Weekly Briefing

Unproven and a distraction from the job at hand

Why we ought to keep the cap on the number of charter schools

Quick: what’s the single most important function of 21st Century state and local government? Public safety? Transportation? The social safety net? While these are all strong answers, if you’re like most people (including the people who write and approve the North Carolina state budget each year), your answer is obviously “education.”

A moment’s reflection indicates why this is so: our children are our hope. If we fail to educate our children effectively on a mass basis, our state is committing suicide. Fifty years ago, in a state full of factories and mills hungry for strong backs and flexible fingers, North Carolina could manage pretty well with half of its kids departing school in their mid-teens.

Today, it’s a recipe for disaster. The worksites of the mid-20th century are gone and are not coming back. Our only realistic prospect for broadly-shared prosperity in the 21st Century lies in the construction of a deep and highly skilled workforce.

No quick fixes

So, how do we get there? How do we build an education system that gives the vast majority of our future workers a real shot at success and wellbeing?

Answers to this question are a dime a dozen. For some people, the answer lies with a return to basics. For others it’s about embracing modern techniques and technology. Still others say it’s about restoring discipline or hiring better teachers and better principals or innovation or improving the home lives of the kids that struggle.

Frankly, good cases can be made for all of these solutions and scores more. The only sure things seem to be these: 1) there are no simple, easy answers, and 2) all of them cost a lot more than dime.

Remember, this isn’t about simply restoring some halcyon past. Notwithstanding the rose-colored memories of some, North Carolina has never done this before. A large proportion of our schoolchildren have always dropped out. We have never before sent the vast majority of our young people out into the working world with the kinds of education and skills they need today – much less the skills they will need in 2030 or 2040.

In other words, the challenge facing North Carolina in 2011 is of a magnitude that is in many important ways unprecedented. To succeed, we must rebuild a vast and rapidly moving system so that it is capable of fundamentally transforming the lives of millions of young human beings (many of whom come to us from hugely imperfect homes and communities). And we must do it on the fly in a volatile, rapidly changing, hyper-competitive world.

In short, it is not a problem that can be addressed through quick fixes or magic solutions. If it is to have any hope of creating a public education system capable of the monumental accomplishment that is required, North Carolina will have to undertake a massive, societal effort.

This is not a problem that requires the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk; this is a problem that requires the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs putting a man on the moon.

The charter school question

So where do charter schools fit into all of this?

For some, of course (particularly those on the ideological right), charters and their private sector cousins are the magic bullets. As they see it, traditional public schools have become hopelessly stultified. They see large numbers of mediocre or even failing traditional schools and say: “Enough – we have to try something different!”

It is, in many ways, an understandable and commendable reaction. While some clearly have ulterior motives that are less than pure of heart, many charter supporters deserve praise for their desire to think outside of the box and for their willingness to expose and confront past failures.

Moreover, it is not a neatly divided ideological matter. Some charter supporters, including some of the folks who helped introduce the concept into North Carolina law 15 years ago, are committed progressives. These people want to keep our public education system but see charters as a powerful tool to spur the system on to better things.

In this worldview, charters are “incubators of innovation” that can lead the way by tapping into the “genius of the market,” drawing in committed families and volunteers, and forcing traditional public schools to compete for students.

Build enough Wright Brother flyers, goes the logic, and pretty soon everyone will want to have their own. It’s easy to see the appeal in such an argument.

The only problem with it is this: there’s little if any evidence that it’s true

An unproven experiment

When North Carolina inaugurated the idea of charters back in 1996, lawmakers fashioned them as an experiment. The idea was pretty straightforward: allow self-appointed groups and individuals to build a finite number of special, largely unfettered quasi-public schools and turn them loose to see what they could do. If they worked, the students of the charters would do well and all sorts of exciting new ideas would percolate into the traditional public schools. If they failed – well, at least the damage would be on a modest scale.

Today, as we look back on the results of the experiment, it’s clear that the results are, at best mixed. While some charters have clearly excelled, many have done so through a very simple and un-replicable model – namely, creaming off top students and committed parents from the traditional public schools. Moreover, while some charters are at the top of the performance lists, many have come in near the bottom. On the whole, overall charter success is not markedly different from the traditional public schools. National studies of states that are home to much larger numbers of charters provide similar results.

Add to this the fact that charters are spared from many of the challenges confronted by traditional schools – that is, they do not have to provide transportation or free lunches to poor kids; they do not take all comers (like kids new to English or kids challenged by physical and/or mental disabilities or discipline problems); and the fact that they have the built-in advantage of limiting their attendance to kids whose families affirmatively volunteer to attend; and it’s frankly remarkable that charters don’t leave traditional schools in the dust.

Now, finally, add the fact that essentially none of the myriad promised innovations have sprung forth to spread throughout the education system in nearly 15 years (and that charters tend to be more racially and socioeconomically segregated) and it’s clear that the charter experiment is, at best, still very much in doubt and, at worst, a bust.

Going forward

Despite this clearly flawed performance, members of the Senate seem likely to advance legislation this week that would remove the cap on the number of charters in North Carolina – a number that has remained static at 100 since 1996. According to supporters, removing the cap will unleash a torrent of pent-up energy and spur charters (and thereby the state’s education system as a whole) to grand new heights.

Let’s hope, despite the large volume of evidence to the contrary, they are right. Maybe, with a new jolt of energy, North Carolina charters will find something that’s been missing from the experiment for a decade and a half. Perhaps, an heretofore undiscovered group of Orvilles and Wilburs will catch lightning in a bottle in such a way that others can replicate it. Perhaps.

A more likely result, however, is that charters will remain a frustrating mixed bag – an un-digestible distraction from the all-hands-on-deck, time-a-wastin’, moon-shot kind of effort that’s really needed. Indeed, if they go too far – especially with allowing the siphoning off of good students and engaged parents – lawmakers will only serve further undermine the health of the traditional schools.

Ultimately, if elected leaders want to get serious about what is needed, they’ll stop worrying about raising the charter cap and start worrying about raising our overall societal commitment to the greatest challenge we face as a state.