The Windy City’s experiment with charter choice falls flat…
Chicago’s grand experiment with education reform dates all the way back to the 80’s—as in the 1880’s. In recent years, Windy City-style reform has meant charter schools, lots and lots of charter schools. So what has the Chicago’s choice-i-fi-cation meant for students? According to a new study, the charter experiment has wrought the unthinkable, producing worse schools that are even more highly segregated than Chicago’s already highly-segregated schools. The study made headlines and raised plenty of eyebrows, not to mention hackles. But can mounting evidence of an experiment-gone-awry shift the city’s reform winds? I recently chatted with Myron Orfield, the author of the new study, to find out.
EduShyster: Charter schools in Chicago have seen huge growth since 2000. Since I limit myself to a strict diet of only good news stories about charter schools these days, I’m guessing that more choice has meant a win, win, win for kids. Am I right?
Myron Orfield: This was supposed to be an experiment, a medicine that would make the Chicago Public Schools better and it made them sicker. You keep thinking you’ve reached a place beyond which nothing can be worse, and yet the charters have managed to expand the threshold of segregation, expand the threshold of low performance in Chicago.
EduShyster: Your study is one of several to find that Chicago’s charter experiment has fallen short. But you argue that charters should be thrashing the traditional schools. Is that because of their enhanced excellence?
Orfield: In school desegregation cases, kids who chose to go to voluntarily integrated schools always did better than the kids who were left behind. And social scientists said that it wasn’t fair to compare the kids whose parents chose for them to go to these schools vs. the kids who were left behind because there were all sorts of social capital involved in being in a family where you could make a choice like that. Most social scientists, in fact almost everyone says you can’t compare kids who choose to those who don’t choose. You have to get rid of what they call the selection bias. When charters were started, everyone just assumed that they would do better because of that selection bias And they haven’t.
EduShyster: OK—here’s where I channel charter and education reform advocates and explain patiently that whatever that pesky data says, we know these schools are better because parents are choosing them. I’ll also throw in something about parents *voting with their feet.*
Orfield: That’s in many ways the worst part of the charter experiment: it’s a cruel endeavor. Charters promise parents and kids that they’re going to get something better – but it’s a lie. We now have 10 years of data. We have ten years of kids being told by these very slick sales people that they’ve got the answer, which usually involves citing false statistics.The charters promised from day one that they would do better and that they would be more integrated. If they did that I’d support them. I think that would be fine. But they haven’t done either. And now they’re taking huge amounts of revenue from public schools that are in big trouble and these public schools are almost certainly cutting programs that would be able to help these kids.
We now have 10 years of data. We have ten years of kids being told by these very slick sales people that they’ve got the answer, which usually involves citing false statistics.
EduShyster: I want to pick up the point you just made about charter schools having failed as a response to racial segregation in the public schools. Some prominent education reformers have argued that that really isn’t the charters’ responsibility – that we can worry about that after we’ve put every student on a path to college.
Orfield: I think that segregated public schools in America are a disaster. They are the worst possible thing we can do. Except for segregated charter schools which turn out to be even worse. I think we need more integrated schools and more support for having a more mixed student body, and then do all of the things that we know actually do work in that setting to make the lives of kids better. But I think just deciding that we’re going to be a segregated society is a disaster.
Orfield: Charters tend to be, much more than any other public school, single race or single ethnicity—they’re sort of themed that way. In the Twin Cities, for example, this is pushing the public schools to do the same thing in order to compete for market share. So you have low performing public schools in a segregated neighborhood and in come the charter entrepreneurs and they say ‘a Black single race school will be better.’ And kids who are attending not-very-good public schools will try that. So then the public schools create their own single race schools to try to compete and get the kids back. It’s a disaster. It’s a race to the bottom.
EduShyster: I’m struck by the huge gap between findings of studies like yours and the political rhetoric in places like Chicago. For example, one of the gentlemen running to lead my fine home state of Illinois doesn’t just want as many charter schools as possible, he has one named after him.
Orfield: I think you’re starting to see the growth of charters slow because of studies like this, and people are looking at these schools much more carefully. The problem is that charter schools fit what I think of as *political garage logic.* They make perfect sense if you’re sitting in your garage thinking about the future of society. These public schools aren’t very good—we’re going to allow competition, which everyone in America believes in. We have entrepreneurs out there and they’re going to create a model that does better. But it’s more complicated than that. You know, schools are more than just text books; they’re also social networks for kids. This entrepreneurial model is appealing because we have so many public schools that are struggling, and as they get more segregated they’re going to do worse and worse. Charter advocates are right to criticize the performance of the public schools in these highly segregated neighborhoods, but by making these neighborhoods more segregated and these schools even worse, they’re not fixing the problem.
The problem is that charter schools fit what I think of as *political garage logic.* They make perfect sense if you’re sitting in your garage thinking about the future of society… But it’s more complicated than that.
EduShyster: I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately and I have to say that this may be the most depressing Q and A I’ve ever conducted. Anything positive you can point to? If charter choice isn’t the right choice, what would you do to fix things?
Orfield: I like schools that draw kids together, like the magnet schools in Chicago that are racially integrated and strong. Any schools that pull kids together and that have some extra resources—I think this is the best way to erase the achievement gap. Magnet schools aren’t utopia, but we have 50 years of data and there isn’t anything close to them as far as a model that helps kids. Day after day, year after year, study after study, they do better for kids. Integrated schools work better. People complain about schools that are all poor and segregated in poor and segregated neighborhoods. I want a system that will help everybody, but the heart of the problem in Chicago is that it’s one of the most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the country.
EduShyster: I’ve got a much easier answer: high quality seats! This is where we get rid of the old failing seats in urban districts like Chicago and replace them all with higher performing versions. People tell me that it works great and has no down sides.
Orfield: Ask these people for an example of where this strategy has worked.
Myron Orfield is the director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Send tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: this is the first in a series of posts about the consequences of Chicago’s grand education reform experiment. You can learn more about my project and support my work here.