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Asking the Wrong Questions About Charter Schools on the Hill

Yesterday, the House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing titled “Raising the Bar: The Role of Charter Schools in K-12 Education” (watch the archived video here). Compared to the ongoing charter battles in New York City, most of the hearing was a tame affair. Committee Chair Rep. John Kline (R-MN) opened with glowing remarks in support of charter schools: “[E]nhanced flexibility encourages charter schools to pioneer new programs and teaching methods that are meeting unique needs and getting real results…waitlists for charter schools have grown steadily in recent years, reaching a new record of 920,000 students in 2012.”

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the ranking Democrat, echoed Kline’s enthusiasm:

.@askgeorge delivering opening remarks at charter school hearing, says no kid should be trapped in a failing school. #CharterRaiseTheBar

— publiccharters.org (@charteralliance) March 12, 2014

The panel’s testimony also provided a united pro-charter front. Deborah McGriff, chair of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, noted that federal support has helped charter schools to grow steadily over the years. Lisa Graham Keegan, chair of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, insisted that charter supporters need to be vigilant about closing failing charter schools. Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Denver Public Schools’ Chief of Innovation and Reform, explained how charters can inform, support, and improve district practice in traditional public schools. Finally, California high school administrator David Linzey and Breakthrough Charter Schools’ Alan Rosskamm offered case studies demonstrating successful charter schools.

The Q&A was similarly tame—by and large, representatives from both parties praised the panel for their hard work and asked for examples of how to enhance and improve the charter sector. The hearing provided solid evidence for a thesis I floated in a column earlier this week: charter-friendly education reform remains the dominant narrative in education politics.

Fortunately for sleepy attendees, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) finally broke up the communal nodding. He noted that the GOP’s bill to reauthorize No Child Left Behind—The Student Success Act—“freezes funding” for Title I for the next five years but aims to increase funds for charter schools. He asked the panel if this was a good idea: “Should we really be reducing our support for the traditional programs…so as to increase…the support for charter schools?”

Linzey suggested that, given resources constraints, it might be best for Congress to think in terms of maximum “bang for your buck.” He noted recent CREDO data showing that charters outperform traditional schools on average.

Rep. Bishop responded, “I’m gonna push back on that a little bit. That data, that CREDO data, if you really look at it, what it really shows is that there are either no differences or infinitesimally small differences in performance of public school students versus charter school students.”

Rosskamm suggested that Bishop might be asking “the wrong question,” and Bishop laughed, “I’m a member of Congress—of course I’m asking the wrong question!

And in this, at least, he’s right: the charters v. district schools debate is the wrong one. The CREDO data are malleable—depending on the framing, they can deliver a stirring endorsement or a stinging rebuke of charters (or district schools).

I’ve been insisting on this for years. It’s nonsense to frame “charter schools” as a unitary alternative to traditional public schools. As I put it in a Talking Points Memo column last month:

Charters are diverse to such an extent that they almost cease to be a definable subset. For instance: charters are union-busting drains on public education — except when they’re founded and run by teachers unions. Charters are test-centric “drill and kill” factories full of aggressive, teacher-driven, “no excuses” pedagogy — except when they’re devoted to the Montessori method or discovery-based learning.
Instead of asking whether charters-in-general are better or worse than the average district school, we should be asking why some charters are so much better or worse. This isn’t just a matter of particular charter networks’ performance; it’s also a function of different state charter laws. And that’s the real message from the CREDO study: charter performance varies along with the laws that govern the sector. Forget the national averages (which do favor charters), and memorize this table from the study:

Credo Table

In Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., charters are much more effective than district schools. In Nevada, Texas, and Arizona, they are much less effective. Why? What are D.C. and Rhode Island doing that Nevada isn’t?

Truth is, we don’t yet know. For instance, take a look at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ rankings of various states’ charter laws, and you’ll see that there’s not much correspondence between states they rate highly and states where CREDO found great charter performance.

In part, this is because the NAPCS’ rankings capture single snapshots—for instance, Nevada moved up nine slots in the rankings last year as a result of two reforms to the state’s charter laws. While these will hopefully improve the woeful performance of the state’s charters, it may be some time before they influence student performance. If they don’t, it’s a sign that NAPCS needs to rethink their view of a model charter law.

And that wouldn’t be a shameful thing. It would be part of the right conversation to have where charters are concerned: how do we shape the charter sector to capture and scale its best attributes? According to Whitehead-Bust, it’s the conversation they’re having in Denver. And hey, it could even be starting in New York City.