Charter School Districts are to the Left of Obamacare

Welcome to my new blog. More than anything, this is a personal experiment for me on how to best generate and communicate ideas. Hopefully it will work.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of months.


Charter school districts, the major education idea that I support, are systems where government sets the price for education (a per-pupil allotment), contracts out for educational services to non-profits (charter schools), and then allows families to choose amongst these options (via government managed enrollment systems).

Now what does this sound eerily similar to? Obamacare, of course. In fact, it’s much more socialist than Obamacare, in that Obamacare doesn’t mandate one single price for health insurance and Obamacare is much more reliant on the for-profit sector (insurance companies).

Charter school districts are actually much closer to a single payer health system than they are to Obamacare.

Yet, despite the deep similarities between charter school districts and single payer health care systems, much of the progressive wing of the Democratic party views this model as the apex of “corporate reform” – and much of the conservative wing is highly supportive of this government managed model.

So what happens to be the progressive dream in one sector (health care) is the progressive nightmare in another sector (education). You could make the same type of argument for conservatives, but I’ll focus on liberals here given that’s whose viewpoint I’d love to see evolve.

Why do many progressives oppose charter school districts? The idea itself – government contracting out essential services to non-profits – seems not to be at the heart of the issue. As this is what a single payer health care system would likely look in our country. And it’s exactly what the progressive mayor of New York is doing to execute his pre-k expansion program. My take is the pushback against charter school districts is due to some combination of the following:

1. Status Quo Bias: People are attached to the current structure of public schooling. Proposals to significantly change this structure trigger emotional and idealogical reactions that lead to resisting new models of public schooling.

2. Incumbent Survival:  Instituions such as teacher unions and school boards could see reduced influence in the new structure – as such, they fight to retain the current power structures.

3. Equity and Community Concerns: Even though government run schools have hardly led to educational equity, critics are worried that any loosening of the reigns would heighten, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity. Tied into these concerns are related sentiments around neighborhoods and community connection.

Interestingly enough – at least in many urban centers – performance is becoming less of an argument, as urban charter schools continue to outperform traditional systems at scale (with some exceptions of course). This is a relatively new, but major, shift in the conversation.

Note that the above three rationales all involve different solutions.

Status quo bias is probably best solved through communications, the development of additional city proof points, and the eventual normalization of charter systems.

Incumbent survival is ultimately a political battle.

And solving the equity concerns will involve a combination of both building strong regulatory regimes that promote equity in all charter systems – as well communicating the advances in equity and community connections that are ultimately made.

I’m hopeful that we’ll make progress on all fronts.

But the irony should not be lost on us: what is considered progressive in one arena (health care) is considered corporatist in another arena (education).

Ultimately, charter school districts are simply single payer education systems.

Or at least that’s what it seems like to me. Am I missing something?


13 thoughts on “Charter School Districts are to the Left of Obamacare

  1. Mike G

    I think Ms. Huffington has taken your position as well. Single payer for health care and for schools.

  2. R Reich

    Really interesting inaugural post, Neerav. Would be good to see the same framing up front applied to the right in addition to the left.

    The first of your two explanations for pushback — status quo bias and incumbent survival — may indeed have some explanatory power, but they’re pretty mundane analytically, and would apply to virtually any reform effort in any policy domain.

    For me, the only interesting hypothesis is equity and community concerns. I think your post skims over this idea too lightly and lumps together a variety of ideas into a large grab bag category.

    Worry that charter districts will exacerbate inequality is not the same as concern that charter districts will attenuate connections between neighborhood and schools. These deserve separate focus.

    And the equity concern on its own needs to be broken down into distinct parts. For example, will the effect of charter districts be:

    1. to increase segregation of students by race, class, or religion, relative to the status quo?
    2. to increase achievement gap, again by race or class, relative to the status quo?
    3. to promote creaming of highly motivated students/families?
    4. to differentiate responsibility for the schooling of special education students, and thereby to promote inequity in school responsibility for education of all children?
    5. to compromise the historic mission of public schooling to provide civic education, and thereby to promote inequality in citizenship?

    Your catch-all response that a strong regulatory regime is needed to address these might be right as the first thought. But the details of the regulatory regime matter, depending on what kind of equity/community concern you’re addressing. And you first need to decide what equity concerns are actual problems rather than red herrings.

    Looking forward to seeing your new posts. Welcome to the blogosphere.

    1. nkingsl

      Rob, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      1. Yes, I think I should have separated out equity and community. Good point.
      2. My thinking is centralized and transparent accountability, enrollment, transfer, and explosion processes will work to ameliorate (1) (3) (4). It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be much better than before. Though it’s worth admitting upfront that if you’re giving people choices you’ll inevitably have some uneven distribution (which I think is ok).
      3. Per (2) – I think many urban charter sectors have already proven gaps will decrease.
      4. Per (5) – this is really up to legislatures in setting standards. That being said, pragmatically and anecdotally, I see high-performing chatters doing this much better than most traditional standards.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.


  3. Michael

    Hi Neru!

    Great blog. I look forward to dropping by from time to time.

    On this issue, as with tort reform in the health care debate, I think the opposition is largely motivated by incumbent survival

    Keep up the good work!

    Michael Bretholz

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  5. Maximum Liberty

    Two thoughts —

    First, when your theory meets practice, it will get very messy. Given your experience, I doubt you need to be told this, but your presentation of the idea elides this effect. If we look at Obamacare, what we see is a fundamental payer-provider division where the payer dictates an enormous number of fiddly details. All that dictation loses us much of the purported benefit of the division in the first place. We should anticipate the same when we divide school providers from district payers.

    Second, one of the objections to charter schools is the notion that the rich kids might cluster. Well, sure, but they already do, by their parents buying a house so that they can attend the neighborhood school, and it is amazing how schools in rich neighborhoods manage to get more district dollars per student. My sense is that, in practice, charter schools would be marginally better in this regard, since the dollars per student would be more transparent. This is almost the obverse of my first point. Where you weren’t taking the detriment of theory running into practice there, you’re not taking the benefit here.

    Max L.

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