Monday, February 15, 2010

But why?

During an online conversation at BlueMassGroup on charter schools, I got an interesting reply to some questions I posed to the still-not-fired Secretary of Education, Paul Reville:

Secretary Reville often notes himself: the distribution of student performance across charter schools is actually quite similar to the distribution of student performance across traditional public schools. That is really what the aggregate of available charter studies tells us. Meanwhile, some charter schools and some traditional public schools have achieved remarkable results.
--Tom Weber, Secretary Reville's Chief of Staff

I appreciate the willingness of Secretary Reville and his staff to continue this conversation, and the honesty of Mr. Weber in saying this. I'll give him credit.

But this statement to me is stunningly flabbergasting. The most rigorous study in the country says this, and Secretary Reville accepts that data. On average, there is no appreciable difference in student outcomes between district schools and charters. While student outcomes are the most important way to compare the two models, they aren't the only one. If outcomes are equal, then we go to other metrics.

District schools are accountable to democratically elected committee members. Charters are not. District schools educate all students, not just the easy ones. District schools don't shut down suddenly (PDF), get managed by felons, or squirrel public money into a rat's-nest of family and friends receiving astronomical salaries.

So here we see that Secretary Reville knows that charters don't offer anything better than districts in terms of student outcomes, and are beset with other problems. Yet he continues to promote charters in the general and the specific, to the point of engaging in legally questionable acts. On balance, district schools offer as strong an education as charters, yet offer superior service to the communities they serve.

Now, desperate, well-paid charter advocates may try to make hay of the fact that Reville implies that some charters are superior to some public schools, if you take the best extreme of the charter aggregate and the worst extreme of the district aggregate. Well, true. Some private security is superior to some police departments -- should we pour public money into private companies that provide security? If a Blackwater soldiers shoot better than a soldier in the US Army, should we make it easier to hire mercenaries? I don't hear anybody saying Medicare dollars should go to Anthem Blue Cross because an occasional Medicare procedure is worse the same as private ones. Smart policy making does not hope for the best of a given policy, but plans for the aggregate...not what we hope will happen, but what is most likely to happen. Doing otherwise is akin to betting on double zero at the roulette table.

So why does Reville so enthusiastically favor charters, when he frankly knows such policies do not benefit students and harm the democratic process? Why does our governor? I can't answer that question, but the best guide I've found is Secretary Reville's own words:

A number of key moderate allies like the Globe and the Boston Foundation

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