Opinion

Charter schools are the Justin Bieber of education reform – a fad gone too far

Among all the programs that face cuts in President Obama's new budget, education is a clear winner. Charter school funding, however, suffers a slight decrease. And this may be a good thing. Charter schools have become another silver-bullet 'idea fad' racing through education reform.

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President Obama released his 2012 budget proposal earlier this week to a fanfare of predictable criticism from the right and a few cries from the left. In a budget that saw cuts to many cherished programs, one of the big winners was education – with an 11 percent boost in total funding. Within education spending, however, the popular charter school movement wound up as a slight loser – with proposed funding reduced to $372 million after a pledge of $490 million in last year’s budget.

While some charter school advocates may wring their hands over the slight reduction in proposed funding, the rest of us should be asking whether charter schools have been adequately scrutinized as part of a “tough choices” budget.

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That’s because investing over half a billion dollars on charter schools in a two-year span suggests that policymakers are overly susceptible to ideas that seem cool rather than ideas that we know are sound. The unfortunate reality is that charter schools are the latest example of “silver bullet” solutions that burst onto the scene each generation, promising a swift end to endemic problems in education before ultimately coming up short.

If we want charter schools to work, we must be careful to resist the “idea faddism” that so often turns tomorrow’s innovation into yesterday’s failed idea. This means avoiding the urge to go all-in with federal funds during what should be a period of continued experimentation.

US love affair with charter schools

The recent American love affair with charter schools is well documented. In 1991, Minnesota passed groundbreaking legislation to create the first charter school in the nation, with the first opening its door a year later. Now there are more than 5,000 charter schools nationwide.

Public support for these schools is also widespread, with vocal champions from both sides of the aisle. While few issues have unified the last three presidents, charter schools is one of them. President Clinton set a target of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2000 in his 1997 State of the Union address, and President Bush sought $200 million in federal funds to support them.

Obama has outdone them both. Not only has he included hundreds of millions in charter school carrots through his budget proposals, but he has also wielded a big charter school stick through the Race to the Top Program. A state’s willingness to foster charter schools was considered a critical reform element in its bid for a share in the original $4 billion Race to the Top program. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made clear at the time, “States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund.”

Charter schools have found an abundance of advocates outside of government as well. School reform superstar and former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has been an outspoken champion of charter schools as part of her acclaimed school reform agenda. So have billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates.

Perhaps the most apparent sign that charter schools had made it big time was the release of the film “Waiting for Superman,” directed by Davis Guggenheim of “An Inconvenient Truth.” The documentary chronicled several students entering a charter school lottery, aiming to reveal a purportedly obvious truth about our supposedly failing educational system: It would all be made better through more charter schools.

No panaceas for complex challenges

The error in this kind of thinking is not that it encourages us to try new, innovative solutions to well-worn problems. It’s that it assumes there are genuine panaceas for notoriously complex social challenges.

Some charter schools are incredibly effective and serve as examples of how we can begin to connect some of the least advantaged students to educational success. But many are not. A 2009 Stanford study of over 2,000 charter schools found that nearly half (46 percent) of charter schools do no better than their public counterparts and 37 percent perform worse.

There are charter schools that work, but that is the primary paradox of the “idea fad.” Innovative ideas – especially those that target seemingly intractable problems – tend to generate such frenetic energy and enthusiasm that they persuade us to pursue them headlong, instead of tailoring them to specific cases.

Characteristics of an idea fad

This dynamic derives from at least three idea fad attributes.

The first is that they appear as fresh approaches to longstanding challenges. Anxiety over the state of education in America is as old as President Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk” report. Charter schools have offered a radically different model for improving education, holding out the promise that they can target the root causes of failing schools.

The second feature of these idea fads is that they often align well with other political agendas. In the case of education, charter schools have fit well into a growing narrative of failing schools with little accountability, bad teachers shielded by evil unions, and crippling achievement gaps that threaten to topple the whole system.

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The third trait is that idea fads attract the same kind of buzz as fads in other domains, such as entertainment and fashion. Charter schools have not lacked in persuasive – even celebrity – spokespeople or inspiring stories. These advantages have helped to build a sense of coolness around the charter schools concept.

None of these idea fad characteristics means that the ideas that become fads are bad ones. In the right place, under the right conditions, charter schools have had the power to transform educational practice and results. But the zeal with which supporters have often blindly pursued charter schools means that they have been over- or misapplied as a solution to educational achievement gaps.

The result is a movement that commands more than its share of public and private resources and that has spread far faster than sound research can keep up.

Now may be the time to think twice about the charter school bet, rather than doubling down.

Sam Gill is a political consultant and was a Rhodes Scholar.

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