How to End the Charter School Wars


Richard Kalhenberg and Halley Potter just published an op-ed titled “End the Charter Schools Wars.”

Kalhenberg and Potter argue:

  1. Families are protesting the fact that over a hundred thousand students in New York City are stuck in failing schools.
  1. The main policy goal of this protest is to expand charter schools.
  1. Charter schools, on average, outperform traditional schools in New York City, but this performance is likely skewed due to selection and attrition effects.
  1. And even if charters continue to grow, in the near future charter schools will never serve more than a small fraction of New York City students.
  1. The best avenue forward is better collaboration between charter schools and traditional schools, so that traditional schools can improve by adopting the best practices of the most successful charter schools.
  1. Government should facilitate and reward this collaboration.

In their words: “It’s time to call off the wars. Advocates and policymakers need to stop arguing about whether we need more charter schools or fewer and start focusing on how we can best leverage the charter school model to improve all public schools.”

There are two main problems with their argument.

First, they never make a case for why the best charter schools in the city should not expand.

Instead of making this case, they jump to chastising advocates who publicly argue that great charter schools should be able to expand.

This argument strikes me as fairly insensitive to those families stuck in failing schools.

Why do these families not have a right to argue for the expansion of high-performing charter schools that might better serve their children?

These families are not engaging in petty political fighting. They are trying to gain access to better educational opportunities.

It takes some gall to say these families and their advocates should “stop arguing.”

Second, Kalhenberg and Potter do not effectively argue that a lack of collaboration is keeping the best charter school practices from being adopted in traditional schools.

To begin with, they do not site any research that demonstrates that collaborating around best practice dissemination improves academic outcomes.

They also ignore or discount the very real efforts that high-performing charter networks have taken to disseminate their practices.

Numerous academic articles and books detail the practices of high-performing charter schools.

Additionally, as Kalhenberg and Potter note, the highest-performing charter network in the city, Success Academy, has made its techniques public.

The founders of the network even took the time to write a book about their practices.

Moreover, there happens to be entire organization, Relay Graduate School of Education, that offers a Master’s Degree program with a curriculum that is based on the practices of high-performing charter schools.

All told, I’m highly skeptical that district schools are not adopting best practices because of lack of access to knowledge.

In sum:

  1. Kalhenberg and Potter do not make a convincing case for why great charter schools should not be able to expand. The best of New York City’s charter schools have been rigorously studied and proven to be effective. Allowing them to expand to serve more students, regardless of whether or not they will ever serve all students, seems to be a common sense solution.
  1. Moreover, Kalhenberg and Potter criticize families and advocates for arguing for the expansion of great charter schools, despite the fact that it is these families that directly suffer from the lack of high-performing charter expansion.
  1. Lastly, the solution Kalhenberg and Potter propose, more collaboration, is at best not based on rigorous research; at worst, it is solving a problem that does not exist.

How to end the charter school wars?

Allow the best charter schools to expand and close the worst charter schools.

That’s all it would take.

This answer is based on sound research, is politically feasible, and honors the fact that families stuck in failing schools deserve better options immediately.

Op-eds that call for less arguing, on the other hand, seem like a less viable solution.

*Transparency note: I have done consulting work with Families for Excellent Schools, an organization that works with families in NYC on the above issues.

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