Individual District Schools Don’t Serve All Students, Either

May 4-10 was National Charter School Week and, to celebrate, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act.” This was an exciting occasion for us Washington-based policy wonks, starved as we are for any legislative action on education. But it also offered a window into the thinking of charter opponents, especially the teacher unions.

Note in particular this amendment offered by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee:

The State entity will ensure that charter schools and local educational agencies serving charter schools post on their websites materials with respect to charter school student recruitment, student orientation, enrollment criteria, student discipline policies, behavior codes, and parent contract requirements, including any financial obligations (such as fees for tutoring or extracurricular activity).

The amendment failed 179–220, on a mostly party-line vote. Randi Weingarten expressed disappointment in an AFT press release:

There are still major gaps in the bill, such as on enrollment criteria that traditional public schools always follow. Several representatives, including Sheila Jackson Lee, Kathy Castor and Gwen Moore, pushed for additional measures to level the playing field based on their own or their constituents’ charter school experiences. But for some reason, these amendments were rejected—presumably because some prefer to give preferential treatment to charter schools. We want preferential treatment for all our children.

What’s this all about? Charter opponents are trying to make hay with allegations that some charter schools are “cream-skimming,” either by discouraging certain kids from enrolling in the first place or by pushing them out once they struggle. (The amendment language itself reads as if it came straight from Stephanie Simon’s Reuters article on the issue last year.)

As a charter supporter, let me first make the obligatory (and true!) statement that there’s little evidence that many charter schools purposefully skim the cream. Rigorous studies (like those from CREDO and NAPCS) find that student demographics in charters almost always match those of neighboring public schools; moreover, incoming charter pupils are just as low-performing, if not more so, than their traditional public-school peers. (If they were thriving in their previous schools, it’s unlikely they’d make the move.) If there is massive cream-skimming going on, it doesn’t show up in the data.

That said, I’ve long believed that charter schools have a subtle advantage because they are schools of choice; by definition, there’s something different about the families who choose them for their children and those who don’t. And plenty of “no-excuses” charter schools are known for their tough discipline policies—which, yes, sometimes result in a high number of students leaving.  Any fair comparison of charter and district schools, then, must take these “selection effects” (and the resulting “peer effects”) into account.

But here’s where charter opponents get it wrong: district schools practice all manner of “selectivity” in the cause of specialization, too. Selective-admissions magnet schools are the best example, but you can find explicit enrollment criteria in other district programs, too, including gifted-and-talented initiatives and some career- and technical-education options.

Then take special education. School districts have a legal obligation to serve all students with disabilities or else pay for a “private placement.” But they don’t have to make sure that every single school is equipped to serve every single type of disability. They can specialize, putting programs for autistic students at particular schools, for example, instead of every school in the district. Children with multiple and severe disabilities often have schools reserved to meet their needs. This is one way large districts can benefit from economies of scale. Additionally, most districts also have “alternative schools” of one sort or another for students with discipline problems.

So it’s a myth that district schools “serve all comers.” They simply don’t. Nor should they. Every child deserves to have his or her needs met, but not necessarily under the same roof. If anything, we need to get more comfortable with telling students and families, “This school’s not a good fit for you.”

This is where I feel district schools’ pain, because some of the same “equity hawks” who like to hate on charter schools are also pushing back against traditional public schools’ efforts to specialize. Consider the backlash on suspensions and expulsions, which is going to force regular schools to keep kids who might be better served at alternative placements. Or the longstanding animosity showed toward gifted programs. Or the angst about Stuyvesant and other selective high schools.  Or some advocates’ obsession with a “least-restrictive environment” for special-needs kids, regardless of the disruption that mainstreaming might cause for everyone else.

This ham-handed approach to equity is destined to lead to inequitable outcomes. If the needs of a handful of students—whether they be unruly, emotionally disturbed, far behind their peers, or all of the above—trump the needs of everyone else, parents with means are going to say “to hell with it” and decamp for the suburbs or private schools. And parents without means but with motivation are going to continue to decamp for charter schools. Or demand vouchers. Is that what “public-school advocates” want?

Traditional public schools are right to complain about being the “provider of last resort.” But rather than ensnaring charter schools in the same ludicrous rules that have hamstrung district schools, we should free district schools from ideological, unworkable mandates.

But don’t expect those on the Left to join the effort anytime soon. A movement whose leaders say they want “preferential treatment for all children” with a straight face is not serious enough to confront the Orwellian thinking that rules too many traditional school districts today.

-Michael Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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