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Education Sat Jan 29 2011
Is a policy of charter expansion a sound reform plan for our schools? Agreeing our schools need reform doesn't mean we need to accept any reform plan, but only the best reform plan. The argument for charter school expansion rests on a number of premises and inferences: mainly, that collectively bargained work rules make it more difficult to cultivate the best teaching; and that sharp competition between schools will increase efficiency and improve outcomes. For critical thinking purposes, let's take a look at this argument and see if there are any pressing objections.
Let's concede for a start that a major problem with the public schools is work rules that make firing and incentivizing teachers difficult, thus confounding the efforts of school operators to cultivate the best teaching.
Does that mean that school administrators should be allowed to fire teachers with "bad cause or no cause at all"? In other words, is the only alternative to the status quo its exact opposite?
Basic reason says this is not the case. There must be other possible and viable alternatives. For example: the grievance procedure could be simplified or changed; peer review could be instituted or, within the range of options, grievance steps could be reduced. The "good cause" standards could be independently policed or more explicitly stated, etc. These are all possible alternatives, and assuming that charter proponents believe no binding work rules is the best solution, we can infer that a minimum of binding work rules would still be better than the status quo. So these alternatives are also viable.
Knowing there are possible and viable alternatives, we still needn't jettison the proposed solution (banning of union rules) unless it is either not possible or not viable, leaving a preferred solution somewhere in between.
The expansion of private school operators promised by Rahm Emanuel and Gery Chico will turn teachers into at-will employees. This impacts who gets fired and how, but that isn't the primary objection. More importantly it adversely effects the maintenance of professional standards. Charter teachers regularly complain about being made to teach classes they are not qualified to teach or grade levels they are not certified to instruct. Even if this is merely anecdotal, the fact that it is possible and not remediable should disqualify it as a structural reform. Lack for formal grievance makes it difficult for teachers to prevent their own termination, but it also makes it impossible for the professionals to police the profession, which by definition unravels the profession itself. As a policy, it is not clearly viable.
The economic definition of "profession" includes the element that the members of that profession have some level of control over their own standards and procedures. The AMA and the Bar Association are the most obvious examples. Associations of accountants, engineers, and academics perform similar functions though with less autonomy. As at-will employees who can be fired literally for "no cause at all," teachers will have no mechanism for enforcing professional standards where they are violated. When you are forced to take on more students than policy permits (or than that is reasonable), you would have literally no recourse. The school could simply compel you to do it, or replace you if you refuse. You make $30,000 as a first-year teacher. Do you think you have the resources to surrender your job on principle?
Sure, you could say, but why assume charters are malevolent and would force employees to teach outside their expertise or flout policy? First, it's important when evaluating a reform program to consider the potential defects in those reforms, even if they don't seem likely. Second, charter schools have an incentive to violate professional standards and even some public policies: cost. Older teachers are expensive teachers; well-educated teachers are even more expensive. There is a structural reason to try to pay as little as possible for the most work possible, since there is a fix sum per student. What's more, turning over teachers requires that terminating teachers be totally discretionary. Is this an effective way to attract and retain talented people into any profession? Would it have attracted you, as a high school student, to undertake the necessary education and training?
You could argue that there is a countervailing incentive: to make the charter competitive against public schools, they will need to attract and keep the best teachers. The problem is that there is no meaningful competition among charter and public schools, or charter schools one with the other. First off, public schools are compelled to educate the most challenging students, where charters are not, and can purge their rolls of those very students through various behavioral and punitive policies. Second, consumer choice is considerably restricted when the service consumed has some power to reject you as a customer. Your credit score narrows your personal housing market; so would your child's strength as a student expand or narrow your personal schools market.
Third, the geographic limitations make "choice" extremely narrow. Parents will not be willing nor, in many cases, able, to investigate every school in every neighborhood in the city, and send their child on hours-long daily commutes across the city. Finally, the "product" being chosen cannot be immediately qualitatively evaluated. In other words, education and critical thinking skills aren't immediately apparent; they take years to develop, and you only get one shot at it: you only go through school once, and you change teachers every year. What good is a "choice" you can only realistically make once, or at most twice, within a limited time frame? The way around this, quantiative standardized testing, has not proven itself as a reliable metric, as education conforms to the testing rather than vice versa.
If the competition is this restricted, then the only mechanism that forces charter schools to recruit and keep the most talented teachers and produce the best "outcomes" disintegrates. Lacking competition, any market proponent would admit, there is no reason to expect improvement of the product, much less significant improvement. Thus what charter schools will effectively create is just a shadow school system run by a handful of large-scale private operators like AQS and UNO. UNO is run by a man who has publicly defended the patronage of groups like the HDO, and he now wants to use public money to fund a system that would give him and a handful of other non-elected, non-appointed executives thousands of at-will jobs to dispose of literally at their whim in every neighborhood of the city (consider also that charter schools are not governed by parent-dominated, elected Local School Councils). Even without imputing a single bad intention, we can reasonably infer that this is not a reliable systematic reform.
Which logically leads to the next objection: by creating a private industry wholly funded with public money, you create a powerful rent-seeking institution with significant resources it can bring to bear on local and state government. UNO already lobbies the state for funding. Let's concede that the teachers unions are rent-seeking institutions that wield their political power to improve their economic condition. By conceding this, would we all have to agree that associations of charter school operators would be exactly the same thing? If those who advocate charter schools as a non-union alternative (i.e., they oppose union work rules) characterize teachers unions as special interest institutions, can they reasonably distinguish charter school operators, who also have an incentive in public spending and political power? If they can, I have not come across any such argument. To say that they wouldn't exert any such rent-seeking influence because they have the best intentions means they believe teachers unions act immorally: that they don't care about the education, as they claim, but only about themselves, as contrasted with the altruistic charter operators like Juan Rangel.
On a less sinister note, imagine the redundancy. The CPS bureaucracy has exploded in response to No Child Left Behind, and a second school system will sap it of an economy of scale. The entire body of children being educated would require duplicated personnel and functions if there are two institutions, one official and one ad-hoc, responsible for executive, policy, monitoring and administrative functions.
These objections don't need to be plainly true, merely reasonable. Seem reasonable enough. Plus, we arrived at them even while conceding the highly controversial primary premise of the charter industry's argument . If these objections are merely reasonable, I think they demand an exceptionally persuasive case for how charter expansion as currently proposed can professionalize teaching and increase transparency and public accountability.
This is not a defense of the status quo, but rather a critique of the proffered solution. Not only do questions of its efficacy arise, but concerns about potentially serious deficiencies permeate. The entity I just described sounds a lot like a publicly-funded, politicized patronage network shielded from civic oversight and civil service codes, and I've encountered no case to date sufficiently convincing to overcome these objections.
Finally, consider this: it took Chicagoans forty years to fully municiaplize public transportation. It is immensely difficult to undo privatization, in no small part because of the political strength of the privatized industry. If we undertake this clearly faulty line of reform, not only could it be disastrous, but it could be irreversible.