Curmudgucation: Tweaking Charter Marketing

The recent poll showing a jump-off-a-cliff drop in public support for charter schools, which comes on top of wrestling with the splits in the community, has prompted a bit of soul-searching in the charter/choice community. Unfortunately, some of that soul-searching has focused on the question of how to better market their product.

Nobody reframes a sales pitch like Peter Cunningham. Cunningham has a BA in Philosophy from Duke and Masters of Journalism from Columbia. He worked in and around Chicago, including a stint as Mayor Richard M. Daley's head speechwriter. His Chicago connections took him to Arne Duncan's Department of Education, where as Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, he was "responsible for communications strategy and message development for the U.S. Department of Education." He's a PR guy, and he's good at what he does, so when Eli Broad and some other Very Wealthy Friends (including, behind that curtain over there, Laurene Jobs) were looking for someone to run a war-room style messaging operation for education reform, they tapped Cunningham to run Education Post (and perhaps another side project or two).


I've had many online conversations with Cunningham and met him face to face when he attended the Network for Public Education conference last year. Like most reformsters, he has neither horns nor a pointy red tail. Seems like a nice enough guy. But he's well-paid to do a particular job, and he works hard to do it well. And that's what he seems to be doing in his latest spin-heavy piece at Education Post (I don't often link to EdPost, but if I'm going to write about the piece, it's only fair that there be a link to check my work.

The news that support for public charter schools has dropped from 51 percent to 39 percent is a wake-up call for the school choice movement. We can continue to play defense and lose, or we can reframe the conversation around the issues that matter most: the rights of parents and the best interests of children.

There are choices beyond the two that Cunningham offers, like, for instance "ask ourselves what aspects of charters are unappealing to the public" or even "question whether or not we're backing the right horse." But Cunningham sticks with A) play defense and lose or B) improve our marketing focus.

School choice is a response to a bureaucratic and ineffective education system that is not evolving to meet the needs of America’s racially and economically diverse student population.

Even some of Cunningham's fellow reformsters don't agree with him. For DeVosian choicers, school choice is a response to a government monopoly of the education marketplace. Meeting the needs of racially and economically diverse populations is not really their intent, and the fact that they're becoming more open about it is precisely the split that is stressing the reformster world. 

Cunningham's framing here is also very adept because it sidesteps everyone else's responsibility for public school failures. He does not, for instance, talk about responding to government's unwillingness to properly fund education. He knows that's an issue, but the solution to that issue is not school choice-- the solution is to properly fund those schools.

Next it's time for the traditional Litany of Kids These Days Failures:

Troublingly, 1 in 6 students don’t graduate from high school. Only about 1 in 3 who do graduate are ready for college. Few of the remaining students have marketable work skills upon graduation, while employers are hungry for workers who can think, communicate, analyze, and show up on time. 

The 1 in 6 figure comes from I'm-not-sure-where, but is in line with what many authorities say--though that figure usually is based on students entering ninth grade and graduating four years later, and if we're basing graduation rates on what percentage of a ninth grade cohort graduates from the school four years later, then charters look terrible by comparison to public schools.

The 1 in 3 figure is oft-repeated baloney. It means that 1 in 3 students hit a cut score on a single Big Standardized Test. Is there anything to suggest that the cut score and the test correspond to college readiness? Of course not, because "college readiness" is an undefined (and probably undefinable) term. The worker "shortage" is a discussion too large for this space, but if there really is a concern about people willing and able to do certain jobs, there are two clear responses. You can respond as some states have to teachers shortages by lowering standards, or you could follow the wisdom of the free market and offer better work conditions and pay. If nobody will sell you a Porsche for $1.98, that does not mean there's an automobile shortage. I won't argue that employers don't want workers with all those qualities, but I will question how school choice would create more people who have them.

And it's worse for poor kids:

Less than 1 in 10 low-income kids earn a four-year college degree. About 30 percent don’t even finish high school, and those who do have few career choices. It’s no wonder low-income parents are desperate for better options. 

A bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. What do the problems of poverty have to do with school choice? Why would we not instead conclude that schools in these communities need more money, support, and attention, instead of the opposite-- to drain money and resources away from these schools in the hopes that a charter might have the ability to save just a few of them.

The choice movement has grown steadily over the past 25 years by offering new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Really? Name two. What the few "successful" charters have offered is a carefully selected student body, strong financial support, and plenty of resources. None of these are new or innovative.

Cunningham follows this with unsupported praise of charters, with more college students, increased teacher diversity, eliminating achievement gaps, and "using technology in new and better ways to personalize learning and empower teachers to meet students where they are and enable them to learn at their own pace." Yes, let's pitch "personalized" computer-based in there, too. Let's just say that there's a lot of room for debate about all of these claims and move on to the problems of the embattled choicers. Oh, and the choice system "is significantly better than the system it is replacing." So I guess we're done talking about blending the systems together-- close up public education and replace it with the privatized version.

Not surprisingly, the system has struck back by shifting the conversation away from student outcomes and parent rights. Instead, officials focus on money, governance, selectivity, testing, segregation, discipline, management, jobs, and any other topic they can use to change the subject.

 Has it? Because there's been plenty of discussion of student achievement among choice critics with voucher studies showing definite weakness. And the rest of the list-- is Cunningham suggesting these topics are irrelevant and immaterial, that choice as a tool of segregation, for instance, is unimportant? Or is he simply arguing that these points are marketing losers, and folks trying to sell choice should move on to better marketing tactics? Because I don't see anything on his list that doesn't have a strong and influential impact on students and their learning. 

The poll results suggest that more and more people are starting to question the motives and merits of school choice. And, in truth, the choice movement has allowed enough bad actors into the space to validate their concerns.

Well, yes. I appreciate his willingness to admit it. Over the past decade, nobody has made choice look worse than charter operators themselves. And the bad news for choicers is that Empress DeVos (her brother wants to be a Viceroy of War, so why can't she be the Empress of Education) has made it clear that she sees no need for any oversight beyond parental choice, so the Bad Actors problem is not going to get better any time soon. Cunningham says cleaning house is a regular, daily chore, but DeVos has already sold her dustpan and broom because, hey, the parents that pass through will probably keep everything clean on their own. In other words, this hasn't been working so far, but let's do it more.

Cunningham says voucher opposition is softening. Urban parents are jealous of those cool Catholic schools. And there's more:

Black and Hispanic parents see high teacher turnover in their public schools and wonder why so few teachers are people of color.

Well, yes. But what does that have to do with charter schools, which also skew white in their staffing and often have considerable staff churn and burn, by design. Not to mention the many charters that just close completely, sometimes in the middle of the year. So, yes-- real problem. But what reason is there to think that charters and choice are a solution?

They see increasingly militant teachers unions threatening strikes and anti-tax politicians unwilling to fund schools adequately, and they want to remove these uncertainties from their lives.  

Increasingly militant? I'd like to see a basis for that assessment. Over the past few decades, states have taken many steps to make teacher strikes untenable. It's true that in Chicago, the teachers union kicks ass and takes names-- but more than in the past? And compared to unions across the country? And yes-- buried in here is the admission that underfunding schools is a political problem, but how will choice help that? Will anti-tax politicians suddenly be willing to raise taxes if the money is going to charters? 

But here comes his Big Point.

No one can dispute the right of parents to choose their child’s school. Every day, privileged parents are making that choice by moving into a community with good schools, by choosing private schools, or by jockeying within the existing system to find the best fit for their kid. Poor parents deserve the same opportunity to choose.

Okay. First, choice is not as important as quality. I've made this argument before-- poor parents don't want choices. What they want is their child in a good school. And we could do that. But it would cost money, and while nobody in this country would dispute a parents' right to have a good education for their child, what folks are disputing-- as with health care and food and decent housing-- is having taxpayers pay for it. There is only one thing standing between building a school in a poor neighborhood that is every bit as good as the school in a wealthy neighborhood, and that is money. People want great educations for their own kids. Those Other People? Don't care so much. And if I have to listen to one more "Why should I pay school taxes when I don't have kids" argument, I raise my blood pressure so high that I'll blow the remaining hair off the top of my head. 

So we want good education, but we don't want to pay for it. We particularly don't want to pay for it for Other Peoples' Children. This is a real problem-- one of the root problems of the entire education system. AND CHARTERS AND CHOICE DO NOT SOLVE THIS PROBLEM. What do you think the "but I don't have kids" taxpayer crowd will have to say about paying taxes because families are now "entitled" to send their kids to private school at public expense. PLUS charters and choice, by virtue of duplicate services and excess capacity, must be an even more expensive system.

Now the marketing advice:

Parents should be the face of the school choice movement. We spend a lot of time glorifying the innovative educators creating charter schools, but we should spend more time honoring the parents with the courage to buck the system.

Fundamentally, school choice is about freedom — one of America’s core values. No one should be trapped in a system that isn’t working for their kids.

Fundamentally, school choice is about opening markets to vendors so they can get their hands on that sweet, sweet tax money. As with any other market, the customers will have the "freedom" to choose whatever options the corporations offer to them. And with government pushed aside, those parents will have nobody to advocate for them and their rights. And taxpayers will have no voice at all.

With a new school year upon us, and a political climate that rewards bluster and blame over truth and common understanding, we need to bring the education conversation back to core principles. It begins with parent rights and it ends with student outcomes, and most of the other topics are secondary or irrelevant. 

 Education does not begin with parent rights, nor are they a core principle of education. It serves the narrative of privatizers to talk about education as if it were a commodity sold to parents, like diapers or Aeropestale hoodies, but it is not, and it never has been. Education is a public trust, a system that serves, yes, parents but also future employers, neighbors, fellow voters, and most of all, the students themselves. A school system serves many interests and a broad web of stakeholders, which makes it really hard to get into the market. But if we could cut all of those other stakeholders out of the equation, and let ed-flavored businesses pitch just to parents (just like we pitch Diet Coke and new cars), the market would be so much more permeable.

Making the parents central to the whole edu-business makes it easier for companies to sell their product. It's a useful step in privatization, not so useful for getting underserved populations the kind of education they deserve. "Parent choice" is a red herring, a distraction. Unrestricted, companies will offer poor parents lousy choices-- but hey, you got a choice, so it's awesome, right?

As is the case with many reformsters, I actually agree with Cunningham when it comes to many of the problems facing education. I just don't see choice, vouchers, or charters providing real solutions to any of them.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.