Charters Branch Out: Do Moves Into Affluent Areas Signal an Important Trend?
by Jeffrey Henig
Twenty years ago, in the early days of the charter school movement, the hot controversy was “creaming.” Critics worried that charters would target more advantaged suburban populations, skimming off the students most likely to succeed and leaving traditional public schools in low-income and minority neighborhoods even more isolated, underfunded, and burdened with the toughest student cases.
That concern began to ebb, however, as theoretical notions about school choice and market-based competition were replaced by information about real schools in real places. Charters were not shying away from central cities. Black and Hispanic enrollments were often higher than in nearby district schools. In the suburbs, meanwhile, parents rallied around traditional public schools and used their political clout to keep charters at bay.
Now, however, the old concerns have reemerged—and so, it seems, has the controversy.
Some of the most animated discussions about charters today are occurring in suburbs or gentrifying urban neighborhoods. Proposals are being put forth for small, niche-oriented charters that appeal to affluent parents. Although some have been held at bay, the tide may be turning. In Maplewood, New Jersey, suburban parents derailed, at least temporarily, a proposed charter school that would have offered instruction in Mandarin. In nearby Montclair, New Jersey, a charter school is making its fifth stab at approval. “Even in healthy districts, there is room for improvement, and perhaps healthy competition could be beneficial,” a supporter of the Maplewood charter told the local paper. Yet, as the same local paper reported, proposals for “boutique” schools “spark resentment from parents who say the specialty schools will drain dwindling public funds from well-functioning school districts.”
Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the most affluent school districts in the United States and considered a model for its simultaneous pursuit of equity and excellence, approved its first charter school in July 2011, but the sledding is still rough for those trying to open a second charter school. Supporters of the proposed Global Garden Public Charter School argued that the school, with an emphasis on foreign languages, would be ethnically and economically diverse. “It was going to be like a 21st-century Norman Rockwell painting,” one supporter proclaimed. The school board denied the charter bid twice in two years.
In other prominent cases, charters have cracked the political barrier, although controversy remains. In New York City, the Harlem-based Success Academy Charter Schools, headed by former city council member Eva Moskowitz, attracted opposition when it opened charter schools in affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “When charters open in their own privately financed, state-of-the-art buildings in poverty-stricken neighborhoods where they’re welcomed by the community, there may be reasons to celebrate,” one parent wrote in the New York Times. “But when charters co-locate in mixed-income areas, choice is only half the story. The existing schools in which they set up shop suffer both in terms of resources…and morale.”
In Silicon Valley, Bullis Charter School gives an admissions advantage to parts of Los Altos Hills, where the median household income is $219,000, and asks families to donate $5,000 per child each year. Bullis, one expert told a reporter from Bloomberg News, “could bring a whole new level of inequality to public education.”
Both critics and proponents of charter schools might say they saw this trend coming—but for different reasons. To opponents, charter schooling has always been about privatization and market forces, which opponents believe induces providers to cater to consumers who can pay more, who are less costly to serve, or whose status helps to expand the market. The only reason that did not happen earlier, opponents would say, was because legislative provisions and charter authorizers favored proposals targeted to high-need populations. Charter funders figured they could assuage concerns about resegregation and expand political support by concentrating initially on minority neighborhoods.
As the charter movement unfolds, this narrative would continue, its true stripes are revealed as it responds supply and demand rather than societal need. But it also reflects the political leverage private businesses exercise in a mixed public-private arena, where lobbying for favorable laws and regulations can help the bottom line as much as directly maximizing consumer satisfaction does. The true nature of market forces shows up as smaller charters are muscled out by large networks, whose business models require that they expand enrollment, favor locations with more generous public per-pupil reimbursements, and reduce exposure to expenses associated with working in distressed areas, such as a greater concentration of high-need students and high insurance costs. Drawing in more affluent families also makes test scores look good and provides a more reliable and muscular political constituency. As the charter community expands to include more affluent families, charter critics predict that charters also will shift their emphasis away from helping those most in need to maximizing the freedom of choice for all families, including a large middle class. And with that will come political efforts to shave down legislative provisions meant to protect lower-income families, such as requirements that schools use lotteries for admissions and prohibitions on tuition charges greater than the publicly funded allotment.
For charter proponents, the “I told you so” interpretation takes the following form: From the outset, charter schooling has been fueled by the failures of a government-run system characterized by special-interest politics and monopolistic indifference to quality and cost. What we are seeing now is proof that the appeal of charter schools is universal. Suburban and affluent urban parents initially were wary. Their zoned public schools enjoyed decent reputations based on solid test scores and high graduation rates. Even if the actual performance of those schools was mediocre, parents were reluctant to admit that the emperor was wearing no clothes; a school’s good reputation got their kids into prestigious colleges and kept property values high.
Now, many affluent families have grown disappointed with bland school offerings and pressure generated from adequate yearly progress to narrow the curriculum, concentrate on “bubble kids,” and expand test preparation. Charter schools, formerly an untested notion, have become more familiar and represent for these families the chance to recover the kind of parent-centered local control that they remember as being integral to happy schooling experiences before the No Child Left Behind Act. The fact that charters are beginning to penetrate these markets, supporters might say, proves that the movement can serve as a pathway to broad restructuring of the American education system—no longer a mere bandage and competitive spur but instead the ultimate replacement of an obsolete system.
Both sides, however, should tamp down the temptation to bang these drums. At this point, the movement of charters into more affluent areas is registered more by anecdote than evidence. We need more and better research to determine not only the scope of the phenomenon but also its pattern and correlates. Is the exploration of new markets more prominent where traditional public school systems have been resistant to change or where they have begun to incorporate charters into more diverse portfolio systems? Is it associated with tight or lax authorizer oversight? Can charter pioneers deliver the education that more affluent families expect? What is the power of affluent parents who continue to see charters as a threat to the traditional public schools they have nurtured?
Holding fire until questions such as these have better answers might save advocates on both sides from political stumbles. Rather than insist that charters inevitably promote unequal outcomes, for example, charter-wary progressives may come to believe that they might actually foster stable and diverse communities, as some have proposed. Rather than declare that charters are a universal solution, proponents might see that moving into affluent communities deflates the moral high ground they have used to political advantage in their characterization of charters as part of the new civil rights movement.
And for those who do not sit firmly on either side of the charter debate—such as those curious about the possibilities for pragmatic solutions that might make public education more responsive while maximizing social well-being—waiting for more and better research also makes sense. After all, it is always a good idea to know what you are dealing with before you lock yourself into a rigid stance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeffrey R. Henig is a professor of political science and education at Teachers College at Columbia University and a professor of political science at Columbia University. He is the author or the coauthor of 10 books, including The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics and the Challenge of Urban Education (Princeton, 1999) and Building Civic Capacity: The Politics of Reforming Urban Schools (University Press of Kansas, 2001), both of which were named—in 1999 and 2001, respectively—the best book written on urban politics by the Urban Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. Spin Cycle: How Research Gets Used in Policy Debates: The Case of Charter Schools (Russell Sage Foundation, 2008) focuses on the controversy surrounding the charter school study by the American Federation of Teachers and its implications for understanding politics, politicization, and the use of research to inform public discourse; it won the American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Book Award in 2010. Harvard Education Press published his most recent book, The End of Exceptionalism in American Education,in January 2013.