kitchen table math, the sequel: Charter Schools and Reality

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Charter Schools and Reality

Fordham Institute has just released a new book detailing the challenges in creating excellence in charter schools. The book, Ohio's Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines according to AEI's Fred Hess, is uncharacteristically forthcoming in the lessons Fordham learned, especially those it learned the hard way. Fordham not only was a proponent for charter schools, but was itself an authorizer of charter schools.

Hess says that for him, there were 3 takeaways from the book that struck home the most. The first was how having the label "charter" doesn't make something successful. At best, it gives a school the opportunity to create something successful. Second, that charter schools have the same problems with acquisition of power that every other entity has. "They detail how seemingly zealous reformers can quickly morph into defenders of the new status quo, as charter school operators and others find themselves grasping for dollars, resisting accountability, working to stifle competitors, and generally deciding that there’s no need for further change."

But the third (though second in Hess' piece) is the one I wished was more detailed, and what I'll have to read the book for:
" the authors explain the manifold ways in which “the education marketplace doesn’t work as well as we thought—or as some of our favorite theories and theorists assert...In practice, the authors note that atrocious schools can roll comfortably along for years, fully enrolled—undermining blind confidence that the mere presence of parental choice will serve to encourage academic excellence and discipline lousy schools."

I'll posit a couple reasons why "the market" in charters doesn't work to create academic (or necessarily any kind of) excellence (though again, I don't know if this is what Fordham found.)

First, parents make decisions for their children based on what they can observe. But what they observe is extremely limited, and very few of the observables are decent proxies for academic success. In schooling, parents are often unable to ascertain at the end of year (or several years) if the school met their needs that year. Feedback from other parents is extremely limited as well. Few parents are willing to detail to others their observable problems with a school unless it is egregious. Amorphous issues such as fit, or personality, aren't easy to judge for future effect even if they are observable.

This is very different than most markets for goods which have many more observables. Most goods are of much shorter duration, so there is no long term commitment when the goods fails to meet the consumer's needs. Of longer duration goods, few have observables so hidden as in schooling.

Compare to buying a car: even if you keep it for a decade, you know each year whether or not your car met your needs for that year. Problems that are experienced are very likely to be clearly delineated as manufacturer error, service error, customer service problem, so again, the observable feedback loop is closed. If it the car is really terrible, many states have lemon laws to protect the buyer.

In a school, the most likely observables are the cheeriness/safety of the facility, the personality of the teachers, and the happiness of the child. Determining if that happiness is because the child has been fed the intellect equivalent of twinkies every day, or if it's because the child is receiving 3 full balanced meals with just enough morsels of dessert, is another hidden observable.

A second reason why markets don't apply properly is because parental buy-in is very large, so a willingness to confront the problems or errors with the parent's choice is muted. Just as someone doesn't want to read camera reviews after they've made a $500 purchase and find out they made a bad choice, parents may be less interested in admitting the negatives of their child's school when it makes them feel regret about their own choice.

But I'll be getting the book. Perhaps Fordham has learned how to attack these challenges.


LynnG said...

Excellent post, Allison. I'll add one more ingredient to the list of why the market for school behaves oddly -- the consumer of the services isn't the one paying for it. We have a middleman between the consumers (parents/kids) and the producers (the schools) which distorts the normal market incentives.

Applicants to charter schools have a 1 in 10 chance of getting in thru the lottery. If you are unhappy with your public school, there is very very little you can do about it, and sometimes the solution may look worse than the status quo.

SteveH said...

One problem is that most schools (charters too) are run by those who have been influenced by ed school ideas. Also, our state strictly regulates charter schools. They are unlikely to authorize charter schools based on high academic standards for suburban towns. At best, they authorize thematic charter schools for things like the arts or the environment.

Charter schools in urban areas may stress rigor and academics, but that is all relative. However, for inner-city parents, that relative difference could be huge.

It's one thing to claim that charters aren't all they are supposed to be, but quite another to claim that the there is, or could not be, a benefit.

Catherine Johnson said...

Great post and comments --- ditto, ditto, ditto

Parents have no real way of knowing what's happening in school; even if we do know what's happening today, we don't know how that relates to where our kids will be at high school graduation. (At least, I didn't.)

Moreover, education schools have cultural hegemony; you find ed school ideas in private and parochial schools. How many Morningside Academies are there?

And as to middle men, I was talking to Ed about that tonight. I support vouchers - but beyond vouchers I support just having parents choose private math/ELA/science/history teachers the same way they choose private piano teachers today, with the state picking up the tab.

I think it's easier for a parent to choose a good teacher than to choose a good school.

Allison said...


You said:
" I support just having parents choose private math/ELA/science/history teachers the same way they choose private piano teachers today, with the state picking up the tab."


The state doesn't pick up the tab for food, housing, or clothes for everyone. Why should they pick up the tab for education?

Vouchers for education for the poor is vastly different than vouchers for everyone. I'll stipulate we're both for vouchers for the poor, similar to food stamps, say. By what rationale should everyone else have their education "paid for" by anyone other than the parents of the children?

Catherine Johnson said...

I would have to re-read all of Race Between Education and Technology to answer that - and even then I probably couldn't answer.

I'm taking public funding of education as a given.

Given that the country funds education K-12, I would give parents the power to hire individual teachers for their kids.

This wouldn't mean (I don't think) that parents would universally be hiring each teacher individually - though some would, just as some homeschooling parents are doing this today.

I can imagine a community college-type set-up (Ben Calvin suggested this to me) where you do have an institution & a campus. Within that, students (parents) choose which teachers they want to take classes from.

Allison said...

--I'm taking public funding of education as a given.

But why? If you're going to rethink public education enough to blow up the schools and replace them with a community college model, why not rethink the problem of middle and upper class entitlements?

lgm said...

Allison, what are you defining as a middle class entitlement in education?

How can something be an entitlement if a person is paying in more than he's drawing out?

Allison said...

From wikipedia:

An entitlement is a guarantee of access to benefits based on established rights or by legislation.

Social security and medicare are entitlements, whether or not they are transfer payments. That's part of the issue of soc sec and medicare: are we going to take away the entitlement and means-test instead? Some people will say "but I paid in!", but the system is untenable now, so something's got to give.

Public education for grades K-12 (and increasingly, college too) is currently an entitlement. That is, by law, parents regardless of income, regardless of what they pay in, receive free education. Part of the argument against taking away the entitlement is "but I paid in!" And the response to that is if there were no public education, you wouldn't need property taxes to pay in, you'd just pay for it yourself without it being drained of value by the state's bureaucracies all taking their cut.

What right do people have to have others pay for their kids' education? When they have the means to pay for it, why shouldn't they pay for it?

People who can afford to pay for their own childrens' food, clothing, and shelter. Why is education special, when the above 3, which are necessary, aren't entitlements?

Catherine's suggesting getting rid of the school model, specifically saying "parents should be able to hire teachers the way they do piano teachers." But the state doesn't pay for piano teachers. If you've already thrown out the school model, you should rethink the payment model too.

If the middle and upper class really want to control costs on schooling, they will need to use their own money to pay, the way they do for piano teachers. Not create a whole new layer of bureaucracy for a voucher. Because cash is the original "voucher".

Cranberry said...

Could we please constrain our conversation to the bounds of the possible? Can you imagine any politician, anywhere in the country, proposing to do away with public education? Can you imagine any court allowing such a change?

The closest one might come to such a system would be a voucher system, whereby the funds follow the child.

lgm said...

How is the middle class nongovernmental worker considered able to pay for school? Do you have some calculations?

If we had the CC model, I'd assume that taxpayers would still be paying a hefty tax for the medical, social, and mental health needs that our property and income based school taxes now pay for. This means that the middle class still wouldn't have enough to pay for school at current market rates.
Freedom of choice though, means that families could afford accredited correspondence or on-line classes, as they have to do in areas like mine where the district charges extra for classes such as trigonometry.

I can't see school as a benefit. A benefit has a value. Over the time my children live in my house, I will pay more in to the district than I will receive in services as calculated by the difference in what I pay in and what the per pupil out of district reg.ed.tuition is.

Bostonian said...

Lgm wrote, "areas like mine where the district charges extra for classes such as trigonometry."

Really, trigonometry is not one of the standard offerings in high school? Parents must pay extra for trig -- how does that work?

lgm said...

B, the student has his choice of dual enrolling with the CC or using a provider of his choice or independent study. If there are enough interested students and an available room, the CC class will be held at the high school during normal school hours. Should the student take a course independent study, the district will pay a teacher a stipend to supervise...grapevine is saying $5K per student, but I need to confirm that offically. The supervisor only proctors tests. If the student takes the course from an accredited provider, he pays the provider and the credit will transfer into his transcript provided he hasn't gone over the 6.5 transfer-in credits allowed by the state AND the principal approves the transfer.

Note: the only way to take high school math courses at the honors level is through an outside provider as the district offers no honors math courses.

Allison said...

No, I'm not going to limit my questions to ones other people deem appropriate, when they fall within reasonable bounds of decorum. If the hostess doesn't like my questions, it's her abode, and I'll go elsewhere, but we're not going to get anywhere thinking inside what others have dictated counts as possible.

The financial crisis will come to education. Whether that provides an opportunity for new paradigms or not, we'll see. States are going to have to do something to cut the head off the beast that is the public union pension system. Ending a school system structure that has long since lost its original nature at inculcating everyone to have the same basic American values might be one of the few ways to decapitate that beast.

Lgm said
--How is the middle class nongovernmental worker considered able to pay for school? Do you have some calculations?

Gee, I don't know, how is it that a city or state is able to pay for vouchers for everyone using tax money but somehow, if families kept that tax money, they couldn't? Because they aren't getting that money from the taxing the poor and elderly without kids enough to cover it now, and without the public pensions, how expensive would it be?

In Irvington, the families are paying 20,30, 50k in property taxes for a school district of under 2000 kids. Not counting money spent on private tutoring or opportunity cost of giving up work to do it oneself. Seems reasonable that if that public school went away, with its associated public pension costs, that money would be available for tuition. Shall I repost what the cities of Mpls and St Paul spend per pupil now?

And if you don't see school as a benefit, what does it matter then? Why support that parents should get this thing "for free" ?

Catherine Johnson said...

If the hostess doesn't like my questions, it's her abode, and I'll go elsewhere, but we're not going to get anywhere thinking inside what others have dictated counts as possible.

It's a good question!

I don't have an answer - or even part of an answer - because I know very little about this realm.

From what I can see, when society funds something (school, college, etc.) costs escalate. That result seems generally correct to me (although, again, I don't know this).

Nevertheless, I believe that paying for public school leads to paying **more** for public school.

I'm also pretty sure that giving 17-year olds financial aid leads to colleges & universities raising their prices.

It strikes me as possible (or likely?) that there is a second effect, which is that when the government pays for a service, the quality of that service erodes due to the factors we've talked about here for quite a long time now. You build up political interest groups that lobby for more money & less accountability; bureaucracies seem to 'need' to grow themselves, etc.

If you forced me to place a bet, I'd bet that paying for schools for everyone is a bad idea in the long run.

I can imagine (and I think it may have been the case) that publicly supported mass education produced more value - more educated citizens - in the beginning than private payment by parents. I don't know whether that's true (and haven't read Andrew Coulson's book, which may discuss this).

I have **no** idea what effect means-tested government support for public education would have on the price and quality of education (if any).

I'm also very interested in the question of 'choice and competition' within the public realm. I've mentioned that Jimmy's services, which are state-funded, are arranged in that way. Independent agencies compete with each other for the money Jimmy brings with him when he joins a program or moves to a group home.

I've been trying to read Julian LeGrand's "The Other Invisible Hand" for months now....

Will report back if and when I finish.

In any case, my point is just that I don't know enough about political economy to answer Allison's question intelligently. And since I don't expect to see public funding for education end in my lifetime I'm thinking within that constraint.

Anonymous said...

"I don't know, how is it that a city or state is able to pay for vouchers for everyone using tax money but somehow, if families kept that tax money, they couldn't? Because they aren't getting that money from the taxing the poor and elderly without kids enough to cover it now, and without the public pensions, how expensive would it be?"

The answer is that in many states, the vast majority of the state services are paid for by the top 20% or so (by income). These services are often consumed mostly by the bottom 60% or so.

I'll use California to illustrate. Using a site I found arguing that the California rich are undertaxed and that the California poor are overtaxed, we get the following two data points:
*) Families in the bottom 20% of income pay, on average, $1,400 per year in state taxes (income, property, sales, etc.).
*) Families in the top 1% of income pay about $170,000 per year in state taxes.

Education consumes about ½ of the state budget, and K-12 education is about 40% (other 10% is UC, Cal State, and CC). California pays about $10,000 per K-12 student/year.

So ... if we just let the parents keep the money, the folks in the bottom 20% will have maybe an extra $1,000 per year to fund K-12 schooling for their kids (I assume that the other $400 goes towards police and fire and streets and stuff like that).

My *guess* is that the bottom 50% probably wind up with about $3,000 per year for education if they get to keep this money.

Even if we assume that we can cut the cost of education by ½ if we privatize it, we still need about $5,000 per student per year.

To answer your question:

The bottom half of the population (probably more like the bottom 70-80%) is being subidized by the top 20% ... mostly by the top 10% ... who are much more likely to send their kids to private schools. Vochers allow this subsidy to continue. Letting the parents keep their own money does not.

We can argue that it is unfair for the top 10% or 20% to pay for almost all of a state's services, but this is where we are today in California.

-Mark Roulo

GoogleMaster said...

Goods and services cost more when they're paid for with Other People's Money.

ChemProf said...

And we are testing how far this can be pushed in California, as the top 1% is leaving the state.

palisadesk said...

See Joanne Jacobs' post on "Making Sense of Charter Research" here:

Some very interesting stuff, esp. re middle class students and charter schools.