The Virtues of Charter School Failure

I feel as if I’m diverting myself from writing about what we can learn from the common school movement of the 19th century . . . except that I’ve realized that the debate over charter schools and vouchers is our 21st century equivalent. Does “public” education mean a publicly-funded education for all kids, or does it mean a uniform, government-run system, or does it mean something in between.

By the way, let me reply to the comment about teacher unions’ support for charter schools. Actually, former American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker helped instigate the charter school movement. He envisioned teacher-run schools freed from some of the bureaucratic shackles that, trust me, frustrate most teachers as much as they do parents and students. As other groups, including corporations, have entered the charter school business, the unions have mostly cooled to the idea, although there are exceptions. And of course many teachers elect to teach in charter schools, and buy into the concept wholeheartedly. Charter school teachers – we’d love to hear from you!

But for now, I’m going to “repost” something I wrote in December for another blog to which I sometimes contribute. My argument: Charter schools fail, and fail often. That’s one of their major contributions to education reform.

The box office success of the education documentary Waiting for Superman, and the much-publicized resignations of the top education administrators in Washington, D.C. and New York City (Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein) have focused new attention on charter schools. Meanwhile, charter schools have become a new battleground in church/state fights, as dioceses convert inner city schools to non-religious charter schools and parents push to establish or preserve Hebrew or Arabic academies that cater to, though do not exclusively service, Jewish and Muslim families.

I haven’t taught in a charter school, and on this blog I’ve previously expressed some concern about whether Catholic schools will be able to preserve their unique benefits when they enter the public sphere, even as charters. But while I am no charter school expert, it does strike me that much of the commentary about charter schools misses what I suspect is one of their chief contributions to educational reform. They fail. Often.

This is hardly a secret, and indeed charter school critics such as Diane Ravitch lambasted Waiting for Superman for failing to showcase charter school disasters or public school successes. Google “charter school failure,” and you will pull up a depressing series of news accounts about charter schools shut down for mismanagement, low test scores, or simple failure to attract students. My own community of Palo Alto was roiled when the East Palo Alto school board closed a charter school founded by the Stanford University Department of Education and Obama education advisor Linda Darling-Hammond. Despite spending $3,000 more per student than the average public school, the school’s students produced some of the lowest test scores in the state. While some conservative critics suggested that the school, with its heavy emphasis on “emotional education,” simply indicted liberal education, it’s only fair to note that the conservative Thomas Fordham Foundation has had to admit similar failures with the academically-focused charter schools it sponsored in Ohio. “In hindsight” the would-be Ohio reformers noted, “we were nave about the Moraine School and our ability to turn it around through tough love. No matter how much we wanted the school to succeed academically, those in charge — the school leadership and teachers — did not have the capacity to make it perform at a high level.”

Yet successful charter schools such as the Knowledge is Power (KIPP) schools profiled in Waiting for Superman confront long waiting lists of parents desperate to see their kids win the lottery and secure a place in the school.

So is this, as Diane Ravitch and even Fordham reformer Chester Finn have suggested, evidence that markets can’t work in education? It seems an odd conclusion. Markets are all about failure. According to the Small Business Administration, only 44 percent of small businesses survive for four years. Yet almost all economists view small businesses as the primary engine of entrepreneurship, invention, and economic growth.

Small businesses often begin with too little capital, lack reserves, and market ineffectively. Even the most eager and talented entrepreneurs and their employees can lack experience, and many burn out after sacrificing their private lives for the relentless demands of a start-up. From most of the accounts I’ve read, charter schools confront the same problems. Yet like small businesses, some of them succeed against enormous odds and change the dynamics of the educational marketplace.

Traditional public school advocates will counter that we can’t afford to experiment with children. I would find that argument more persuasive if public school administrators and teachers’ unions were more willing to acknowledge and address public school failure. Is the problem that markets don’t work, or that our traditional public schools — like Britain’s dinosaur nationalized industries before Margaret Thatcher — don’t have to survive the relentless judgment of markets and consumers?

Educational reformers of all stripes are a chastened bunch these days. Is that really so bad? Maybe we should embrace failure, with the contrition and possibility of renewal it brings. And certainly we should try, try again.

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