When I look at graphs that compare inequalities of wealth and the ease at which individuals can move up the social class ladder (what academics call “social mobility”), again and again I see the United States and the United Kingdom anchoring the corner of the graph showing the highest inequities in wealth and the least social mobility. Where are the least inequities in wealth and the most social mobility? If you guessed the Scandanavian nations of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, you are correct.
UK and US are also the two nations where unvarnished enthusiasm for the benefits of the free market and deregulated capitalism—even after the economic meltdown of 2008—continue. While conservative governments in Scandanavian nations in the 1990s have trimmed back their social welfare benefits that marked so clearly their social democracies, an egalitarian ethos and governmental policies still prevails. Not so in the UK and US.
So it comes as no surprise to me that public schools, the social institution viewed by parents and policymakers as the key to economic growth and social mobility in European and North American countries, is central to governmental policies aimed at advancing middle class families’ aspirations for a better life while reducing poverty and income inequalities.
In the U.S., a string of Presidents from George Bush the elder through Bill Clinton to George Bush the younger to Barack Obama–have made improving education centerpieces of their administrations. In a country where the federal government spends less than a dime out of every education dollar, Washington, D.C. has become the central power-player in the education game. Federal influence has grown as the ideology of public schools as an arm of the economy, clearly stated in A Nation at Risk (1983), has become a fact accepted by policymakers, educators, and parents, and voters. The job of public schools is to produce knowledgeable and skilled graduates who can enter an ever-changing labor market. Part of that ideology, accepted without question by both civic and business leaders for the past quarter-century, is that choice and competition, motors that drive the free market, must also drive school reform policies. Enter charter schools.
Since the early 1990s, states have passed charter school laws allowing public funds to go to groups of parents, educational organizations (Green Dot, KIPP), for-profit companies (EdisonLearning), and teachers to start schools that would be free of most rules that govern regular public schools. Expanding parental choice to publically funded schools means that state (or district) sends a check equal to the average per-pupil expenditure for each student to a charter school rather than to the regular school.
In 2010, there were 5,000 charter schools enrolling 1.5 million students. Most of these charters were located in cities and enrolled largely minority and poor students. New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Dayton, Ohio among others had anywhere from one-quarter to over half of their students enrolled in charters. The Obama administration has at the center of its $4.3 billion Race To the Top competition a decided tilt toward those states that permit more charters schools.
The theory of expanding public school choice contains the corollary that more parental choice would lead to competition for students between regular district schools and start-up charter schools which, in turn, would produce district innovations to retain their students rather than lose them to charters. So choice and competition would then improve all schools yielding well educated graduates who could snare decent paying jobs and lead (here return to my first paragraph), to more social mobility and less income inequalities. That’s the theory driving school reform in the U.S.
In UK, central to the education platform of the Tory coalition that just ejected the Labor government a few weeks ago is a plan for increasing the number of “free” schools, borrowing from Sweden’s reform to expand parental choice, where public funds go to parents, teachers, and other groups that create new schools. Started under the Labor government of Tony Blair, these schools were few and far between but the Tories seek to expand the number and reach of such charter-like schools in the UK in the hope of creating options of both middle- and working-class parents while pushing government schools to improve.
Are charter or “free” schools better options for parents than the schools they are designed to replace? Although no British or U.S. policymaker can answer the question with much confidence, support for the initiative rolls on.
In the U.S., charter schools vary considerably. Some are fine schools, others are dreadful. Many suffer from the same problems that beset urban districts. For example, of the 457 Arizona charter schools opened since 1997, 21 percent (96) have closed their doors.
In terms of test scores, there is no clear winner. Some studies of charters claim that children do better in these schools. Other studies reject those claims and point out that students in public schools outscore those in charters. Headlines such as “Charter Schools: Two Studies, Two Conclusions”—offering contradictory outcomes—give little confidence to those interested in whether these schools help, harm, or don’t make a difference in student achievement.
For the immediate future, no clear answer to the question of whether charter schools are better than regular public schools can be found in research.
Then there is the question of whether districts that established charter schools responded to the resulting competition by reducing the number of low-performing schools and increasing the high-performing ones? Here again, the evidence is mixed. Some researchers claim that district officials, fearing the loss of state funds, have introduced novel programs to stem the flow of students to newly chartered ones. Other researchers have found little evidence of districts with many charter schools and Educational Management Organizations (e.g., Aspire, Green Dot) launching initiatives to retain students in existing schools.
With such paltry evidence in support of U.S. charter schools (or “free schools” in Sweden and UK), the theory that choice and competition in public schools will eventually produce more social mobility and less income inequality is, at best, weak, at worst, speculation. The, again, when did policymakers ever need evidence to support their reforms?