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It’s Time to Rebuild the Sensible Center on Education Reform

Albert Shanker used to talk about crab bucket syndrome, by which high school students fighting to get out of poverty are constantly pulled back by others who don’t hope to “make it.” Something like that is happening in the increasingly polarized education policy debate, as groups trying to rise above the ideological divide about school choice get dragged back down.

Three weeks ago, the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) tried to rebuild the sensible center in a report, The Tapestry of American Public Education. It concluded that families must have choices, but rejected the idea that choice ought to be the primary goal of education policy.

But merely saying that public school choice—including charter schools—have a place in public education drew an effort to drag LPI back into the bucket. An online Washington Post column that Valerie Strauss lent out to Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris overlooks or mischaracterizes several of the reasonable and moderate points made by LPI in its report.

Those points include:

  • Although “choice” is often associated with private and charter schools, the vast majority of schools of choice in the United States are operated by public school districts.
  • Schools that benefit students—whether charter, district run, magnet, etc.—have common features, such as small size and personalized structures, a commitment to forging a positive relationship between students, faculty, and school leadership, and a positive professional culture for teachers.
  • Most parents would prefer to find the “right school” for their child in their own neighborhood. A system of school choice is effective to the degree that all children choose and are chosen by a good school that serves them well and is easily accessible.

As the LPI report concludes, the question of how many charter schools there should be is a dead end. Different communities have different needs and different abilities to improve district-run schools or recruit capable charter schools and authorizers.

The LPI authors (who respond to Ravitch and Burris here) attempt to climb out of the crab bucket of traditional charter school politics. They recommend a hybrid “portfolio” governance approach in which a locality can have a mixture of schools in response to different needs, and public oversight is focused not on whether a school is district-run or chartered but on whether kids are learning.

Ravitch and Burris can’t abide this pragmatism. They flatly assert that anything but direct operation by a school board endangers children and weakens communities. To support their claims, they list a number of abuses occurring in at least one charter school, suggesting that no such things would have occurred in schools run by school boards. This is absurd: neglect of students, biased admissions and discipline, sweetheart contracting, and theft of money all happen in district-run schools, too. These abuses often occur out of sight in isolated classrooms and offices and are caused by human frailties. There is nothing magic about being elected to a school district board that lets members see through walls, or makes them all diligent or pure of heart.

Ravitch and Burris also assert unconditionally that charters harm district schools financially, as public funds follow individual students to charters. This is not true at all when local school populations are growing and charters relieve districts from the need to build new facilities. It can be true when district enrollments are shrinking and charters are growing fast, but only if districts bleed the schools of funds to preserve their fixed administrative costs and staffing formulas. Here again, LPI says that high-quality schools should be allowed to grow to meet parent and student demand for the opportunities they offer, but growth should not be so fast as to undermine other good schools that already exist.

Ravitch and Burris wrongly claim that the portfolio strategy seeks to turn every school into a charter. Not so. The core principle of the portfolio strategy, which I and colleagues developed and have helped many communities adopt, is to seek the best set of educational opportunities possible in a locality, no matter who provides them. It ensures that children get equitable funding no matter what school they attend, and gives all school leaders the freedom to assemble a group of teachers who work well together.

Adhering to those principles will upset rigid views on both sides of the education policy debate. But this pragmatic outlook informs practice in a growing number of cities and offers real hope of pulling our polarized education politics out of the crab bucket.

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