Public Schools Are a Public Good

Jerusha Conner, US News, 

The rapid growth of market-driven charter schools erodes a cornerstone of American democracy.

Students wait in line at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans on Aug. 14, 2014.

In New Orleans, charter schools are the norm.

Many involved in K-12 education seem to be growing weary of the charter school versus public school debate. Mark Gleason, head of a private advocacy organization in Philadelphia that has invested more than $20 million in charter schools, publicly declared: “I just would like to encourage all of us to get beyond this district versus charter concept.” And Michelle Rhee, founder of the pro-charter advocacy organization StudentsFirst, while sparring on Twitter with Julian Vasquez Heilig, voiced the opinion, “the arguments btwn charter and traditional are tired. We shld celebrate great schools regardless of sector … focus on quality of schl instead of sector.” These exhortations are appealing in their simplicity and attempt to move us toward a common vision, but we must not let charter proponents divert our attention from the difference between charter school and traditional public schools. Traditional public schools are a fundamental cornerstone of American democracy that is being jack-hammered away. And if we look away from their destruction, we abrogate our duty to preserve them for future generations.

Charter schools have been expanding rapidly since the first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. Over the course of the last decade, the number of charter schools has grown exponentially, with the number of students enrolled in these schools topping 2.9 million this year. During the current school year alone, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that 500 new charter schools have opened, serving an additional 348,000 students. In New Orleans and Detroit more than half of the students are now enrolled in charter schools. Increasingly charter management organizations, like Green Dot, KIPP and Mastery, are dominating the scene, opening new franchises in promising markets.

In many urban centers where charter schools have expanded, traditional public schools have seen their enrollments shrink. Faced with the financial strain of operating under-enrolled schools, districts have sometimes made the choice to close certain under-utilized schools and send the displaced students to other schools operating below capacity. Research has emerged to show us that these decisions are not good for students, and they do not help stabilize district finances. A study by Pew finds that shuttered schools typically sell for considerably less than the asking price. They may languish on the market, contributing to urban blight. Or, as is often the case, they may be sold to new charter school providers, encouraging further enrollment shifts. The strain on traditional public schools does not let up. In fact, it only worsens.

There are some who may be glad to see traditional public schools close, to see charter schools opening in their place. But their educational visions are short-sighted and myopic. They overlook a fundamental irreconcilable philosophical difference between traditional public schools and the charter school sector and its implications for American democracy.

Charter schools are based on the logic of markets. Traditional public schools, by contrast, are based on the logic of the polis.

[READ: Teachers Can’t Be Preachers]

The market model assumes that people are rational agents, who make fully informed decisions to maximize their own (or their children’s) self-interest. In an unfettered market, popular products will be replicated to keep up with demand, while unpopular products should be discontinued. The market vaunts competition over collaboration; it prefers deregulation to oversight; and, it prizes the bottom line over any other possible value proposition. Consumer choice is the animating force of markets.

In the polis model, people’s motivations are understood as complex, but not exclusively self-interested. People can and will act out of shared values and a sense of mutual responsibility. Nonetheless, government has a role to play, too, serving as a counterbalance to market pressures that might lead to “the tragedy of the commons,” when individuals acting out of self-interest deplete a common or shared resource. Governmental oversight and involvement can also help guard against corruption, cronyism and other market machinations and combat the marginalization of citizens who lack the capital (economic or otherwise) to make markets work for them. The driving forces of the polis model are protecting the interests of the most vulnerable, while safeguarding the democratic rights of all citizens.

[READ: Education Reformers Have a Big Blind Spot]

In the market model, schools are a commodity. The credential they provide is a vehicle for social mobility and economic security. In the polis model, schools are a public good. The education they provide is a means of promoting a robust democracy, with knowledgeable, critically engaged citizens.

When a consumer pursues the market model of education, she opts out of the polis model, and in so doing, turns her back on any shared responsibility for the education of other people’s children. The exit of the more politically savvy, invested, active and well-connected parents from the traditional public schools erodes the public foundation of public education. It depletes the traditional public school not only of social capital (the opportunity to connect with and learn from and alongside those who differ from us), but also of economic capital because when their children enroll in a charter school, they take their share of publicly invested tax dollars with them. And when these families exit, they leave behind the students who do not have parents; the students whose parents do not have the means or wherewithal to navigate the charter school application process; the students who are actively discouraged from applying to the charter schools by charter school operators, and the students who are expelled from or counseled out of charter schools. A recent study of charter school enrollments in New Jersey found that charter schools enroll disproportionately fewer low-income students, English-language learners and students with special needs, particularly those with costly moderate or severe disabilities, than their host districts. It may be easy to turn our backs on these students, but it shouldn’t be.

There are many reasons why charter school proponents may be tiring of defending their sector. But until they can mount a robust argument about how their sector fulfills the democratic imperative of public education, let us refuse to allow them to shift our gaze away from those students left behind.

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