Choice Without Charters

I like school choice. After all, I chose to homeschool my own children even though I see myself as a passionate supporter of public schools. I don’t like charters. They pull money away from public schools and hand-select the students they want to serve. Then, their supporters have the nerve to compare the charter outcomes with those of the schools they have robbed. It’s interesting that even with these unfair advantages, charter outcomes remain unimpressive.

We have known for some time that charters serve fewer students with disabilities, and students with milder disabilities, than public schools. New evidence shows that 80% of students with disabilities who enroll in charter schools as kindergarteners are edged out by the third grade. So much for helping students with disabilities; how about minority and disadvantaged students? Supporters of charters cite data that use the myth of the virtual twin to argue that minority students have slightly better outcomes in charters than in the public schools they would have attended. But having the same race, income and achievement doesn’t make two students twins, even virtual ones. Most charters that are successful in minority neighborhoods require that the parents seek out the school and then agree to comply with a partnership outlined by the charter, ensuring they are selecting students with strong parental support and, therefore, not necessarily twins to their public school counterparts at all. Parental involvement makes a difference in student achievement, and parents who take responsibility for the direction of their children’s education make a difference in our schools.

So, I think that the evidence is already in and market-based school systems aren’t the solution to raising student achievement. But student achievement as measured by standardized assessments isn’t the only measure of a school’s value. Another measure of student success is access to a better range of post-secondary outcomes, and again, I don’t think market-based solutions such as charters, vouchers or selective magnet schools are the answer. The same report that shows small gains for charters over public schools when serving minority students shows no effect at all for high school students. There isn’t much research comparing post-secondary employment and education outcomes between charters and public schools, but I suspect that charters that are reporting higher levels of university admission for their graduates are those that are edging out both special needs students and students with families who are not compliant with parent agreements.

Like many supporters of school choice, I think it’s unfair that rich kids have a choice to attend private schools while poor kids have to attend a public school based on where they live, especially within a system that ties a school’s funding to the tax base of its county. How could we expect a system like this to lead to any outcome other than inequality? When I chose to continue homeschooling my oldest son through high school, my deciding factor was that his school of zone did not, at the time, offer four years of a single foreign language, a requirement for several of the universities he was considering. Thankfully, the school does offer that option now, along with a wider choice of AP and dual enrollment courses, making it a viable choice for my youngest child to consider next year. Our school is also beginning to offer a few vocational and technical options that can lead to certifications and dual credits for students who want to pursue a vocational pathway. While these are steps in the right direction, my children’s options are still not as varied as those of students in some other counties and states, not to mention students in other countries, who they will be competing with for higher education places and jobs.

We need to build more choice and incorporate more student and parent voice into our schools. I just don’t think we have to look outside our public schools to accomplish that goal. I think that with more equalized resources and a little more financial autonomy, public schools could offer choice more effectively, and certainly more equitably, than market-based school choice. That would take change on the policy level, as well as change in the way we approach individual student needs within our school walls.

The stories of Sweden and Finland illustrate the difference. Sweden began a massive experiment with free market-based schools in 1992 and has seen declining educational achievement ever since. Finland, on the other hand, increased its educational achievement when it invested in its public schools in the 1970’s by working with its teacher unions and increasing certification requirements for teachers while improving pay and working conditions. It implemented a national curriculum, developed by teachers, that offers a broad framework rather than a set of prescriptive objectives, and increased financial autonomy within schools, so that each municipal school district is able to allocate resources to meet the needs of its population. Student choice was expanded in Finland in the 1990’s, offering choices within and among public schools, with specialist courses and areas of focus offered within schools. Upper secondary students have choices among academic and vocational pathways.

So, the policy changes to encourage more choice within public schools will have to include greater financial autonomy for our schools. They will also have to include equal resources allocated to students across school systems. Those are two giant changes we must make on the policy level, but I don’t think they are any more difficult than the changes needed to increase the number of charters and vouchers.

The changes we need to make within our school walls may be more difficult in some school systems. In my school, there are some in administration who see me as the annoyingly defective school bell,  ringing nonstop for change. I’ve seen the eyes roll and heard the sighs when I simply won’t accept the answer “we can’t do that” and, while I know that all of us in education are overstressed and I often make daily school operations even harder, I think of my students and somehow I can’t quiet my bell. Others in our school and system administration cheer on my questioning, which they applaud as “outside the box thinking.” I rely on these administrators to support me, and am surprised at how often they are able to do so when students need an alternative solution. Administrators who are committed to students can often find ways to work within restrictive laws and funding regulations to creatively meet unique student needs. When one of these committed administrators tells me that we really can’t make something happen, I know that they truly have their hands tied with rigid top-down laws and funding requirements. These are the kinds of administrators who must be given more power over how funds are allocated and flexibility over how their systems meet the needs of their students.

Advocates for school choice are right. Our communities will be strengthened when students and families are empowered to make choices in education. But evidence from both US and international experiments is in, and market-based choice isn’t the answer.


ORGANISATION FOR ECONOMIC CO-OPERATION AND DEVELOPMENT, & NATIONAL CENTER ON EDUCATION AND THE ECONOMY (U.S.). (2011). Strong performers and successful reformers in education lessons from PISA for the United States. Paris, OECD.

STANFORD UNIVERSITY. (2013). National charter school study 2013. Stanford, Calif, Center for Research on Education Outcomes.


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