A Tale of Two (Charter) Cities

I spent the beginning of last week in Detroit, a city that spawned one of the nation’s early charter laws, now home to one of the most unregulated charter sectors I have seen. I believe that Detroit families are better off as a result of choice. There are some very strong schools that wouldn’t exist otherwise, and the school district, whose performance has been dismal for decades, is trying to find a way to compete with charters. But while Detroit charter schools slightly outperform district-run schools (according to CREDOs study), that is saying very little. Most of these schools are doing nothing to change the life trajectory of Detroit’s children.

Of course, given that I’ve studied charter schools for nearly 20 years, I know that there are many low-performing ones. But it was disturbing to hear firsthand about parents’ unfulfilled struggles to get their kids a good education and civic leaders’ futile efforts to get control of quality.

There are dozens of Detroit charter schools that should probably be closed immediately. Competition for students is so vicious that schools are reportedly bribing parents with iPads and cash to drive up enrollment. Yet despite all of this competition, charter school quality is stagnant, and more charters are being approved every year by university and community college sponsors who operate outside the city and with little or no accountability for their actions. I heard from parents who do feel empowered, but are having a horrible time navigating their choices and figuring out how to enroll in schools. I heard about schools that closed midyear, leaving families to fend for themselves. I heard about schools that didn’t offer any counseling or special education services to students who come from severely distressed neighborhoods.

Then I came back home to Washington and watched as our state’s first charter school was approved. PRIDE Prep will open in September 2015. The founder, Brenda MacDonald, is a seasoned public school administrator who has spent the last eight months visiting high-performing charter schools around the country and being taken through intensive training in how to start up, finance, and run a charter school. PRIDE Prep is authorized by Spokane Public Schools, an Eastern Washington district that worked closely with the National Association of Charter Authorizers (NACSA) to set a very high bar for new schools.

Being 42nd in the country to pass a charter law has its benefits: Washington is going to great lengths to avoid mistakes other states have made. My bet is that PRIDE Prep will make Washington’s charter advocates proud. The downside, however, is that Washington may be so averse to risk that we will see only a small number of schools approved, with little variation among them. But we can grow and expand from that base, and school districts and our state charter commission can learn how to act as responsible portfolio managers.

The contrast between these two cities could not be more vivid. Choice has been unleashed in Detroit and tightly harnessed in Spokane. Both of these approaches have downsides, but I know which downside I feel more comfortable living with. This National School Choice Week, when I inevitably read celebrations online of choice as an end in itself, I will think of my trip to Detroit, where, as in some other cities, an unregulated marketplace is undoubtedly hurting the families who need choice most.

So let’s celebrate school choice, but let’s also be as outraged about its shortcomings as we are about failing districts. Unregulated school choice is a nightmare for parents and very difficult to fix. It is not enough for choice advocates to simply acknowledge bad actors and bad laws, sigh with disapproval, and move on. NACSA has been a leader in taking action against irresponsible authorizing by running a “One Million Lives” campaign to get authorizers to close chronically low-performing schools, but NACSA has little more than the power of moral persuasion. We need civic, state, and national leaders to step up and take responsibility for schools that never should have opened in the first place and are not losing enrollment fast enough to close without government intervention. We need to pass thoughtful laws that create accountability for authorizers and districts. And we need to work at the grassroots level to rally parents to rise up in cities where both charter and district schools are failing their students.

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