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.