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Education Sat Jan 29 2011

Expansion of Charter Schools Will Create a Private School System, Not School Choice

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.

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Aaron M. Renn / January 30, 2011 8:04 AM

Ramsin, this piece is flawed in many ways, but one in particular I'd like to point out: the vast majority of people who work in "professions" are at will employees. In fact, virtually all non-union private sector employees are at will.

Professional standards are enforced by other means than giving practitioners lifetime tenure. In fact, giving this type of job security is antithetical to maintenance of standards because employees become difficult to sanction when they aren't complying with standards.

Ramsin / January 31, 2011 12:23 AM


First off, thanks for reading--I'm a big fan, and everybody here should read your piece on the Chicago "Nexus."

I have to disagree with you, though. Other "at-will" professions exercise control over their professions through self-regulation of who enters and standards to be abided by, and professionals like doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants, therefore have power in the workplace--their workplace regulations are put in place by themselves outside of the context of their employment. Not only this, but restriction of supply of labor (i.e., the AMA functionally controls how many doctors there can be) make such professionals powerful as bargainers with their employers. Attorneys, doctors, CPAs--these people just as often have "clients" as they have employers; they have immense bargaining power in the marketplace because of the ability of the profession to regulate itself. Teachers lack this power--they don't control the institution responsible for certifying them. A doctor who is an "at-will" employee at a hospital is not equivalent to a teacher who is an "at-will" employee at a school; the paucity of doctors gives her immensely greater bargaining power. Lacking an AMA-style cartel, teachers unions are the only way to give teachers similar bargaining power that allows them to stabilize and protect the profession.

Even if this were not the case, you make the same mistake I discuss in the article, which is that the only alternative to at-will employment is "lifetime tenure." This surely isn't the case; there must be policies that fall in between the two. If the concern of charter advocates is that teachers are not held to sufficiently rigorous professional standards, then they are compelled to admit that professionalization is a goal. If that is the case, then by very definition of profession, some degree of effective self-policing is necessary.

WAJ / January 31, 2011 3:41 PM

This is a weak tea defense of entrenched interests.

You can't say if charter school expansion will be a sound reform plan or not unless you understand all priorities, incentives, and motivations of the involved stakeholders (the classic planner's conceit). That we don't "need to accept any reform plan, but only the best reform plan." is patently ignorant, lest you want to claim ownership of information you could not possibly obtain.

"AMA functionally controls how many doctors there can be"
- this could not be more false. Each state has its own medical licensing board. The AMA is an association, which represents under 30% of licensed medical professionals, is historically anti-free market, and tried to prohibit doctors from working for HMOs in the 1930's, but that was stricken by the supreme court for anti-trust violations. Granted, the AMA would love to control how many doctors there can be, because once wedded to the government teat, regulatory capture wields power.

Interestingly enough, only 17% of doctors work in hospitals, so your comparison to teachers is peculiar considering that hospitals are recruiting doctors because of their access to private insurance clients - i.e. patients whose reimbursement rates are higher than government program rates and therefore more profitable.

All that aside, perhaps the clearest available benefit from increased privatization is to transfer the actual cost of employment from the state's responsibility to the beneficiary's responsibility. What I mean by actual cost of employment is teacher/administrator salary plus pension benefits. The Teacher Retirement System has a $70 billion funding gap, which is kept out of view whenever people talk about education funding. Why? Because it is based on ponzi finance and is insolvent, or can make a state insolvent. It is basically a private retirement fund based on public funds, which is what you describe above as objectional.

That the pension obligation is so large that it threatens the entire public fisc, it creates an undue amount of leverage on politicians whose interests are beholden to the support of the beneficiaries of an unsustainable system.

All organizations will attempt to maximize regulatory capture, as the teachers union currently does, so it is important not to grant exclusivity to one group, or small number of groups. The benefit from dealing with many, smaller groups is that it increases the number of combinations between educational/administrative/commercial factors and we will have a better understanding of what works better than others. Creating seperate relationships between the education portion of teaching and commercial portion of the profession may prove to be a better model for all stakeholders.

Richard Lorenc / January 31, 2011 3:57 PM

Ramsin, your preoccupation with labor rules prevents you from seeing the end goal of an education system, which the government schools in Chicago are clearly failing to achieve. Charter schools are not only viable alternatives for students because charter administrators can get rid of the rare problem teacher easier, but because they take different--sometimes very different--approaches to teaching and curricula.

Whatever the approach, charters place students in college at a much higher rate than traditional public schools. Regardless of whether they're the cream of the crop, charters' college placement rates are laudable. 100 percent of Urban Prep's seniors were admitted into four-year colleges last spring. Contrast that with six percent of CPS high schoolers overall who get a college degree. Given that dismal rate, it's highly unlikely 100 percent of those Urban Prep grads would have enrolled in college had they stayed in their neighborhood schools.

You write about a credit score affecting what sort of housing you possess. The same is true for a student's ZIP code, except there's really no way to improve that short of moving house. Imagine the situation for thousands of families living in neighborhoods where gang life is rampant and teachers don't have the time to teach. You probably hear about this sort of situation all the time. In the traditional government school model one of those families has no choice but to enroll their kid in a dangerous school even though they have the will to school him elsewhere.

Saying that some places with good schools are difficult to access is a non-starter. We know the vast majority parents will do what they think is best for their kids, no matter how difficult.

Consider the current situation of Kimberly Williams-Bolar in Ohio who is facing a jail sentence for getting her kids into a better school than what was available. Shouldn't we make it legal for parents like her to make a choice about her kids' schooling?

Lastly, I'll express my befuddlement with an idea implied in your piece and explicit in other criticisms of charters and school choice generally. There is a notion that an education policy must help all students simultaneously or none at all. This prevents people of good will from accepting policies that assist perhaps a relative handful of students while the others remain locked in the old status quo. But if the goal is to serve well as many kids as want to learn, we should embrace policies that give them a chance to choose. Like you've written, you only go to school once, so let's have as many students as possible attend a school that has the potential to serve them well today.

Aaron M. Renn / January 31, 2011 9:10 PM

Ramsin, glad you liked cost of clout.

From what I've seen, external licensing boards and such play a fairly minor role in actual enforcement of standards. Yes, these professions do determine their own credentialing rules, but with legislative oversight and it doesn't strike me as that dissimilar from teachers.

Let me draw one example from my experience: pharmacists who work for Walgreens. Yes, Chicago pharmacists are unionized, but most aren't.

The primary motivator of diligent following of rules is the fact that the results of not doing so are potentially catastrophic. A patient could die, and if that happened, the pharmacist is likely toast. Similarly for PE's and bridge design, accountants, doctors, etc. But what happens when a child fails to get educated? So right there are we are missing an immediate consequence.

Then there are layers of management that institute procedures and validate that they are followed. This includes a pharmacy manager in the store, a pharmacy supervisor (like a district manger) above that, and a corporate layer too. All of those people likewise have responsibility for ensuring compliance, and the authority to act. Plus they are all pharmacists themselves (up to the CEO of the company, incidentally). That's not again unlike principals and superintendents who are typically former teachers or trained in the field.

The net result of this is that at Walgreens, or any pharmacy really, I feel 100% confident in what I'm getting. Yes, occasional mistakes happen, but they are very rare. The pharmacy profession deserves entirely the strong reputation it enjoys.

Again, can you feel so confident with the system we have in place in schools or some changed version thereof? It would require a vastly different organization and incentive structure to replicate the kinds of disciplines found in the professions.

Aaron M. Renn / January 31, 2011 9:16 PM

Which brings me to the criticism of charter schools. Charter schools may not be perfect and have many flaws, but to me the criticisms of them as not being as good as some theoretical viable alternate are off base.

I liken it to criticism of Health Care Reform. That too has a lot of flaws. I'll admit I'm not a big fan of the current bill. But you know what, for Republican critics, what have they ever offered as a real alternative they actively tried to make reality? At least with HCR (like charter schools) someone is actually trying, is engaged in the field of battle.

In order to have reform, you have to have reformers. And if there isn't a serious, credible political movement to really champion and push for the supposedly best reforms, then then those ideas become little more than hammers to pound away at the people who actually are trying something. Again, it's just like the GOP that wants "market based reforms" except they've never actually tried to find a practical approach and push a bill through. I think they are serious about repealing HCR, but would never be that serious about anything but the status quo to replace it.

Attacking charter schools and such without a viable movement to offer in their place is nice as theoretical exercise - especially if you view it as such - but it ends up an implicit endorsement of the status quo.

Ramsin / January 31, 2011 9:20 PM

Aaron and Richard,

There are a lot of thoughtful responses and I want to take a bit of time to consider them before I respond in full.

Very briefly, though, I want to reply to you Aaron that I agree that charter operators are not typically educators, the BOE under Daley has never been run by educators, and that the CPS bureaucracy is wholly devoid of educators at the leadership levels. Teachers are seen as the problem and as such they are excluded from policy leadership.

Your question about whether there is an immediate consequence for teachers as professionals goes no less for charter operators and gives credence to the problem of "competition" between charters. Basically this argument assumes that charter operators will adhere themselves to best educational practices when left to their own devices, but teachers as professionals will always look only to their own interest.

Beyond that, I'd respond that of course we have prima facie evidence that strong teachers unions regularly provide the best products--there are teachers unions, and not incidentally very strong locals, at all of the state's top schools. Suburban schools have strong locals with rank-and-file leadership.

Just saw your second comment pop; as I said, I'll come back with more thoughts after some digestions.

Thanks Aaron and Richard for your thoughtful contribution on this important issue.

Nate Goldbaum / January 31, 2011 9:47 PM

Actually, all of you have it wrong and that's because, Ramsin, you make an unreasonable concession from the start. You start with the assumption that the main barriers to improved education are provisions of due process that prevent arbitrary firings and/or the maintenance of a contractual salary system that prevents principals from rewarding their favorite teachers with bonuses.
I'll leave for another time the arguments about tenure and seniority (neither of which actually prevents the firing of bad teachers). I also won't argue here about "monetary incentives" (except to mention that social science has debunked their utility in actually incentivizing better work).
The greatest barrier to improved education is economic inequality. The US is constantly being compared unfavorably to countries that score higher on international standardized tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams. Shanghai - with a selective population - and Finland (with a 3% national child poverty rate) score among the highest places. The United States does worse overall than these other countries but when regression analysis factors the effects of poverty we are top performers.
Charter schools are an opportunity for politicians to foist responsibility for our national tragedies onto the very teachers who have devoted their lives to children's success. This way they can sidestep their own complicity in racism and poverty. Charters offer only this privatized avenue for parents to escape schools whose issues are largely driven by drug violence, food insecurity and the knock-on effects of inequality. In doing so, they consciously undermine the very institutions whose rise in American society coincided with a consistent rise in living standards for the vast majority - labor unions.
Those who see economic development mainly in terms of profit growth constantly decry unions. These people have undue influence (due to their wealth) on the media and the political machine. Despite all research to the contrary, they manage to convince the public that teachers cause poor education. Or they argue that teachers' earned pensions are somehow breaking our state's economy rather than the irresponsible politicians who forced us to "lend" them our earned retirement monies and then called us irresponsible now that the "loan" has come due (a situation otherwise known as 'theft').
If you want better educational outcomes for children of poverty do the one thing consistently demonstrated to improve their chances - lift them out of poverty.

WAJ / February 2, 2011 3:01 PM

Thank you for stating that "when regression analysis factors the effects of poverty we are top performers". That takes courage from a teachers union member.

And it highlights the nonsensical standard for improvement in education results: more funding for the same system.

You can see here how the total on-budget off-budget, and non-federal funds generated by federal legislation has increased from $18.6 billion to $37.2 billion, in 2009 adjusted-dollars, with no significant increase in test scores. That would not support that a system dominated by teachers unions produces the best product. It actually supports that the ROI of such a system yields less over time. Who invests in negative yield curves besides governments? (What value would a politician recieve to offset such a bad investemnt? Votes? Contributions? Bingo?)

If it was your money, instead of someone else's, the logical thing to do would be to investigate more efficient ways of achivieving the desired outcome. Charter schools represent that investigation.

I agree that poverty is a strong factor in educational performance, with culture being the larger factor. However, if you look at this as a zero sum game, which government budgets really are, then perhaps more of that educational funding could be better utilized on anti-poverty measures. Would you be and the rest of the union be supportive of a policy that shifted existing education funding to anti-poverty measures if it resulted in an increase in educational performance?

Side note - "undermine the very institutions whose rise in American society coincided with a consistent rise in living standards for the vast majority - labor unions." Productivity gains and capital allocation are much better metrics to describe advances in standards of living. For example, tell me how did unionized labor lead to the creation of the computer? The internet? Telephone? You could make a better argument that production gains were often in spite of unionized labor - pneumatic drills, hydraulics, off-shoring, etc...

Nate Goldbaum / February 10, 2011 8:57 AM

I wrote a long response to WAJ but it somehow didn't get added. I'll try to quickly rehash the salient points.
1) Nifty inventions do not mean an increase in the standard of living. Inflation-adjusted wages are a much more appropriate measure (although, clearly the miles of telephone wire and/or cell towers that cross the united states owe a lot to union work). In any case, average inflation-adjusted wages rose during the period of labor's rise. Since the concerted attacks on labor began in the late 70s median inflation-adjusted income has stagnated. Not only are stagnant wages bad for those who earn them, they are bad for new inventions - since they mean less disposable income.
2) The lack of growth in real disposable income has been masked over the past thirty years by an alarming rise in personal debt -- fueled consciously by Fed policy.
3) Your federal funding argument is specious. That federal funding went to all states regardless of whether their teaching force was unionized. Regression analysis of the NAEP (the best test available) show that, if there is any difference in test scores between unionized states and non-unionized states, the advantage goes to unionized states. What's more, almost any teacher will tell you that the federal grants generally went to increased testing or giveaways to big curriculum publishers like Harcourt - rather than to the most useful aid - improving teacher:pupil ratio.
4) Would I trade money for schools in exchange for money to solve poverty? Probably. However, those are mutually reinforcing budget items. Both help to solve these problems. I'd rather see money taken from prison expansion and war, since those are countervailing line items.
5) Charter schools are not an investigation - they are part of a concerted attack on what remains of the labor movement. They are at best a piecemeal solution for a tiny minority of students. They also are mostly NOT BETTER than traditional schools. They also have a significantly higher attrition rate. All the curricular innovation that they are supposed to represent could be accomplished in a traditional school. The only substantive differences are 1) outsourcing of management and 2) denial of contractual rights to employees. That's not innovation, it's just the kind of outsourcing that for decades has been undermining our society.

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