This post isn't really about charter schools, although it's going to seem like it at first. It's about market forces--what they're supposed to be, and what they actually are.
As I understand it, the thinking behind schools of choice are that parents will choose to send their students to the schools that best educate their children. As parents put their children in schools, they will send their money to the best districts. The worst districts will gradually die off as students move away from it, leaving them without enough money to fund them.
This doesn't quite go far enough, because traditional public schools have a deeply entrenched history of unions. Unions have a warping effect on free-market forces, because they prevent money from flowing naturally. They prevent the tough decisions being made, they stifle innovation, they engulf schools in red tape. Enter charter schools(1), which I suppose could unionize if they chose, but in practice almost universally choose not to. Enter right-to-work laws, meant to uproot unions from the bottom up (2). In the name of improving education outcomes, and in no small measure, in the name of making it cheaper.
This line of thought, as best I understand it, begins in a neoclassical understanding of free markets. (Among the many things that I'm not, the top two things on the list are an economist and a houdun priest.) In the neoclassical model, the three base assumptions are that a.) people act rationally, b.) individuals act to maximize their ability to fulfill needs or wants and firms act to maximize profits, and c.) people act independently based on good information (3). This is only a model; approximately nobody really believes that this is the way the world works all the time. They just assume it works close enough to this to make it worth pretending.
I'd like to take a swing at applying each of these to the education world as it exists in Michigan. Bear with me, and feel free to chime in.
The first assumption is that people act rationally. Their decisions make sense as best they understand it. They rarely act randomly or against their own interests. In this model, parents and students will choose the best schools. I have no beef with this particular assumption. It stands in direct contradiction to the notion of community schools, but so do a lot of other things I believe in (like racial and economic diversity).
The second assumption is much more interesting. Individuals act to maximize their ability to fulfill their own needs or wants. This suggests that, within the confines of acting rationally, parents and students will pick the schools that will get them into the best college. Or the one that has the best educational outcomes, or the one where the parents don't hate the principal, or the one that has the best football team, or the one where their kids don't get picked on, or whatever it is they think they want. This raises the questions of what it is parents want from schools. What we're told parents want is good education outcomes. As my flurry of questions suggests, though, it's more complicated than that.
But the third assumption is the one that troubles me most. In order to act rationally and maximize utility, consumers need good information. What "good information" is, largely depends on what people want. If what they want is a winning football team, it's easy--just look at the win/loss ratio of the football team. If they want a football team that will make their kid a better football player, that's a tougher question, and requires a different kind of information and a greater sort of statistical analysis. Now imagine they want a football team that will teach their kid the value of teamwork and dedication and tenacity, and that playing is more important than winning. We almost don't have the questions for that, much less how to find the answers; all the data that we have runs counter to that line of inquiry. The only way those consumers could find out if any given product is the one they want is to enroll their students in the program and see what happens. The quality of information is less than optimal, and there's no clear way towards making it better.
This same sort of confusion exists in learning, only worse. We don't really know what we expect from schools, except that we know we want our kids to be better upon leaving than they were when they entered. They should also get better, faster than they would get on their own. Other than that, the objective of schools is a little ambiguous. Do we want to train good people or effective people? If we have to choose, which do we prefer? If we have to pick one, do we pick inquisitive, which could lead to rebelliousness, or obedient, which leads to being easily duped? Critical thinking is my go-to skill; what does society want me to do when a student's critical thinking tells her that she shouldn't be sitting in school? And the information that we do have--grades, standardized test scores, behavior grades on report cards, parent-teacher meetings, phone calls from the principals--don't really answer which schools do the best. Schools that give the best grades might not have a difficult curriculum. Schools that fail all their students probably have no idea what they're doing. Schools that have a perfect bell curve are most suspect of all. Standardized tests mostly assess a student's ability to take standardized tests. Parent-teacher meetings can either become gab-fests, with no information of substance, or sessions of passing the buck. So with a lack of information, and no good way of clarifying it, parents are unable to make good decisions.
Enter the ad campaigns.
Since the invention of capitalism, we've been making life-altering decisions with not much information. And the way we do it is by ads. Ads can raise awareness of a new product and they can inform consumers of what products are the best. In practice, however, they end up playing on emotion much more heavily than they do on information. And they're absolutely crucial to the way we decide what to buy.
And so we apply these same ideas to school. We have no good information, no good way of finding out what the information is, and by the time we find out what we need to know, it's too late. So we turn to advertising. Parents need to send their students to schools, and the ones with options will do their best to get them into the best schools (4). It is now incumbent upon schools to convince parents that they are the best. Since we're all still guessing what parents want, that's kind of a neat trick.
Now we get back to the present. I work at a small district with a declining enrollment--not because we're the worst school--quite the opposite, in fact. Our ACT scores are best in the state, we consistently have among the highest MEAP writing scores, our special ed test scores are almost knock-your-socks-off good, many of our students go on to prestigious colleges, and many more find satisfactory work in the skilled trades. Since sports appear to be important to parents, it's worth noting that our football team has been in the state semifinals most years and has 11 state championships; our cross and track teams are outstanding; we can count on our women's basketball and volleyball teams being district champs. To all appearances, we're exactly what everybody should be looking for in a school district.
The population of the county is decreasing and getting older. It's a problem for all of our county's district, as it is for many places in the state. We're one of the least-well compensated school districts in the county, and in the 25th percentile in the state.
Our latest step increase is tied to student enrollment. This suggests that we have some responsibility in recruiting students. It is my position and that of my colleagues that it is our job to teach students, and administrators' jobs to get students into our door. And when our administration thinks otherwise, then what?
(1) We'll ignore the general practice of cronyism that we're experiencing with charter schools.
(2) We'll ignore the political ramifications of destroying the most powerful mobilizing force on the side of the Democrats.
(3) This is paraphrased from Wikipedia.
(4) We'll ignore the classist assumptions that all parents are able to make these choices.