Like millions of Americans who took the deep dive into subprime mortgages with a viewing of “The Big Short,” I emerged from the theater seething at the unchecked avarice that led to the near collapse of our financial system. Evoking that kind of sensational outrage is exactly what the anti-reform blogger Jennifer Berkshire (aka EduShyster) was going for when she elevated an obscure paper with this blaring headline:
Are Charter Schools the New Subprime Mortgages? And predictably,
Valerie Strauss and
Salon chose to recycle this little gem of hyperbole. EduShyster’s post featured a Q-and-A with lead author Preston Green III, an education professor at the University of Connecticut. And like most of the posts I read on Berkshire’s blog, there were a few kernels of truth planted in a field of ominous, half-baked conjecture. Let’s start with this central assertion, that Professor Green’s
paper was “an academic study.” It wasn’t a “study” because there wasn’t a shred of original research in the paper, and it doesn’t become “academic” simply because four Ph.D.s put their name on it. At best, it’s a glorified lit review, and one that rests on shaky ground when it sprinkles in anti-charter dogma published in blogs and by ideologues. At worst, it’s an irresponsible and condescending argument from four professors who suggest families in “black, urban communities” need to be protected from “charter school bubbles” because they are the most likely to succumb to “the herding phenomenon.” Let's just pause here and consider this troublesome analogy. He attempts to explain away nearly three million mostly minority parents who have chosen charter schools, another million or so on charter waiting lists and strong charter support by black parents in public opinion polls (
typically above 60 percent support) as “herd” mentality where “individuals in target groups make choices based on the decisions of other persons in their group.” Gotta love the academic rigor of that assumption: Compare black parents on charter waiting lists to mindless sheep, rather than allow for the possibility that these parents are making an informed decision to “choose” an alternative to certain failure for their children in the traditional schools to which they’ve been assigned (or “penned” if you want to extend the authors’ unfortunate metaphor). In one question, Berkshire (who actually edited a newspaper for the American Federation of Teachers) gushes that she is both fascinated and disturbed by “how well the subprime analogy fits, down to the edu-equivalent of predatory lending practices in particular communities.” But it doesn’t fit, not at all—and even the authors acknowledge on page 22 of their 28-page paper:
We realize that the framework used for "economic bubbles" such as the subprime mortgage crisis does not work for government policies such as charter schools.
Huh? That pesky little disclaimer didn’t discourage the professors from writing a whole paper about it or Edushyster from “reporting” it as though it revealed some “fascinating” new gospel truth? For those of you who haven’t seen “The Big Short” or don't have a clue about how charter schools work or how they are created, let’s break this down. Mortgage servicers are driven by one motive and one motive alone: profit. Charter operators—not all of them, we know, but the overwhelming majority of them—are motivated by a far different (dare I say nobler?) cause:
to give our most vulnerable children a shot at a better education, a safer school, a middle-class life. You'd never know that from reading Edushyster, who never met a charter she didn’t hate, or the “subprime” authors, who cherry picked every charter scandal and nefarious for-profit operator to make their shaky case. This is how absurd that “predatory lending” analogy gets: It suggests that Noble Charter Schools (one of the most academically successful and popular networks in Chicago) “preys on vulnerable parents” because Noble charged parents “discipline fees”—a practice that was always about changing student behavior rather than collecting revenue, but one that
Noble discontinued because of negative publicity. The authors don’t point out that Noble (started by two traditional school teachers) is a nonprofit network that must raise millions from private donors just to cover their costs and deliver on their college-for-all education model. You can disagree with Noble’s no-excuses discipline policies and question its higher-than-average expulsion rate, but you cannot argue that those $5 detention fines were about “preying” on poor parents to line the pockets of those avaricious Noble leaders. I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago high schools—including Noble campuses—and I get why college-bound students like
Morgan Redd came to value Noble’s strict discipline code and willingly paid the $500 he racked up for 100 detentions over four years. I encourage readers to fast-forward to page 24 of “Charter School Bubble,” where the authors propose some common-sense solutions to what genuinely ails the charter industry, drawn directly from research by the
National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a charter-advocacy organization widely respected as an honest broker on charter accountability. These include stricter screening, stronger authorization and tighter financial oversight. I expect we’ll see more about charter school practices from Professor Green, who claims he
used to be “really, really, really pro charter.” But, perhaps he should spend a little more time studying
why urban parents are so dissatisfied with their traditional public schools, which are just as capable of questionable spending, egregious discipline practices and academic malpractice. And let’s leave out the “herding” analogies. Because the real herd mentality is to be found in the endless commentary from Salon, Valerie Strauss and Edushyster, where a tiresome and misleading anti-charter narrative has found a permanent home.
Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that ...