Esquire Writer Doesn’t Understand Charter Schools But Is Sure They’re Up to No Good

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Photo: Ann Hermes/AP

Any time I write about education reform, I am invariably flooded with replies accusing me and my wife, who works for a public charter school, of being nefarious tools of a rapacious “industry.” And so it went this week, when I wrote about Susan Dynarski and Sarah Cohodes’s blockbuster study of urban charter schools in Massachusetts. The state’s legislature has set an arbitrary cap on the number of students allowed to attend charters in each district. As a result, urban districts have to allot space in their charters by random lottery, and the students who win a chance to attend a charter have dramatically better educations across a wide array of measures (test scores, AP classes and performance, four-year-college enrollment, among others) than the students who apply for the lottery and lose. The study is so powerful because it takes advantage of the tragic need for a lottery, which creates an identical population — urban charter lottery applicants — subjected to different kinds of education in a perfect natural experiment. One would think such evidence of life-changing benefits for low-income city kids would move skeptics of charters to reconsider their beliefs. No such reconsideration is evident.

Esquire’s Charles Pierce, a fervent charter critic, replies in a column headlined, “Don’t Believe the Charter School Hype: In the end, it’s about profits.” Pierce does not dispute the findings that urban charters in Massachusetts provide dramatic education benefits. He simply doesn’t care.

The closest Pierce comes to acknowledging the success of urban charters is in a clause contained within this sentence: “If Massachusetts has done charters better than, say, Ohio or Florida, it is because the state has exercised the excellent, rigorous oversight that [Chait] mentions, and the cap has been an essential part of that oversight.” The “if” is Pierce’s way of subjecting the hard evidence in favor of charters to a hypothetical possibility, and the possibility he hypothetically concedes is merely that Massachusetts charters are less bad than charters in other states. In the sentence, Pierce goes on to assert that the cap on charters serves a vital purpose. But the Brookings study, which I doubt he’s read, shows the opposite. Massachusetts does an excellent job of monitoring charters, allowing only strong applicants to open schools and forcing closure of weak ones. There are many qualified operators who have passed the state’s rigorous criteria waiting to open new urban charters who are not allowed. The cap in Massachusetts is completely perverse, in fact. It allows more students to enroll in charters serving suburban students, where the charters do not outperform the neighborhood schools, and prevents more students from enrolling in urban charters, where the schools do exceed the traditional neighborhood schools.

What concerns Pierce is his belief that charters are evil because they are for-profit corporations. In contrast to his terse dismissal of evidence regarding educational outcomes, his treatment of the profit question is florid and redundant.

Charters “are privately run and funded with public money,” he writes. Pierce says my wife “works for a charter company,” that the referendum to let more urban students enroll in charters is “being waged to benefit the charter school industry, which wants to demolish that excellent, rigorous oversight with which Chait claims to be so impressed because it stands in the way of that industry’s profits.” He likewise accuses donors to the lift-the-cap cause of “running for-profit businesses that want to increase their profits and, in Massachusetts, they see a chance to make themselves more money.” And, lest any of his readers have any remaining brain cells, Pierce hits them over the head again by concluding that charter supporters are “campaigning for their own freedom to gobble more and more from the public trough.”

This is a morally strange argument to make, is it not? Presented with evidence that certain schools are providing a clearly better education to low-income urban students, Pierce argues that education should be denied because … somebody is making money off of it. It is more important to him to stick it to the capitalists than to allow low-income, disproportionately nonwhite students to have a chance to have a better life. Poor kids in Boston and Lawrence who might have grown up to be doctors and engineers will instead be working at the Dunkin’ Donuts, but they can take pride in the sacrifice they have made for the cause of sticking it to The Man.

What’s even more perverse about Pierce’s argument is that it is factually wrong. Charters in Massachusetts are not for-profit vehicles. State law prohibits for-profit operators from running a public charter school:

Persons or entities eligible to submit an application to establish a charter school shall include, but not be limited to: (i) a non-profit business or corporate entity; (ii) 2 or more certified teachers; or (iii) 10 or more parents; provided, however, that for profit business or corporate entities shall be prohibited from applying for a charter. The application may be filed in conjunction with a college, university, museum or other similar non-profit entity. Private and parochial schools shall not be eligible for charter school status.

As even this anti-charter article in The American Prospect concedes, “a for-profit company cannot apply for a charter to run a school in Massachusetts.” The notion that charters are “companies” and an “industry” with “profits” — that is, the entire basis for Pierce’s opposition — is a figment of the imagination. Alas, it is a common misconception, promoted by the sadly influential right-wing education fatalist turned left-wing education fatalist Diane Ravitch, who has gained a fervent following despite, or perhaps because of, her fast-and-loose approach to intellectual honesty.

The state of Massachusetts notes — in a message Dynarski sent to me — that some charters “contract with an educational management company that is a for-profit to manage some aspects of the school. The Trustees, however, set the budget, hold responsibility for keeping the school faithful to its charter, and can hire and fire the management company.” It is important to understand what this means. It does not mean charters are a for-profit industry. Nearly every public school relies on private contractors. The building is probably constructed by privately owned firms. The textbooks, computers, pencils, volleyball uniforms, cafeteria food, and so on are probably supplied by private contractors as well. This is indeed true of a great many public programs. Medicare hires privately owned hospitals and doctors, many of them quite affluent, to provide medical care to old people. Infrastructure spending gives money to private construction firms to build things. Green-energy subsidies give money to privately owned wind and solar firms.

None of these are normally seen as reasons for liberals to oppose Medicare or the stimulus or green energy. It is acceptable for a program to generate profits for privately owned firms if they operate under public oversight and serve a public purpose. The role of private ownership in this argument is for charter critics to create a villain that can manipulate the knee-jerk instincts of sympathetic liberals who don’t follow the issue closely but might confuse them with private schools and vouchers — a different thing entirely — or can be persuaded that reform equals “corporate” equals bad.

Pierce rails suspiciously against the donors to the anti-cap side. “I don’t think Michael Bloomberg and the Walton family give a rat’s ass about educating children in Roxbury or Mattapan. I think they are running for-profit businesses that want to increase their profits and, in Massachusetts, they see a chance to make themselves more money.” What business? What profits? He doesn’t say. He simply dismisses out of hand the possibility that their donation to the education-reform cause springs from conviction. If Pierce believes Michael Bloomberg’s donations are by definition self-interested, he should also explain not only how he believes he will turn his donations to charter schools in Massachusetts into profit, but also how Bloomberg’s donations to gun control, same-sex marriage, and the environment will somehow line his pockets.

It is strange to accuse people who are giving away their money to the cause of educating poor children of not “giv[ing] a rat’s ass about educating children in Roxbury or Mattapan,” and also to imply that they are going to make money off the donation, without the slightest substantiation for the charge. The people who don’t give a rat’s ass about educating poor children aren’t the ones who are giving their money away on the issue. They also aren’t the ones (like my wife) who spend their working days trying to give a better education to low-income city kids. But they just might be the people who publish strong opinions on education policy while treating what is best for poor kids as a complete afterthought.