Charter School-Prison Comparison Misses the Mark

Analyzing recent attacks on school choice

This year’s back-to-school season has brought out more than the usual share of anti-charter hostility — with local critics seeking to amplify national voices.

On his HBO show, comedian John Oliver skewered charter schools with 18 minutes of uninformed and outdated (but otherwise funny) satire. The NAACP has called for a moratorium on new charters, which has provoked a bewildered backlash from many who see the benefits they have provided for children of color.

Playing a similar tune, the chair of Michigan State University’s music education department last week unleashed an off-key analogy: “As with the private prison scenario, the explosion of charter schools in the last decade has created parallel school systems — both allegedly public, but fighting for limited resources, and competing on an uneven playing field.”

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Mitchell Robinson said the charter “experiment” should come to an end, ignoring the fact that most studies find these independent public schools have a positive or, at worst, neutral effect on the public education system. It isn’t clear whether he wants to shut down charter schools, which would directly harm millions of students, or simply take them over and roll back the clock on a popular and beneficial education reform.

In the end, his blog piece reveals more about the defects of anti-charter ideology than about the nature of charters themselves. He offers a series of unsubstantiated generalizations of charter schools as joyless testing centers staffed by unqualified script readers. In so doing, he ironically attempts to squeeze families’ educational alternatives into a standardized mold.

Robinson errs in equating bureaucratic oversight with school quality. Michigan charters operate under nearly as many regulations as other public schools, and have been held to stricter account for performance. Given Robinson’s bleak description of charter school conditions, one might be surprised to find that the best available research shows Michigan charters on average provide students with an additional two to three months of learning each year. Further, his claim that charter schools have higher student suspension rates fails the test.

His entire assessment is colored by a major omission — namely, that parents actively choose to enroll their children in charter schools. These schools exist because families seek safer, better options or environments more suited to their needs. Thus, charter schools are more directly accountable to students and parents. That’s easy to overlook when the goal is to claim that charters are not “locally managed and controlled.”

Perhaps Robinson should talk to charter parents in Detroit, like LaTanya Dorsey, who found “a great environment to learn” for her daughter, or Toya Putnam, who was glad for a charter option that offered a “better curriculum.” Detroit mom Lisa Cobb would disagree with the professor, based on personal experience, that charters don’t offer students opportunities in music and fine arts.

Detroit charters like the ones these parents have chosen receive on average a little more than half the total per-pupil funding collected by the old district system. Is that the uneven playing field Robinson laments?

School choice supporters should be encouraged by recent attacks like Robinson’s, attacks rooted more in frustration than in fact. They reveal that educational freedom cannot easily be stuffed back in the box. The opposition’s overheated anti-charter rhetoric and attacks should be viewed as a sign that the movement has taken hold and is moving in the right direction to help more and more kids succeed.


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