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Markets: The Vicious Cycle in Urban Schools

July 24, 2012

In her book written last year, The Death and Life if the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch describes the vicious cycle charter schools set into motion in some urban districts. Todays NYTimes has an article by Motoko Rich that describes how this cycle is playing out in several cities. The clearest example is in Cleveland, OH:

In Cleveland, where enrollment fell by nearly a fifth between 2005 and 2010, the number of students requiring special education services has risen from 17 percent of the student body to 23 percent, up from just under 14 percent a decade ago, according to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

Here’s the likely back story:

  1. Charter schools open and those engaged parents who want a solid education for their children, the great majority of whom do not need special education services, enroll their children and the State and local money follow the child.
  2. Public schools lose enrollment, lose revenue that goes along with it, and lose part of the core of students of engaged parents who help set and maintain the academic tone in the classroom.
  3. Squeezed for funding because of the enrollment drop, the district is forced to make budget cuts, starting with the most youthful teachers and focussing on those programs that re not tested like art, music, and PE.
  4. Because the students lost are among the most engaged and the classes are larger, it becomes more challenging to maintain an atmosphere of academic push in the classroom and becomes more challenging to meet the needs of each child.
  5. Because teachers have more students in their classroom, want their students to experience success, and need more support to help them, they begin seeking special education services for more students. Parents who want more attention for their children quickly learn that special needs services will achieve that goal and they, too, seek those services.
  6. Because class sizes are larger, classes are more unruly, the proportion of students receiving special education services is higher, and elective programs are eliminated, the overall quality of the public schools is eroded.
  7. An increasing number of parents seek enrollment in charter schools…. and the spiral continues until public schools predominantly serve children of disengaged parents, more than 25% of who require special education services.
  8. Because these parents are disengaged and dispirited, they don’t possess political clout and the de-funding of public education continues, accelerating the spiral.

The Times article describes districts in various stages of this death spiral without attributing it solely to the advent of charter schools… and yet it is clear from the article that the charters are headed in the opposite direction. By skimming the children of engaged parents, operating on lower overhead because they can compensate teachers on lower pay scales with fewer benefits, augmenting their start-up costs by receiving grants from foundations, the charters can offer more programs for lower costs. Moreover, because they operate as quasi-private schools, if a student is disruptive or a parent does not stay engaged, many charter schools will expel the child and send them back to their public school, who will be required to take them back.

The bottom line on all of this is money. The founders of the charter school movement  wanted to apply market principles to public education even though the market is ultimately Darwinian: it drives out the businesses that can’t succeed and presumably replaces it with ones that can. But “the market” results in a lack of grocery stores in some sections of the city, results in remote areas having no cell reception or internet connectivity, and results in having many Americans consume way too much cheap, unwholesome food. All of this is morally acceptable to those who believe in the market, because the market operates on the principle that the consumer will seek out better products if they want them. The market, though, doesn’t help those who can’t help themselves… and five-year old children born into poverty can’t help themselves. The market mentality is eroding the quality of our public schools. It  is the most vicious cycle of all.

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