Two Charter School Debates: When Philosophical Opposition Masquerades as Policy Commentary

It feels like there are two very different charter-school conversations going on. The first is about policy and practice; the other is about philosophy and politics. Both have their place. But a recent collection of events and articles demonstrate why it’s important to understand the difference between the two.

The first presupposes (or, at minimum, concedes) the legitimacy of chartering and then explores how to make it better. These conversations typically focus on statutes and regulations, authorizers and operators, curriculum and instruction; they mostly attract wonky policy types and nuts-and-bolts practitioners.

The second, about philosophy and politics, is essentially about whether chartering is good or bad. Participants are interested in basic questions such as, “Should charters exist?” and “What does chartering mean for public education?” This conversation, which typically emanates from deeply held principles and big ideas, seems to attract the scholarly, the idealistic, and the impassioned—but also the certain and the dismissive.

There are a couple unfortunate upshots of this. The first relates to the charter-related content that gets the most attention. Sadly, the more name calling you do (“privateer,” “hoax, destroy, privatize,” or this doozy: “corporate interests, hedge fund managers and billionaires starve public schools and services of resources and suck up as much profit as they can”), the more press you get.

Similarly, if a charter story has any political angle, it’ll get ink. A Democratic congressman is rebuffed by a union, so he votes in favor of major charter legislation? Big news. A choice-friendly state superintendent is accused of unethically improving the grade of a charter favored by political donors? The story makes headlines, forces the superintendent to resign, and spawns an ethics investigation. Great copy, for sure, except for the tiny detail that the state superintendent is ultimately exonerated of the charge.

The other major upshot is the converse of the first: lots of valuable policy-practice content is lost in the shuffle because it doesn’t grab you by the collar.

For example, you probably hadn’t heard that the CUNY Institute for Education Policy is hosting an event today exploring the future of chartering in the Big Apple. A bunch of smart researchers and policy experts are participating. One of them, Sally Bachofer, possessor of the rare combination of serious government experience and creative policy ideas, recently penned a good post about ways chartering can help solve some of our thorniest urban K–12 problems.

You also likely missed this super-smart piece by Robin Lake about the downsides of incoherent governance. Lake makes a compelling case for order in an era of relinquishment. Lake also recently coauthored a terrific report (note the pragmatism baked into the title) called Making School Choice Work.

You might have also overlooked Rocketship Education’s leader Preston Smith’s explaining how and why his organization rethought its approach to blended learning. You probably heard nothing about Rob Birdsell’s experience-informed recommendations for private schools considering chartering’s school-network model.

None of this is glamorous, but it is thoughtful, best-intentioned, dirty-fingernail work being done to improve schooling for disadvantaged kids.

I have two concerns with the way these things are trending. The first is that our field needs someone who consistently makes earnest, objective, sturdy philosophical arguments against chartering. With rare exceptions, when I go looking, I instead find mostly snark, ad hominem attacks, and condescension. The source I had hoped would evolve into the dispassionate voice of studied dissent has instead reliably produced invective.

My second concern is that, increasingly, what at first blush appears to be a category-one contribution (a discussion of policy and practice designed to improve chartering) is just strident philosophical opposition in disguise. This long magazine article on Newark, NJ, could’ve been an invaluable contribution to our understanding of one of the nation’s highest-profile initiatives. Instead, charter-friendly reformers are painted as villains. This piece about Camden could’ve shed important light on the role of charter operators in reimagining a system of schools. Instead, it hurls nasty accusations against just about everyone involved. Similarly, what could’ve been a terrific, extensive look into Michigan’s charter sector and its relation to district schooling gave the impression that its goal was uncovering scandal and intrigue.

Here’s my request. If you think chartering is, at root, a threat to public education and believe that it must be brought to an end, please make that case publicly and straightforwardly, with conviction and tact. You’ll find a more receptive audience than you might suspect.

If you aren’t obdurately anti-charter but think there are aspects of chartering that need serious improvement, marshal the data and make your case. You’ll find a long list of organizations willing to listen because they exist to improve policy and practice. (Excellent Schools Detroit modeled this good behavior after the charter-critical newspaper series.)

But when philosophical opposition takes the form of venom, not only does the debate grow toxic but open-minded opponents tune out, too. And when unbending philosophical opposition masquerades as commentary on policy, the standing of practical critics is undercut because advocates have reason to distrust the motives of those writing in opposition.

-Andy Smarick

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

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