Lamenting School Choice Week and the Need for Braver Authorizers

It’s national school choice week next week, and as the resident charter killjoy, I am compelled to throw some cold water on the celebration.  School choice is not a panacea.  There is no real “market” in education (and if there were it would be scary) and there is nothing inherent in providing a hypothetical choice system that will necessarily lead to better schools for underserved students.

“Choice”, like “freedom”, “democracy”, or “justice” is defined on the ground, by context, institutional and individual decisions, and constraints.  And unfortunately, the lofty visions discussed in board rooms, seldom match the gritty realities experienced by underserved families.

Our blog has long railed against “creaming” and the inequitable practices of some charters, it’s good to see that more attention has been focused on this issue by the media around Success Academies’ so called “got to go” list and now that the authorizer, SUNY charter Schools Institute is taking a harder look.

Charters are public schools authorized by public agencies, and it’s crucial that these agencies take more responsibility not only for the policies and practices of schools, but also the overall student composition of the charter sector.  If we really want charters to serve a somewhat representative sample of high needs students, then authorizers should adopt that as an institutional goal.

Authorizers do matter, and schools and applicants will listen.  The sad reality of applying for a charter school is that the more high needs your students are, the harder it is to get approved and stay open.  Correspondingly, authorizers often discuss the academic success of their schools, but not their student composition, or really breaking out the success of subgroups.  This narrow focus has the effect of narrowing the focus of applicants.

I have run into this first hand.  We envisioned opening a school in NY that would have 50% special education students, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts we got a meeting with the State special Ed. folks—they said they would never recommend a school with 50% or more special education, because “the normal students wouldn’t have role models”.  We lowered our percentage of special education students and got approved.  Same issues when you talk about formerly incarcerated kids, foster kids, or any other harder to serve group.  It is harder and riskier work, and authorizers who want to talk about pure proficiency rates often shirk from the challenge.

I have also made several complaints to authorizers around charter school practices.  In one school they seemed to give an aptitude test and then draw students off the wait list out of order, and at another they seemed to be pushing out high needs students.  Neither authorizer was interested in investigating.   And in one case they didn’t investigate, but called the school I was complaining about, whose lawyer and staff called me to complain about my complaint.

Weird thing is, legally they were kind of right.  At least in NY the law says that a family must exhaust their administrative complaints before they can bring it to the authorizer.  Which means appealing through multiple levels of the school you got kicked out of (unlikely to happen), and for me, as just a dude, I can’t complain for the family.

For those with longer memories, “freedom of choice” schools were the initial obstructionist answer to desegregation.

There is nothing magical about school choice’s power to reduce inequality, rather it is up to us on the ground, the legislatures, and authorizers above it, to do the hard work of creating a context where real choices exist for underserved families.

This year, let’s reframe school choice week, from an abstraction lacking meaningful goals, to a concrete statement about creating high quality options for underserved students. We all need to dream higher, be braver, and take more risks for these families.  We know what happens if we don’t act.  And those tragic outcomes should be motivation enough.





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