Much has been made of a recent N.C. Center for Public Policy Research study, which concludes that the cap on new charter schools should remain—due primarily to unresolved issues of performance, financial insolvency, and ethnic diversity. But even if we accept the study’s questionable methodology, why not simply introduce a standards baseline instead of a cap on the number of new charter schools? Indeed, why couldn’t such a baseline apply equally to all the public schools?
The diverse, innovative curricula of the public charter schools are a means of escaping the one-size-fits-all monolith of public schools. That means some isolated failures in experimentation are unavoidable. And yet public charter schools are apparently being judged not only as a group, but against the same one-size-fits-all curriculum. Of course, no one is arguing that the Three Rs should be tossed. But that is precisely why a standards baseline is preferable to a cap on new charter schools.
To think otherwise is to evaluate all charter schools as a cluster. Each school is unique and should be judged on its own successes. The same thing might be said for public schools, in fact. Is there a double standard? We hear of charters being revoked. But we rarely hear of public schools being closed. In any case, insisting that all charter schools rise and fall together runs counter to the values of individual merit and parental choice.
So let’s set the bar high. There are long waiting lists of parents who clearly don’t like what the state is offering in the educational status quo. We can’t ignore their pleas. Failure to acknowledge such parents is both arrogant and elitist. Why? It suggests one thinks he knows better than parents what’s best for kids. Besides, aren’t waiting lists an indication that parents value something about these schools beyond end-of-grade test rankings? Might charter schools be safer? More community oriented? Focused on a interests or talents like arts, languages, or skills training?
Methodologically, comparing charter populations with that of the public schools fails to take into account differences between the two populations – particularly since schools are often chartered specifically to serve at-risk students. Longitudinal studies comparing similar relevant segments of these populations over time might yield more reliable results. Or one might study the performance of students before and after their charter school experiences, measuring relative progress.
The fact that there are some not-so-ethnically-diverse charter schools is true. But one has to weigh very carefully the value of diversity against the value of parental choice. One has also to look at the demographics of children’s public schools-of-origin before pronouncing judgment on an ethnically homogenous charter school. And again, diversity can be evaluated on a per school basis.
The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research study also suggests that charter school innovations aren’t passing into the public schools. True, perhaps. But how is this the charter schools’ fault? Such data could simply reflect the public school system’s fidelity to old habits—and perhaps even an unwillingness to adopt best practices. After all, teachers’ interest groups – most of whom are opposed to the very existence of charter schools – are not likely to integrate charter school innovations. Indeed, they have political incentives not to. So is it fair that the onus for the public schools integrating charter school innovations should fall on the charter schools?
In short, a cap on opening charter schools means that excellent schools may never be born. But a baseline standard means that failing schools – public or public charter – will go, and good schools will flourish.