered by saying that the public school ship is doomed and the only viable option is escape. This is a reasonable counter—if a school is so badly wrecked that it cannot be saved, then escaping to another school would be as sensible as fleeing a sinking ship. The challenge is, however, showing that this should be a charter school and not a new public school.

Another is that it would seem to make more sense to use the public money to improve the public school so that parents would want their children to attend. After all, if parents want to choose good schools, the best use of public money would seem to be to make public schools better. Since there are excellent public schools, this is clearly something that can be done with proper funding and a strong community. As noted above, there is no special magic to charters that makes them inherently better than public schools. To use another analogy, the charter school argument is like pointing to the poorly maintained roads of a community and saying that the solution is not to fix the roads, but to use the public money to put in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads. It would seem to make much more sense to fix the existing public roads rather than putting in “charter roads.”

In light of the above discussion, the choice argument for charter schools based on quality does not appear compelling. Unless it can be shown that charter schools are inherently better than public schools in virtue of being charters, then it would be more sensible to improve the quality of existing public schools rather than siphoning away public money. There are, however, other matters of choice beyond quality. In the next essay I will look at the appeal of ideological choice—charter schools that offer an ideological or theological alternative to public schools.


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  1. I wish to note that there is an alternative to charter schools that many people do not consider when it comes to giving children and parents educational choices. It is called public school choice.
    When I was living in Minnesota, the state had a system that allowed children to go to any public school in the state. The state of Minnesota provided a large proportion of the revenue for public schools (typically 60%-70% of total funding) and mandated that schools receiving state money be willing to accept up to 20% transfer students from other school districts. Technically, school districts could opt out, but in reality, it was an offer that they could not refuse. The state provide resources for transportation between school districts. Many suburban schools actually began recruiting kids from inner city schools to fill budget holes caused by declining birth rates as well the rosters of sports teams, marching bands, and AP classes. Furthermore, some suburban kids went the other way to take advantage of special programs that could only be supported by school districts with larger numbers of students, such as jazz band classes or swimming teams. While this exchange of students was not found to increase test scores, it did cut the drop out rate of every demographic group in half. It seems that one of the chief reasons that kids drop out of school was not a matter of lack of motivation or poor grades, but things like being bullied or just not fitting in. Public school choice gave these kids an option other than dropping out of school.

  2. Kevin Henderson

    Good comparison. Though a final important measure for the success of any school is almost exclusively obtained by the students. If students are good the school is good. Good students come from good parents and to a lesser degree, good communities. Bad students, who come from bad parents, almost always lead to bad schools. Teachers and money aside, the student factor is enormous, which means that without a ‘good home’ almost all bets are off. And this goes for both wealthy and poor kids. Bad parents are a black hole for education.

  3. Thanks for bringing this alternative to the discussion. This seems like a better option than charter schools.

  4. The health of the community is, as you note, rather important to the school quality. Good students who don’t have excessive discipline issues, have proper nutrition and solid family lives add a great deal to school quality. After all, teachers can put in so much more effort into teach as opposed to engaging in crowd control, etc.

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  6. Thank you for another interesting topic.

    I have been reading around, but find it hard to get a clear definition of what charter schools in the U.S. are, exactly.

    For a start, they are public schools:
    – in its “Finding out the facts” points to an NAPCS study (NAPCS 2009c) that shows “only 41 percent of voters know that charters are actually public schools”.
    – From “Charter schools are public schools that operate independently through a contract (or charter) developed between state education officials and community or school leaders. The charter sets goals and metrics for which the school will be held accountable. In exchange for this additional accountability, teachers and school leaders are given the freedom to innovate and make decisions based on evidence of what’s working – and what’s not – to raise the bar for what is possible in public education.”

    Charter schools thus appear to be within the state’s monopoly of education funding. They simply seem to be public schools that permit management and teaching with more flexibility on budgets, hours, days, techniques, and reward structures, ouside the state’s centralised regulations.

    Beyond that, it is difficult to generalise about charter schools, since there is a wide variety of models in use, and of results achieved.

    In reading some of the material, I am struck by a shortcoming of the analogy to roads. Putting in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads would not motivate the existing roads to improve themselves, but in some cases that appears to be the effect that the introduction of a charter schools have in a school district, when the established schools lose their local monopoly and see parents’ desire to move their children away. This can lead to improvements in the non-charter public school’s performance. As Karen Lankford notes, this motivation might also be achieved by public school choice.

    I do agree that the parents of the area are the most important factor in the results of a school. Students who come in prepared, with parents who support and motivate them, will always do well. However, the school management and teachers cannot affect that. Within the school itself, the dedication and enthusiasm and organisation of the principal an teachers is the most important factor. I can see how a high degree of enthusiasm and engagement might be more easily achieved in a school with the freedom to be flexible and innovate than in one strangled in micromanaging regulations. Of course, that freedom is also a freedom to make mistakes, and so the yearly performance reviews would be of greater importance.

  7. I was thinking more about this.

    “This raises the question about what causes school quality. The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding.”

    Actually, the easy and obvious answer to why a school is successful is that people in the area, especially the parents, are themselves intelligent, well-educated, and supportive of academic achievement, and that the social expectation communicated to the students is that they will graduate and go on to further education.

    Areas where this attitude prevails are likely to be affluent, as well.

    A severe lack of funding can damage school quality; a school without the money for premises or staff will fail. However, above a basic level of necessary requirements, increased school funding will suffer from diminishing returns.

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