A Crack In the Charter School Foundation

A startling admission from one of the nation's leading charter school researchers
Hoover Institution

Something happened last week in Ohio that goes to the heart of the charter school experiment in full swing in North Carolina and other states.

It was a low-key, seemingly offhanded comment by one of the nation’s leading researchers into K-12 education in general and charters in particular: Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in California, a conservative think tank and strong advocate of free market reform of public education.

Raymond was speaking at an event in Cleveland to discuss the results of a recent Hoover Institute study of Ohio charters that revealed that Ohio charter school students, on average, underperformed in reading and math compared to students at traditional public schools.

Faced with this, and bringing with her decades of research into education systems and outcomes, Raymond said something extraordinary (first reported by 10th Period, an education blog run by lawyer, former newspaper reporter and former state legislator Stephen Dyer; emphasis mine):

I actually am kind of a pro-market kinda girl. But it doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education. I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career. That’s my academic focus for my work. And (education) is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work. I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state. I think there are other supports that are needed … The policy environment really needs to focus on creating much more information and transparency about performance than we’ve had for the 20 years of the charter school movement. We need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools. But I also think we have to have some oversight of the overseers.

What makes this admission so astounding is that it undermines the central premise of the charter school movement, and the very idea of transferring K-12 education from public to private hands: the notion that the free market automatically generates better education outcomes by weeding out poor product and allowing quality operators to flourish. And that’s not what’s happening. Dyer notes that the most successful charters in Ohio—meaning the ones growing most as businesses—aren’t really the ones producing the best test scores.

When you think about it for a minute, it’s not that hard to understand why. An unfettered free market is good for driving the quality of basic goods and services—PVC pipe, televisions, car repair. That’s because, as Raymond notes in an emailed response to The Washington Post, the market operates on the presumption that consumers know exactly what they’re buying and the difference between a quality commodity or service and a poor one. People know what they’re getting, and they know whether it works. The car runs or it doesn’t.

Education is a different animal altogether. Dyer—in pointing out that he believes a free market education system can work—gets to the nub of it:

[But] it can only do so if the public is fully informed, parents are armed with good information and make well-informed, thoughtful decisions while the state and its authorizing groups focus like a laser on quality, not quantity, of choice. The way Ohio's charter school laws are currently drafted does not allow that to happen …

It's not like buying a car where if you buy a lemon, you can just go try another one. It's a pain, but not the end of the world.

If parents choose a lemon of a charter school, their children may never recover.

That isn't a pain.

It's a tragedy.

Precisely. The market grinder that separates good operators from bad may ultimately lead to some high-quality charter schools. But it’ll leave a whole lot of kids and families damaged in the churn.

Given certain North Carolina charter operators’ apparent resistance to disclose to parents or anyone else such basic information as the amount of taxpayer money that pays employee salaries, the state might want to rethink its full-throated support of the marketplace as the cure-all for whatever ails our public schools.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest