Do Charter Parents Have A "Weak and Confused Understanding of Public Institutions"? A Response to David Leonhardt's Responders

Last week David Leonhardt wrote an editorial in the New York Times that looks at two types of school choice, public charter schools and voucher programs, that, he says, are often conflated into a “misleading caricature.”  Several days after his column ran, the Times published seven Letters to the Editor that mostly succumb to the very caricature that Leonhardt warns against. While Leonhardt indulges in a few over-generalizations himself, it’s worth picking apart several of these familiar arguments against alternatives to traditional public schools.

First let’s look at what Leonhardt gets wrong. He writes that “many charter-school systems are subject to rigorous evaluation and oversight,” and, while that’s true in many states -- New Jersey, for example, closed four charter schools in March for poor performance  -- some states are far more laissez faire, like Betsy DeVos’ Michigan. Leonhardt denies that any charter “creams off”  top students with motivated parents but some do, just as traditional high-performing schools in wealthy towns cream off students whose parents can afford to buy houses that come bundled with top-notch districts and magnet schools that only take the high-performers. He also says that “local officials decide which charters can open and expand” but, again, that depends on each state’s particular charter law and regulations.

But Leonhardt’s lapses are nothing compared to the fallacies his column provoked, which  include distortions about school funding, the mythical dichotomy between public and private, and  the ability of poor parents to discern fact from fiction and successfully advocate for their children. Most important, they ignore his key point:  “education isn’t just another issue. It is the most powerful force for accelerating economic growth, reducing poverty and lifting middle-class living standards.”

All the alternative facts weaved throughout the comments section ignore this basic truth.  

Now to the letters.

One theme that recurs is that charter schools “divert” money from traditional schools in order to cover tuition costs. After all, this familiar  argument goes, the money is supposed to follow the child and if that child goes to a charter school than the local district loses a funding stream. It’s a zero sum game, right? As Lee Beasley writes, “The money that allows charters their vaunted flexibility is squeezed out of already strapped traditional public schools.”

Only if you pit traditional schools against other public alternatives like charter schools. A public school is a public school, with the difference that charters receive more autonomy in exchange for more accountability. We hear no backlash against parents who can afford to move to better school districts (which is how most families exercise school choice) or send their kids to private school.  We hear no backlash against parents of children with disabilities who use the IEP process to place their children in private schools at district expense. We only hear backlash against parents who prioritize their child’s education over fiscal well-being of traditional institutions and send their kids to higher-performing charters.

One of the responders to Leonhardt's column is Leonie Haimson, who writes that “traditional public schools are increasingly concentrated with the highest need students with fewer resources to educate them.” According to her logic, we should relegate poor families, many of color, into schools with decades behind them of inadequate instruction. Haimson, by the way, is co-founder of two anti-choice/accountability  groups, Parents Across America and Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education.

“What is disturbing to me is that [Haimson] chose the best option for her child, but she does not support my right to make the same choice,” said Joe Herrera, whose three children attend Coney Island Preparatory Charter School.

I invite Ms. Haimson to take a ride with me to Camden or Newark and visit charter schools there that indeed embrace “the highest-needs students.”

Now we arrive at another tired meme:  that public charter schools are not really “public.” David Adams writes, “Calling a charter school a public school is like calling a defense contractor a public institution because it consumes public funds.”

Okay. Let’s go with that. But only if you’re willing to buy into false dichotomies and ignore reality. “Public institutions” rely on private sectors all the time. Where do schools get their food, computers, textbooks, desks, furnaces, buses? From private companies, of course.  Is NASA a private company because it buys its rockets from Spacex and its trucks from Ford? Is the Center for Disease Control a private company because it buys vaccines made by Merck? Can you think of a single government-sponsored enterprise that doesn’t do business with non-public entities?

And then we come to the most offensive theme channelled by Mr. Adams: “Charter operators benefit from a populace that has a weak and confused understanding of public institutions and the public good.” Really? Parents who send their kids to charter schools are weak and confused? Ignorant of public institutions? Uninterested in the “public good”?  His prejudice echoes Save Our Schools-NJ’s Julia Sass Rubin who told the Star-Ledger that “people in abject poverty don’t have the bandwidth to even evaluate charter schools.”

Adams -- as well as Haimson and Rubin --  need to get out more and speak to charter school parents who are astute, knowledgeable, and wholeheartedly invested in their children’s educational achievement. Road trip!

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