Why is this Argument Against Charter Schools so Sticky?


One of the most common arguments I hear against expanding charter school goes something like this: “charter schools were meant to be laboratories of innovation, but now they’re taking over public schools.”

My response generally goes something like this: “if something is working for poor and minority students, why wouldn’t you want to expand it?”

My response aside, it’s worth considering why this argument against charter schools is so sticky.

Some guesses:

Status Quo Bias: People react negatively to major changes; this seems especially true for public schooling.

Union Support: If you view teachers unions as a major positive force in society, you might be ok with charters serving 10% of students (as a method for increasing innovation), but you might be worried that significantly increasing charter schools would take too big of a toll on union membership.

Inequity: If you believe that charters skim for the highest performing students, you might be worried that increasing charter market share would also increase inequitable practices (of course, if charters hit 100% market share, it would be impossible for them to skim).

Anything else I’m missing?

My guess is that, for your average person, status quo bias is the main rationale.

For people more familiar with education, union membership and inequity are also major reasons.

Moving forward, I may try to proactively raise this issue in my speeches and writings, as it is an argument that generally arises very early in discussion.

3 thoughts on “Why is this Argument Against Charter Schools so Sticky?

  1. Scott Benson (@scottb_edu)

    Inherent in the argument against charter expansion may also be a skepticism that charters have actually lived up to their billing as “laboratories of innovation.” Skeptics are undoubtedly asking whether the charter sector has really seeded innovations that other schools with different governance models can successfully adopt. Someone who doesn’t believe that charters have been successful as laboratories will likely question their direct expansion.

    It seems wise to tackle the underlying skepticism by making the case that charters have lived up to this promise, at least partially. You might also extend that argument further by making the case that this transfer of innovation is actually accelerating as the charter sector moves beyond its traditional focus on time and talent to include more R&D in instructional design, technology development and other innovations that may be more portable. Personally, I believe that to be the case and am hopeful the transfer continues to accelerate and leads to real impact. Taking that stance would not preclude you from also, advocating for charter expansion, btw.

    Alternatively, you could argue that the original idea that charters serve as R&D factories for other types of schools does not necessarily need to be true for them to have impact; they can have impact simply by expanding the number of students they serve even if they keep all of their ideas to themselves. That seems like a much harder argument to land, though.

  2. Macke Raymond

    There is another perspective on charters that few people talk about when discussing innovation. The typical view of innovation aims at novel classroom practice, but charter schools have innovated in other ways. The chance to open where families demand alternatives. The option to start with an single grade and grow one grade at a time. The options to hire flexibly and nimbly as conditions warrant. These innovations are rarely mentioned. Wrapping it all up, charter school policy that decentralizes decision making and trades freedom for consequential accountability is itself a major innovation, not just in education but in public services more generally.

  3. Jordan Posamentier

    You’re all familiar with these, but two significant — and rebuttable — additional claims worth mentioning are:

    1) Charters drain money from traditional public schools. (The reasonings goes — the traditionals are already under-resourced, and with charters, they’ll lose even more.) Here, we need to answer the question of when we should invest in the existing infrastructure — not preserve it, per se, but invest in it — and when should government stop investing, use funds that *would’ve* gone to existing infrastructure, and use those and additional funds to make something new?

    2) Charters are run by non-government organizations. Here, we need to answer the question of when it’s okay to delegate government work to a third party. For example, is it okay for an NGO to run garbage collection, utilities, the police force, prisons, mail delivery, the courts, the legislature?

    Again, both rebuttable. In my view, proponents of charters and other advances do not spend adequate time answering the aforementioned questions.


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