How Not to Attack Charter Schools

The Green Bay Packers eliminated the Dallas Cowboys by three points when they kicked a field goal as the clock ticked down to 0:00. The final score proves that the Cowboys are the better team. Or so would be the likely conclusion of charter school opponents currently sharing the article Out of Options, by Allie Gross – at least if they wanted to be consistent in their thinking.

Gross’s lead: “School choice gutted Detroit’s schools. The rest of the country is next,” highlights where the article is headed, but the very data she uses about the lack of efficacy of charters compared to traditionals contradict her own conclusions.

As evidence that charter schools don’t provide consistently better outcomes, Gross cites 2014 data that 17% of Detroit’s charter school students were proficient in math compared to 13% of traditional school students. She adds that Excellent Schools Detroit gave D+ or lower grades to 70% percent of Detroit schools. Forty percent of the D+ schools are charters. Finally, she points out that this year seven students have sued the state for failing to provide basic access to literacy. Among those seven are two students from charter schools.

Well, now. Those numbers do demonstrate that Detroit public schools are in bad shape. They don’t demonstrate the lack of consistently better outcomes from charter schools. If anything, they prove the opposite: 17% proficiency beats 13%, charters make up 40% of the D+ so traditionals make up 60%, and that 5 of 7 suing students come from traditional public schools suggests greater dissatisfaction among traditional school students than their charter school peers.

It gets worse for charter school opponents when you look at Gross’s sources. She took her proficiency data from a Detroit Free Press article citing data from a Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) report that demonstrate that Detroit charters don’t do as well as other charters in the rest of Michigan, but are improving, particularly when compared to traditionals. The DFP article is titled Detroit Charters Show Gains, But Lag Behind State and begins:

“The average Detroit charter school student is showing stronger academic improvement than peers in Detroit Public Schools, according to a report that found similar gains for charter students in many of the 41 urban regions studied nationwide.”

The CREDO report carries the lead: “Urban charter schools in the aggregate provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading compared to their TPS peers.”

As Oscar Wilde might say, “You have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the irony.”

To be fair, Gross never says public schools are better that charter schools, and I don’t know if she and her fans would argue that the Cowboys are better that the Packers. Moreover, she cites abundant evidence that more and more students in Detroit choose charters these days, which is her main point. So, indeed, Detroit traditional public schools are on their heals, and it doesn’t look good. “Gutted” might be too strong a word right now, but probably not for long.

But if charter school opponents think this kind of article is persuasive to the undecided, they should recalibrate their presumptions. It can be torn to pieces by an opponent and pushes neutral observers like me to push back.

When I read the article, I first wondered why she cited data contrary to her argument. Then, as she told the story of one closed public school and the parent who fought to keep it open, I felt the sympathy I do for anyone who loses what they love. (Well, I feel no sympathy for Cowboy fans.)

But I also wanted to know about the parents who had left the school in favor of charters. What stories would they tell? How satisfied are they with their decision? Would they go back if that were an option?

I also paid close attention to the part of the article profiles charter school doyen Betsy DeVos, hero to the pro-charter tribe, leader in Detroit’s charter school movement, and President Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education. While reading that section, I couldn’t help remembering who had their hands of the levers of Detroit’s public schools for decades before anyone had ever heard of DeVos.

In the end article, the left me thinking that gutting Detroit’s traditional public schools might, in fact, be the best thing for Detroit’s students.

It’s fun to love a sports team and know in your heart that in spite of any evidence to the contrary, your team really is the best. So I get why hapless Cowboy fans still gotta believe. But whereas promoting one’s favored public policy through one-sided, easily controverted hype may win the day and entrench the status quo, it will ultimately lose much more.




Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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