OurFuture.org: Center For American Progress Makes a Failed Case for Charters

President Donald Trump swept into office on a platform that included support for charter schools and other alternatives to public schools, and his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, an ardent supporter of “school choice” in all its forms, recently announced her department would provide over a quarter-billion dollars to help expand charters.

So it’s surprising to see the Center for American Progress, originators of the #Resist campaign, issue a “Progressive Case for Charter Schools” that decries the “waning” support for charters among Democrats and scolds charter school skeptics for being against progressive institutions.

But CAP’s argument for charters is flawed and unconvincing in multiple ways.

Its authors rely on a very select and problematic evidence base for the supposed advantages of charters, repeatedly anchor conclusions to charter enthusiasts and charter marketing materials, and cherry-pick a sample of charter schools that prompt more questions than answers.

The authors find examples of worthwhile practices in charters but never bother to look at whether these practices are already evident in existing public schools. They nod their heads toward a troubling “lack of accountability and transparency” among charters but ignore its prevalence. And CAP’s argument never considers the important questions of whether charter expansions are necessary or could possibly come with some downsides.

No ‘Proven Model’

In calling charters a “proven model,” CAP draws from a narrow sample of research studies provided by a single source, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO).

CAP repeatedly links to two CREDO studies to substantiate its claim that “charter schools are improving outcomes for students—especially for low-income students of color.”

A more careful read of the first CREDO study reveals the researchers in no way claim to prove charters generally improve outcomes for students. What they do contend is some types of charters have yielded observable improvements in student achievement compared to public schools, others don’t, and some actually harm student learning.

The improvements CREDO finds are evident in two types of charter schools that make up a very small percentage of charters overall, and there are significant variations in charter performance based on the states they operate in.

Another review of this CREDO study, by a Michigan-based reporter, finds the Stanford researchers “exaggerate the significance of their findings,” according to an expert quoted in the article, Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor, “who has done extensive research on charter schools.”

Brookings Institute fellow Tom Loveless makes a similar point in examining CREDO’s charter school analyses. “Achievement differences between charters and [traditional public schools] are extremely small, so tiny, in fact, that they lack real world significance.”

A ‘Mixed Bag’ at Best

CAP is equally cavalier in its citing from anther CREDO study, this one on the academic performance of charters in urban communities.

Here again, Stanford researchers find some evidence of superior results from charters, but the evidence is quite small and not applicable to widespread implementations of these schools.

Writing for The Progressive, my colleague California University – Sacramento professor Julian Vasquez Heilig says, “Charter school supporters and the media point to [this study] to say that African American and Latino students have more success in charter schools. Leaving aside the integrity of the study, what charter proponents don’t mention is that the performance impact is .008 and .05 for Latinos and African Americans in charter schools, respectively. These numbers are larger than zero, but you need a magnifying glass to see them.”

“CREDO’s studies have shown charter school performance to be a mixed bag,” writes Education Week’s reporter covering the charter sector, “and as a result, are regularly cited by both charter supporters and opponents, depending upon the outcome of a particular study.”

Quoting the Charter Choir 

CAP’s evidence base for the supposed superiority of charters is weakened further by the authors’ repeated citations from prominent charter cheerleaders.

CAP frequently links to New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, who is well-known to make erroneous claims and false assertions about charter schools, New York Times Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who similarly plays fast and loose with claims about charter superiority, and Richard Whitmire who wrote an adulating portrait of ex-Chancellor of DC Public schools Michelle Rhee that was eventually undermined by the lack of evidence of her success in leading District schools.

CAP’s attempts to find evidence of the “progressive values and practices” of charters become so strained that the authors frequently resort to links to the schools’ own websites, as if their marketing language is somehow proof they offer “equal educational opportunity and access.”

Not So Noble

When CAP’s “progressive” case for charters pivots to individual schools, its focus falls on an unfortunate example, the Noble Network in Chicago.

The CAP authors extoll the Noble schools’ six-year college graduation rate of 31 percent, “well above the national average for low-income students,” as proof the schools have discovered a formula for success. But CAP authors ignore the way Noble produces those higher graduation rates by screening out certain kinds of students – principally students with learning disabilities and who have trouble with the English language – and imposing harsh discipline“fees” for code infractions, and high expulsion rates that encourage struggling students to transfer out.

Thus, Noble’s mostly black charters “post the highest student attrition rates,” in Chicago, a local reporter writes, “which are directly related to discipline, as students with high numbers of detentions are required to repeat the school year. Teachers say many students decide instead to transfer to a neighborhood high school and move on to the next grade.”

Does that sound progressive to you?

A Suspension of Reason

CAP’s next attempt to make the progressive case for charters is to find the ones that are “leaders in developing more holistic school discipline practices.”

While some charter schools may indeed be developing more progressive approaches to school discipline, most charter schools, particularly those located in neighborhoods predominated by black students, continue to post significantly higher suspensions rates than public schools.

The KIPP charter chain CAP mentions favorably has been cited repeatedly by journalists for operating a “no excuses” discipline policy that generally leads to disproportionally high suspensions rates and high student attrition rates.

Other charter operations CAP authors point to, Uncommon Schools and Achievement First, also have very high suspension rates. It may be true that some charters have recently taken steps to lower their high suspension rates, but that likely came about through parent whistle-blowing and public shaming, not by praising them for their practices.

Further, there are numerous examples of public schools implementing some of the very same practices CAP praises charters for “developing.” While any new discipline approach pioneered by a charter stays with that charter, when public schools implement more progressive discipline practices, those practices can become the norm across whole districts and states.

So, it’s not at all clear we need charter schools to show our public schools a more enlightened path to fairer and more just school discipline. Public schools are blazing that path on their own, thank you very much.

Teach for a While

When CAP’s case for progressive charters finds examples of charters doing something right, the authors never consider the larger context of the bigger problems associated with charters.

For instance, there is indeed some evidence charter schools tend to hire higher percentages of non-white teachers than public schools take in. But the bigger picture is that those new teachers who get hired by charters likely won’t stay very long.

Teacher turnover has been called “a charter school plague,” with one study finding teachers at charter high schools were three times more likely to leave than their peers in public high schools.

KIPP schools, specifically, have very high teacher turnover rates. Teachers at KIPP schools typically stay for an average of only four years.

That CAF authors choose to spotlight Teach for America as an “exemplary” practitioner of teacher recruitment is laughable. While the organization has of late gotten some notoriety for recruiting higher percentages of black and Latino teachers, a national study of TFA found more than half of TFA recruits placed in low-income schools leave after two years, and by their fifth year, only 14.8 percent continue to teach in the same low-income schools they were originally assigned to. This compares to a national turnover rate of 21 percent for teachers at high-poverty schools. Among new teachers in general, 50 percent are still in classrooms after five years, compared to only 27.8 percent for TFA.

Studies have shown that high teacher turnover has a negative impact on student learning. Why would CAP encourage this?

Hurting Rather than Helping

One thing CAP does get right is that public schools are often “ill-equipped” to meet the needs of special student populations, such as drop-outs, students who are pregnant or have children, immigrant students, or students in the criminal justice system. But the authors never ask why this is so and instead rush to the conclusion that only through charters can these students have opportunities to learn.

This is an unfortunate position for a progressive organization to take. Anyone who has taken time to actually talk with school leaders knows they struggle to serve special student populations but are often pressed to curtail those programs because of lawmakers’ decision to cut education budgets or redirect the money to other options, including charter schools.

It would seem to make more sense for a progressive organization like CAP to focus its advocacy on pressuring policy makers and government leaders to provide public schools with the resources they need to attend to the needs of all students rather than advocate for charter schools and other options that actually hurt public schools and the students left in them.

A Progressive Promise Gone Awry?

Perhaps most distressing about CAP’s defense of charter schools is the column’s quick dismissal of the “accountability and transparency” problems of these schools and its suggestion those problems are confined just to “for-profit” charter schools.

Some of the most prominent examples of charter school corruption and malfeasance have been committed by non-profit charters. The CAP authors know that but choose to ignore it for the purpose of elevating a specific type of charter school, specifically charters operated by non-profit charter management organizations (CMOs). To claim these sorts of charters are immune to the problems of accountability and transparency is to ignore overwhelming evidence that these problems plague all forms of charters.

Based on CAP’s progressive case for charter schools, it would be sensible to argue the progressive values that characterize much of CAP’s advocacy just don’t apply to the organization’s education work because of the influence of donors, the background of the staffers, or the close association CAP has to Washington Beltway elites, including members of former President Obama’s administration, who are devoted to charters.

Another possibility is CAP’s case for charters is an attempt at a more nuanced look at the sector. Certainly, many of the well-intentioned people who operate charters and who labor in these schools deserve a nuanced consideration of their work, and CAP seems to believe critics of charters schools are “unreasonable” and “simply devalue all charter schools.”

If this truly is what motivates CAP to make the case for charters, then the organization simply hasn’t spent much time seriously considering what charter school skeptics say.

None of the prominent organizations that have called for a moratorium on charter expansions – including the National Education Association, the NAACP, and the Network for Public Education – has advocated for a total ban on the schools and immediate closure of existing ones. No one is telling parents they are at fault for sending their kids to these schools.

What charter skeptics say is that ramping up a new and separate sector of charter schools, although it may have been a progressive idea to begin with, has led to lots of negative consequences and fallen far short of any promise to “equalize” opportunities for all students.

That CAP’s case for charters refuses to even consider this argument shows who is truly the most “reasonable” in the debate.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America's Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, serving numerous nonprofits and progressive organizations and causes including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, ASCD, National Geographic Society, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He has written...