Skip to main content

Harry Brighouse: This is the Center for Ethics and Education. I’m Harry Brighouse, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Grace Gecewicz: And I’m Grace Gecewicz, an undergraduate studying philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Brighouse: Today we’re going to talk about charter schools.

Erica Turner excerpt: You know, it could be thought of as a kind of a case of strange bedfellows come together in in charter schools.

Brighouse: Today, we’re going to look more closely the ethical questions around charter schools and learn about those strange bedfellows. So ask yourself this, if absolutely all you knew about two schools was that one was a charter school and one was a public school, which would you send your kid to? Just knowing that a school is a charter school doesn’t tell you much about the important parts of a school, the quality of the teachers the classroom size, the resources, the student outcomes. So what’s the difference between a charter school and a public school? Let’s talk to some professors of education policy and philosophy, who’ve studied charter schools.

Gecewicz: Here’s Erica Turner in an interview we did with her.

Turner: My name is Erica Turner. I’m an assistant professor of Educational Policy Studies at UW Madison. And I study how different stakeholders and educational system makes sense of educational inequality and try to advocate for that through policy at mainly at local levels. So school district policymakers and school board members, parents, youth in schools.

Gecewicz: We asked her “what is a charter school?”

Turner: A charter school is a privately operated but publicly funded school. So they’re tuition free schools that are funded with taxpayer dollars and sometimes additional private or community resources. They operate free from many of the kinds of laws and regulations that govern traditional public schools, but they’re bound by a contract, or a charter, that lays out a school’s mission, its academic goals, and its accountability procedures. And this varies from state to state. Charter schools are like public schools since they’re free and must accept students regardless of race, gender, religion or ability. And while some charter schools are run by for-profit companies, most are run by nonprofit organizations, and although some are run by school districts, all of them are regulated differently than traditional public schools. Think of charter schools as a governance reform or a governance policy. That is, they change the relationship between individual schools and the system that holds them accountable, giving greater flexibility, and a charter system that is reviewed every few years rather than a certain type of education. Because what you’ll see is that from school to school students may receive a very different kind of education and the schools themselves have different kinds of goals and different ways of achieving them.

Gecewicz: According to Professor Turner, charter schools are complicated not only because they vary from state to state, but because of the kind of school that is created as a charter school.

Turner: And so this is an important distinction to notice. On the one hand, charter schools are a reform in the sense that they change the governance system of schooling, but they’re not a particular kind of learning reform or educational reform, or I should say they can be really widely disparate in the kind of educational reform they might produce. So you can find charter schools that are afrocentric charter schools, you can find what are frequently called “no excuses” charter schools, where typically they might have a longer school day, they’re very focused on test scores and regimented approaches to both learning and to student comportment. You can have schools that might focus on expeditionary learning. That’s not very common in urban districts, but increasingly in some suburban districts; so they’re kind of more project-based or more experiential kinds of learning really alternative forms of education. You can have community supported or developed charter schools where they may come from a local neighborhood organization. Some of the first schools were put forward by minoritized communities that felt like their children were not being well served within the public schools. Others were started by teachers who felt like they wanted to…that the  traditional public schools constrained the forms of education that they thought would be most effective and most ethical for students. Increasingly, charter schools are dominated–the whole field of charter schools–is dominated by these, what are called charter management organizations. So larger privately run organizations that may have multiple charter schools within a state, within a city, or across the country. But the original idea was more of these kind of mom and pop schools. And those still exist, although they’re not as prevalent as these larger charter management organizations.

Gecewicz: Diverse motivations influenced the rise of charter schools. Can we hear more about how charter schools came to be and how they started as mom and pop schools?

Brighouse: Well, let’s start with the intellectual history of charter schools and that might help us understand the whole picture. So, charter schools originate in the intellectual case for market based reform that Milton Friedman made in 1956. He argued that the defenders of government provision of schooling conflated three different functions: funding, regulation, and provision. So Friedman thought there was a very strong case grounded in the public interest in education for the government to ensure some amount of funding for every child to attend school. And that’s what he thought defenders of government provision focused on. But he thought that that view has no bearing at all on how the government should regulate schooling or whether it should provide schooling. He also argued that when the government provides schooling, it’s unresponsive to the interests of parents. So if your child effectively has to attend a particular school, and that school will receive funds for the child whatever you do, then the school has no incentive to listen to complaints or suggestions. If on the other hand, schools were run by independent firms that had to compete for students and the financial resources that accompany them, they’d be more responsive.

Gecewicz: Here’s Milton Friedman in his own words on school choice from an Ed Choice YouTube video.

Milton Friedman YouTube clip: The full exercise of choice would invigorate the public school system, would improve it. Why? Competition always has that effect. If you have a single producer of anything, whether it’s schooling, or automobiles or electricity or telephone service, they tend to get into a monopoly position. And they tend to be very unresponsive to their consumers. If you have competition, if you see what happened when you deregulated and broke up broke up the airline industry or when you broke up the telephone industry. Competition tends to force improvement.

Gecewicz: So let’s get this right. Market-based reform is the thought that markets create more competition, which makes the product better and gives people more choice. And Friedman thinks that market-based reforms and the full exercise of choice would benefit schooling.

Brighouse: That’s right. But Friedman wasn’t the only champion of choice. And here’s where the strange bedfellows come in. While the intellectual case for market reforms in general came from the political right, the specific idea of charter schools was developed on the political left. Friedman imagined the government completely withdrawing from the provision of schooling, and adopting a regulatory framework that had no special curricular or educational aspects. But Al Shanker, the longtime leader of the American Federation of Teachers, had a different proposal. He thought most of the school system should stay more or less as it was in terms of regulation and structure. But groups of parents or teachers or members of the community should be able to establish small schools of choice funded by the government, but operating on a much looser regulations than the traditional public schools with which they coexist. This will enable a system to harness the efforts of teachers and parents whose talents and inclinations, he thought, were not efficiently used in the heavily bureaucratic traditional system. Shanker envisioned charters as crucibles of innovation and experimentation. So they’d be places where we could develop better ideas and better practices that could be then emulated throughout the system. That’s where the origin of the charter school is.

Gecewicz: This is Erica Turner again.

Turner: You know, it could be thought of as a kind of a case of strange bedfellows come together in in charter schools. Certainly they’re part of the push for charter schools has grown out of a larger critique of school bureaucracy and the concern that school bureaucracies have had too much control. Now from one end that’s come from teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, one of our largest teachers unions across the country, was one of the kind of earlier proponents of charter schools feeling that such a model could give teachers greater say over schools–in contrast to the control over schools that school bureaucracies were having over many schools. On the other side, or another side of those critiquing school bureaucracy as having too much control were conservative scholars and activists who argued that there was kind of a government monopoly over schooling and there wasn’t enough competition over schooling. This allowed traditional public school districts or organizations to kind of be lazy or be really difficult and not be responsive to the desires of the publics. And then there were kind of what were at the time called “third wave democrats” who maybe had some of the traditional concerns about public schools providing equitable educational opportunities for students, but were more willing to try out more market-based or some people would call them neoliberal style reforms, in this case, kind of a competition approach to schooling. And then these kind of critics of school bureaucracy were additionally joined by families and youth, often communities of color, that were also critiquing the schools–it may be at the school bureaucracy level, maybe just the school as institutions–as being disconnected from their communities and not representing them. And this included people who are advocating for greater community control of schools, as well as other culturally marginalized groups. So in different ways, each of these was making some argument that a charter school design could help to remedy the problems they saw in schools and in public schooling. And they’re not necessarily all comparable in practice, or not all necessarily…they don’t easily lie in bed together in practice but that certainly put forward pressures from multiple sides to give this kind of approach a try, really something that had been essentially untested on a national front or even across state levels. But it seemed to make kind of a common sense to a large number of people. And it it seems like a good compromise compared to voucher reforms, which many people felt much more uncomfortable with the idea of public funding of private schooling, including religious schooling, but charter schools seem to provide a more palatable alternative to vouchers.

Gecewicz: The strange bedfellows: left wing teachers, right wing free marketeers, and dissatisfied community members all advocated for the same policy solution, but had very different reasons for their choice. We hear a lot these days about choice. And typically we think that choice is good. Erica Turner reminded us that with charter schools, we should ask more about choice, how much choice and whose choice is it really.

Turner: So another thing is that it’s often called school choice. And I think it’s important to note that that has been a very powerful metaphor for thinking about school reforms or school policies like charter schools or like voucher initiatives, or there’s all sorts of different things like that open enrollment now, or tax credits. And a lot of these have been painted as offering parents greater choices. And under some circumstances, that might be true. But it also is the case that the schools often have a lot of choice over who they accept. And so it’s not only parents’ choice; sometimes it seems like when you get down on the ground that it’s more like charter schools’ choice: who they decide to market to, what requirements they have of parents and students. Some of those may preclude more low income students in families from applying or being able to attend their schools. So, you know that’s another thing I would suggest is that, we need to kind of dig a little bit further when we think about school choice as not being equally available to everyone. You need to be able to often get your child to a school in a particular neighborhood, you may need to be able to afford a uniform, or your parent has to be functional enough to sign a contract saying that they’ll do these things. And if your family doesn’t or can’t follow through on the contract, then you may be kicked out of the school. So in multiple ways, I think there are good reasons to question how much choice and whose choice it is.

Gecewicz: So far, we’ve heard about the history of charter schools, market based reform, community control over schools, and the pushback against school bureaucracy. But despite hearing all that, I think I still have questions about charter schools. Like, what role should markets have in education? Should I send my child to a public school or charter school? How much weight should we give parental autonomy and choice? What does it mean to have a free choice? To help us answer the ethical questions that we encounter when discussing education, we’ll hear from Gina Schouten, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harvard. She and Harry Brighouse wrote an essay in 2014 called “To Charter or Not to Charter: What Questions Should we Ask and What Will the Answers Tell Us?” We spoke to her about school choice and charter schools.

Gina Schouten: As a policy decision. I think that whether we find school choice attractive depends, you know, maybe first and foremost, just on what we think the role of markets is, and what we think education, what kind of good it is, and we might think that it should be universally provided but still think that markets are a really efficient way of regulating it. One immediate worry you might have about that is based in considerations of equality, so you might think that school is not something like a normal consumer good, where we would think it’s totally fine for people’s access to it to be dependent on their ability to pay for it. But generally, with school choice, it’s not just a consumer choice mechanism. You also have some sort of provision of a voucher or something like that. So you enable people to be able to choose because you provide them the means that they’ll use to purchase the education and you incorporate the choice just by making schools compete.

Gecewicz: Professor Schouten compares this to healthcare.

Schouten: So medical care might be like this. It’s very complicated to figure out what hospital is best to have some surgical procedure. I think it’s fairly intuitive to say that medical care is just the kind of thing that should be provided at a high level, not necessarily free, but that choice among consumers shouldn’t be the mechanism that ensures quality, because it’s just a very hard thing to be an informed consumer of. Education might be like that. And even if it’s not like that, it might just be that there’s something unfair in a kid’s educational prospects being hostage to the good shopping of that kid’s parents. Now, I think on the other side, you might say that the whole point of choice is that it improves the quality of the product across the board. And then I think we have to talk more about the details. So there might be some school choice mechanisms that could do that. But I think in general, that hasn’t been the case, because there have been, I think, due to other kinds of social inequalities, there have been people who aren’t well positioned to make an election that, for example, requires them to drive their kid to school. And so some other kinds of social inequalities that we might have other reasons to be concerned about, seem like  they will sort of interrupts the effectiveness of school choice mechanisms at driving up the quality of the product wholesale.

Gecewicz: The details that Professor Schouten talks about are the reality of what actually happens as a result of these policies. Another tradeoff we encounter as a result of certain charter school policies is segregation.

Turner: The other thing that we see is a really high levels of segregation when policies aren’t designed to explicitly consider the potential segregating effects of schools and that can also feed into the kind of resources that are available as well as the kind of choice that you might have. Because in many ways they kind of mirror the existing social arrangements in schools, and we have a very segregated society.

Schouten: among the values that we should think about are integration in schools, and so it’s I think it’s easy to be fearful that school choice will lead to greater segregation. But the neighborhood school system, of course, leads to great segregation in schools given how segregated neighborhoods are. And so it’s not as if our sort of baseline status quo alternative is great, measured by the benchmark of integration.

Gecewicz: If we are concerned about equality in education, where do charter schools fit in?

Schouten: We might disagree about the means of education. We might think that charter schools are bad in terms of their curriculum or their disciplinary ethos, but let’s just focus on the kind of charter schools that get good academic outcomes. Very narrowly construed, you know, the students go on to college, they do better on average than they would have if they were left in their neighborhood schools. So in this case, we have a trade off. So all of these students are among those who are unfairly badly off in our society; all of them are among those whom educational provision is not serving well. And all of those are among whom we owe some better means to becoming educated and and living a good life. And we are helping some of them–the relatively advantaged among the disadvantaged–at a cost to others: the most disadvantaged among the disadvantaged. And I think that it isn’t clear how we should make that tradeoff. It isn’t clear what our principles of justice demand. It isn’t clear what even you know, if you care about equality, what that demands. Now, people want to retreat to caring about something they call equity, which as far as I can tell, just means the version of equality that we should bring about. But then you just have to figure out what equity demands in a case like this. And the issue is, how do we manage tradeoffs that our policy options present between benefiting different constituencies among these communities, all of whom are owed something better as a matter of justice?

Gecewicz: How should we make decisions about charter schools?

Schouten: It seems like for example, if I am living in a place where the public schools are safe, and my child can go there, and his presence there, or my presence in the school as a person with a flexible job, that would equip me to agitate for students, in certain cases. Where that works to the good of the school and the other students there, we should do that, even if we could afford to go out of the public system and send him to a private school where, you know, the test outcomes are better or whatever. Of course, the test outcomes are likely better in virtue of the fact that it’s a school that people buy their way into. And so the students are positioned differently from the outside. But setting that aside, that seems like a much different case than the kind of the kind of educational benefit that parents in the circumstances that we described earlier are thinking about getting for their kid, that is, getting them out of a failing system, maybe a system where they’re unsafe, where college readiness isn’t even among the things that’s on this table, into a school where they’ll be safe, where they’ll be stimulated. That, it seems like, the sort of moral prerogative for those parents to get that advantage on behalf of their kids is much greater, in part because by comparison to where those kids would be in a actually justice system, they’re still going to be less sort of educationally well off than justice would have them. And so it seems like there’s a difference between using your own resources to purchase an advantage for your child where that advantage will get you closer to the level at which you would be in a just society, versus using your private resources to purchase an advantage for your child where that gets them still farther above the threshold that they would be at in a more just society.

Gecewicz: Okay, so Harry, where do we go from here?

Brighouse: I don’t think there’s any simple conclusion to draw about charter schools. I do think that policymakers and parents have very different roles and should be thinking should take away different things from the debate.

Gecewicz: So what do you think about the role of parents?

Brighouse: So I just think when, given the evidence, when parents are choosing among charter schools or between charter schools and traditional public schools, very often they don’t know what’s a charter school and what isn’t. And it’s completely reasonable for them to look at the school exactly the way they would any other. So they look at the academic performance, they look at geographical proximity, they obviously look at safety–that’s a big consideration for some parents. And they just weigh those considerations, and then they decide which school kid is going to go to insofar as they have a choice. And I wouldn’t recommend that anybody take into account the fact that a school was a charter school or a traditional public school.

Gecewicz: And what’s the role of policymakers?

Brighouse: Okay, so I think for policymakers, it’s more complicated. The studies that we have of charter school performance, and there are lots of them, tend to focus almost exclusively on the academic performance of the children who are in the charter schools themselves. Sometimes based on test scores, sometimes based on graduation rates, sometimes based on slightly more complex measures. And that really matters, so don’t get me wrong. But if the decision is whether to introduce charter schools into a system, or whether to expand the number of charter schools in a system or whether to change regulation of the charter schools in the system, you don’t just want to look at the effect on the children in the charter schools; you want to look at the effect or the likely effect on the schools in the ecosystem within which the charter schools are embedded. All policy decisions should be policy decisions for the education system as a whole within the jurisdiction that you have responsibility for. So for example, we know that charter schools don’t enroll the very most disadvantaged students, even when, as with lots of inner city charter schools, they overwhelmingly enroll disadvantaged students. So even the KIPP schools, the Knowledge is Power Program schools, which are almost all poor children, the most disadvantaged students, the ones whose parents don’t have effective access to choice making, aren’t going to be in those schools. That might be absolutely fine. I’m not saying at all that that is necessarily a bad thing for the system. But it is something that policymakers ought to be looking at. So it may be that by putting children in those schools, we enable them to perform in ways that they just couldn’t in the traditional public schools that they would otherwise be in. And that there isn’t much of a cost to the traditional public schools, in which case we would want to expand. But it equally might be that it really does depress performance in the traditional public schools within that ecosystem. And that would be a bad thing. The evidence that we have doesn’t tell us a lot about that overall. And it’s likely to vary by local context. And so policymakers have to try and draw on local knowledge and local understanding in order to make good judgments. But those judgments, I think, shouldn’t be guided by “charter schools are bad,” or by “charter schools are good,” but by the likely effects of that kind of school in the way that you will actually do it on the system that they’re engaged.

Gecewicz: Thanks for listening. This was a podcast from the Center for Ethics and Education. We have more resources on our website if you’re interested in learning more about philosophy and education.