Depending on whom you ask, charter schools represent either the best of things or the worst of things in the modern education system. This binary hero-villain dialogue plays out time and again among education advocates. It’s so pervasive that it even managed to infiltrate a presidential election that has otherwise been light on K-12 education talk.
Bernie Sanders declared his support for public charter schools, but not private ones in a CNN town hall event last March — belying a fundamental confusion about what charter schools actually are. Last year Hillary Clinton disparaged charter schools with a blanket statement suggesting that they reject serving students who are the “hardest to teach.” And while decrying the federal footprint in education, Donald Trump said he wants more charter schools because “they work, and they work very well.”
The primary flaw with all of these statements is that each one lacks nuance and ignores what is true, what we know, and what we don’t know about charter schools. After all, one of the hallmarks of political campaigns is the reduction of complex issues to simple binaries. Candidates harp on divisive issues and ask voters to pick a side — for or against, good or bad. While this strategy makes for rousing stump, it misleads and under-informs voters about critical policy issues.
Sanders’ confusion about whether charter schools are public or private schools is not uncommon, but it’s easy to clear up. Charter schools are public schools. They are publicly-funded, and they provide education free of charge. The confusion arises because they are often operated by private organizations (a mix of non-profit and for-profit). Some of these private organizations are very good at running schools that achieve amazing outcomes with kids. Some of them are not as good.
Similarly, by painting all charter schools with the same brush, either negatively or positively, both Clinton and Trump ignore the complex reality of what we know about charter schools. (Clinton, I should note, told the NEA convention earlier this month that we should seek to learn from the many good charter schools – that common sense statement drew boos from the crowd).
In practice, who is served best and most often by charter schools varies significantly from state to state and city to city. And the overall quality of charter schools varies, too. In some cities, like Washington DC, charter schools produce an average of 101 days of additional learning in math compared to the surrounding district schools. That’s a tremendous difference. But in Fort Worth, Texas, charter schools underperform district schools on average.
Attempting to define the whole notion of charter schools as either good or bad encourages us to continue to focus on the existential question of whether we should have charter schools at all. And that is simply the wrong question.
What should we be asking instead? On the charter front, simply put, what do we need more of in the charter sector, and what do we need less of? But answering this question requires determining what charter schools’ successes and failures teach us about what factors promote schools’ ability to produce great outcomes for kids, and the evidence isn’t simple. Charter schools now have the same diversity in quality and norms as other public schools and private schools and don’t lend themselves to simple generalizations any more than those other school sectors.
In education, confusion and distortion is not confined to the campaign trail or the debate about charter schools. Across the sector advocates, activists, the media, and other players fail to engage honestly with education’s complicated realities, and instead manipulate or cherry pick the facts to reflect forced (and often false) choices.
We need a new national conversation about education. The foundation of that conversation must be an accurate understanding of what we know, and what we don’t know, about our education system. Where have we succeeded and failed in measuring student learning? How fair is our school funding system? What do we know about what makes a great teacher?
These are the critical debates essential to charting a rational course forward for our schools, and high-quality research and information must inform these conversations. In an effort to support a shift to a more evidence-driven debate, Bellwether Education Partners has launched a new resource — The Learning Landscape — that aims to bring together information from disparate, credible resources on a range of topics in education. The hope is that The Learning Landscape will serve as one tool in moving toward this new and much needed conversation.
Whether it’s charter schools or testing or something else, we won’t get to real solutions without working toward a deeper understanding of a system as nuanced and complex as the 50 million students it serves.