Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The charter racket

Spend more than a minute arguing with any charter school supporter and, inevitably, you'll run up against an argument that goes something like this. "Don't you want better schools?  Public education is in trouble. At least we're offering to do something."   But the mere existence of a need is no justification for any remedy someone makes available. This is the reason snake oil, glutten-free oatmeal, and subprime mortgages exist in the first place.

EduShyster: Your paper raises the spectre that a charter school *bubble* may be forming, particularly in urban areas where these schools are expanding the most rapidly, and often with the least oversight. Can you explain how a charter school bubble would form? And how can I bet against it?

Green: There is an intense push to increase the number of charter schools in Black, urban communities, where they’re very popular because of the dissatisfaction with traditional public schools. Because of this desire for more educational options, these communities are more likely to support policies that could lead to charter school bubbles forming. In fact, I would argue that we are at *Ground Zero* for the formation of such bubbles. Supporters of charter schools are using their popularity in Black, urban communities to push for states to remove their charter cap restrictions and to allow multiple authorizers. At the same time, private investors are lobbying states to change their rules to encourage charter school growth. The result is what we describe as a policy *bubble,* where the combination of multiple authorizers and a lack of oversight can end up creating an abundance of poor performing schools in particular communities.

EduShyster: What’s fascinating and frankly disturbing about your research is how well the subprime analogy fits, down to the edu-equivalent of predatory lending practices in particular communities. But it seems important to point out that these bubbles have their origin in worthy policy goals, like increasing home ownership, or sending more kids to college. Who would be against that?

Green: Who would be against that? That’s the power of the choice argument. Folks in poor communities and Black, urban communities obviously want better opportunities for their kids. And I don’t blame them for really pushing for better options. But I do feel that there are people taking advantage of their desire to get better opportunities by pushing forward more options for charters without ensuring that these schools are sufficiently screened. The argument that I hear all the time that drives me crazy is that *obviously this is a good choice. Look at all the parents who are standing in line.* That’s just evidence that people want a better education. That doesn’t mean that they’re actually getting it. What I’d love to see happen is that we have programs and oversight in place to ensure that their choices have meaning. I’m afraid that we’re going down a path right now where we may not be setting up those mechanisms to provide those assurances.
You see a similar argument being made right now in favor of tighter oversight in the financial sector. For example, this is from a speech delivered today by Bernie Sanders
Mr. Sanders also vowed on Tuesday that as president, he would order the Treasury Department to create a list of financial institutions that are dangerously large and break them up within his first year in office. He would overhaul the Federal Reserve by eliminating the central bank’s “internal conflicts of interest” and providing stricter oversight. He also called for changing the relationship between banks and credit rating agencies by preventing banks from choosing who rates them and by requiring the agencies to become nonprofit institutions.

Wall Street, Mr. Sanders said, would be held accountable under his administration. “Not only will big banks not be too big to fail, but big-time bankers will not be too big to jail.”
Meanwhile, however, charter operators are asking for fewer restrictions on the types of agencies issuing charters. They're moving in exactly the opposite direction and, in the process, asking for greater leverage to commit fraud against the most vulnerable slice of the population. 
If we’re going to have multiple authorizers, we have to impose standards to ensure that they do a good job, because without those standards there is really no incentive for them to ensure that these schools are operating in an acceptable manner. I should also mention putting sanctions in place to prevent the really squirrely practice of *authorizer hopping,* where schools are closed by one authorizer and then find another authorizer, which has happened quite a bit in places where oversight has been really weak, like Ohio
But, hey, at least they're trying something.

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