We Need Charter AND District Systems: On Private-Public Partnerships

Building on my last post, in which I challenged Neerav Kingsland’s presumption that charter systems and schools are inherently superior to that of district systems and schools, here’s an important TED talk by economist Mariana Mazzucato worth watching that presents a refreshing new angle on this topic:

The narrative that charter supporters often promote is one in which traditional district schools are failures because they are:

  • Mired by bureaucracy and politics
  • Constrained by teacher’s unions
  • Unable to innovate and adapt to the needs of the 21st century
  • Beholden to the state
  • Unresponsive to the needs of parents and communities

All reasons, they suggest, that require us to turn to the private sector and its proven ability to disrupt, innovate, and provide competitive choice. The market, they claim, has been demonstrated to promote quality and efficiency, whereas the state has proven only to be cumbersome, to stand in the way of change, and to maintain the status quo.

Parallel to that conversation is our national shift away from representative democracy’s mechanisms for political decision-making and deliberation via a balance of power to that of the vagaries of capitalist markets.

NYC stands central to that shift, tracing back to the fiscal crisis of the 70s.

A Short Diversion into History

Prior to the 70s, NYC was the paragon of a social democratic state. City colleges were free to attend*. Public transit, daycare, hospitals . . . The government worked with labor unions to deliver strong public services.

But that beatific vision came crashing to an end when NYC found itself on the verge of bankruptcy in 1975. It had been borrowing to pay down debt for far too long.

Though the unions ended up bailing the city out—most notably via Al Shanker-led UFT’s investment of teacher’s pensions into municipal bonds—that moment is when, as Richard D. Kahlenberg suggests in his book on Shanker¹, “the relationship between democracy and capitalism had shifted.” Quoting journalists Jack Newfield and Paul DuBrul, Kahlenberg notes that at this moment, there was “a revolution in the governance of New York City,’ where bankers effectively took over the running of the city.”

Writing in The Nation, Kim Phillips-Fein² provides further perspective on the legacy of the crisis:

Today, the rituals of fiscal crisis—the blaming of public sector workers, the vilification of the poor who use government services suddenly deemed excessive luxuries—may seem familiar. . . . 

The crisis brought about a transformation of the very language and conception of politics, as the rhetoric of fiscal necessity and business acumen replaced a vision of politics as a domain of struggle and negotiation.  

. . . the diminished expectations we have for the public sector and the increasing difficulty of living a middle-class life in the city suggest the legacy of the fiscal crisis even now. City governments today—including New York’s—seem primarily to be vehicles to attract and maintain private investment. 

Back to Our Narratives on State vs. Private Sectors Today

Thus, the narrative about the efficacy of charterization for delivering what was once solely a government service is placed within a wider context, and it helps to explain why so many pro-charter folks not only denigrate unions, but furthermore the public sector et al.

And this is why Mariana Mazzucato’s challenge is so important to pay heed to.

Mazzucato argues that contrary to the anti-government narrative, innovation occurs as a result of government intervention. At minute 7:00 in her talk, she states:

Now, what’s interesting in all of this is the state, in all these examples, was doing so much more than just fixing market failures. It was actually shaping and creating markets. It was funding not only the basic research, which again is a typical public good, but even the applied research. It was even, God forbid, being a venture capitalist.
. . . In all these sectors, from funding the Internet to doing the spending, but also the envisioning, the strategic vision, for these investments, it was actually coming within the state.

Rather than wasting wind denigrating the state, she suggests, we should instead seek “public-private partnerships.”

This is what I was suggesting in my last post when I stated “Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between [district or charter systems].”

As a side note, I recently read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, and I found his ideas about how to innovate as an entrepreneur compelling. Yet I had a moment of cognitive dissonance when he suggested, in his contrarian way, that enterprises are most successful when they can gain a monopoly, rather than endure heavy competition. When I read that, I thought:

But the state IS the biggest monopoly!

The government is not necessarily the enemy of innovation. Unions aren’t either.

And on the other side, the private sector is not necessarily the enemy of democracy and strong social enterprises.

The question becomes: how can we leverage partnerships across government, unions, and private organizations to most effectively serve our nation’s future?

* Can you even imagine that happening today in the US? You’d have to be some kind of a socialist!

1 Kahlenberg, Richard D. Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy. New York: Columbia UP, 2007. Print.

2  Phillips-Fein, Kim. “The Legacy of the 1970s Fiscal Crisis.” The Nation. The Nation, 16 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 Aug. 2015. <http://www.thenation.com/article/legacy-1970s-fiscal-crisis/&gt;.

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Charter vs. District Systems

By NASA’s Aqua/MODIS satellite (http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view_rec.php?id=6204) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Neerav Kingsland looks at the recent findings on professional development via the TNTP Mirage report and the Rand Corporation study, and comes to the conclusion that “Professional development only seems to lead to student achievement increases in charter schools!”

I noted in a recent post that in the TNTP study, teacher effectiveness and growth was notably more observable in a CMO, and I hypothesized that this could be attributable to some charter networks having more tightly managed systems of assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

But to suggest that this is an innate quality of charter schools is questionable. There is absolutely no reason for a district school not to be in possession of such qualities, and indeed, many do.

Kingsland argues for NOLA-style systems, in which the government merely regulates, rather than operates, schools, with the idea being that the private sector can conduct operations more efficiently and effectively. But there’s a potential, and possibly critical, issue with such a system: a lack of coherency.

Within a well-managed district, on the other hand, there is potential for greater coherency. A state or central office can provide specific direction on operational shifts via policy that all district schools would be expected to adhere to.

Kingsland asks, “is it more likely that we can achieve major gains in districts or scale highly effective charters?,” I think he’s created a false dichotomy. I think the more interesting question is, “How can we achieve major gains by leveraging federal, state, and district policy to implement effective and coherent systems, content, and practices across all schools?”

A NOLA-style system might be able to make swift initial gains, due to well-managed networks putting into place strong systems of assessment, feedback, and practice. But it’s certainly feasible that a well-managed district system can make even bigger gains over the longer haul.

I disagree, therefore, with Kingsland’s position that charter schools are inherently superior in enhancing teacher effectiveness and promoting student achievement. In fact, I charge that a NOLA-style system may ultimately run up against its innate incoherency, at which point, large-scale gains would stagnate.

I could be totally wrong on this, of course, and admit that this is conjecture and based on my own values. It may be that a NOLA-style system may end up leading to greater coherency in operations due to competition, and thus, best practices evolve through demonstrated gains in one organization and subsequent adoption by those who are attempting to compete.

I may also be overstating the ability of district schools to establish coherency, given constraints in operating within often volatile political contexts.

The problem is, of course, that while NOLA has demonstrated significant academic gains on tests since moving into a private sector operated system, it’s still purely conjecture as to whether the same benefit would transfer to any other district simply due to a  structural change. It’s also still conjecture that those gains can be solely attributed to a structural shift to private sector operation, rather than the simple mechanism of distributing students across geographical boundaries.

But let’s assume for the moment that Kingsland is correct that a private sector operated school system is the optimal system. I would still argue, even in such a case, that this doesn’t mean that such a system will necessarily scale effectively into different social and political contexts.

In the face of great complexity and uncertainty, we can hedge our bets by planning for robustness, rather than optimality.

The question therefore becomes: what is the most robust? A school system operated by the public, or a school system operated by the private sector?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Poverty

doublespeak

As Mark noted in his last post, Success Academy Charter School CEO Eva Moskowitz recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Post in which she announced:

There is a myth in this country that poverty and race are overwhelming barriers to a child’s ability to learn. This is simply not the case.

On some level, Moskowitz is correct: poverty does not interfere with student learning. To get to that level, we have to dissociate the word “poverty” from both its literal definition and its commonly accepted meaning: the condition of having little or no wealth and the resulting lack of access to human necessities like nutritious food, shelter, clothing, books, and other things that make life comfortable and stimulating.

Once we strip the word poverty of its meaning, it becomes three meaningless syllables. At that point, Moscowitz is 100% right: those syllables have no impact on children whatsoever.

Those of us who are concerned about poverty, however, should keep the word firmly attached to its meaning. When we do that, we recognize that Moskowitz is actually 100% wrong. Over and over and over again, research shows that the elements that constitute the condition of poverty— including hunger, poor nutrition, illness, and lack of access to books— consistently and aggressively interfere with student learning. Over and over again, research shows that the #1 predictor of student learning is wealth, or lack of it.

Incidentally, poor children are also more likely to go to poorly lit, overcrowded schools that lack adequate books and supplies. That’s become even more likely in recent years because Moskowitz’s Success Academies have siphoned millions upon millions of dollars away from the public schools that serve the vast majority of New York City’s children.

Which brings us back to the topic of dissociating words from their meanings. Specifically, the word “public.” In her op-ed, Moskowitz claimed:

Success Academies are free, K-12 public schools, open to all children.

The word “public,” as most of us understand it, means “available to everyone”– like a public park or bathroom. Given that meaning, Eva Moskowitz’s schools are not public. Success Academies refuse to admit students they don’t want (they currently accept roughly 20% of students who apply) and get rid of students they don’t like.

Since Success Academies are not public, it’s kind of shocking that when the chips are down, their students can’t compete with the best and brightest from the city’s allegedly failing public system. But those were the results this spring when every single member of the Harlem Success Academy’s first graduating class failed the entrance exam to the city’s select public high schools.

It’s hard to know what went wrong, but we do know that we’re not allowed to blame poverty when students fail. And you can bet I’m not going to blame the Success Academy’s teachers, who get worked to the bone. Maybe we should just blame Moskowitz.