Saturday, August 22, 2009

Public water and charter schools

Do you drink from public water fountains?

I'm guessing that Arne Duncan does not drink from public water fountains. I do (when I can find a working one). And that may be the fundamental difference between Arne and me.

Public fountains are disappearing because the concept of public is disappearing.

Public water fountains are not dangerous (unless cooties are real). Tap water is safe, and the spigots are designed to prevent contamination.

The rise of bottled water here in the States shows how a public institution can be demonized and replaced by a much more expensive privatized solution.

If you can put down the alcohol wipes to look at the numbers, though, you'll learn that tap water is safe, and that the government standards for tap water are higher than the standards required for the commercial stuff.

Charter schools are like bottled water--they're believed to be superior, and their standards are less stringent that their more public counterparts. (Yes, I know that charter schools are part of the public school systems, but they are not public in the sense that they equally accept all students. This difference matters.)

A new report issued today by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes
(CREDO) at Stanford University found that there is a wide variance in the quality of the nation’s several thousand charter schools with, in the aggregate, students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.

Arne called himself a CEO when he oversaw the Chicago Schools; I think he's doing the best he can with his God-given tools (or genome, take your picks), but basketball may be his strongest suit, and even there he was not NBA class. In polite company I'd say he lacks gravitas.

We don't want the CEO of Nestle's running our public water supply for obvious reasons; we should not have to put up with a former "CEO" trying to run our public schools.


John Spencer said...

I drink from the public fountains and go to my public library. My kids play in the local park and will go to our neighborhood school in another year. The only station I listen to is NPR and I'm a big fan of the Charlie Rose Show and America's Test Kitchen on PBS.

A friend of mine told me that public schools and public radio are examples of socialism. Oddly enough, he doesn't seem to mind his socialized highways or his government-subsidized city dump.

My whole family seems to believe that public health care will lead to the slowly digression toward a Stalinist America. (A simple glance at my Facebook will demonstrate this)

While I have mixed feelings on public health care, public access to services is precisely what democracy is all about.

People mistake me when I say I am a "left leaning libertarian." What I mean is I believe in democracy, the local politic, personal freedom and the free access to public resources for all citizens.

Kathryn J said...

That's an interesting analogy. There was a time when people immigrated from all over the world for our public schools. Now people seem to be abandoning them for charter schools.

Re: John Spencer's comment reporting a friend stating that public schools and radio are examples of socialism. Huh? The public commons is an important part of our democratic heritage that pre-dates the founding of this country.

John Spencer said...

I hope I made it clear in my comment that I don't believe that public access to health insurance is the equivalent of communism or socialism. Yet, that's precisely what my family believes. To me, one of the scariest elements of modern conservatism is that it's not conservative at all - not in the sense of preserving the democratic impulse. You're right. One of the oldest American ideals is the notion of common space for shared institutions.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I've glanced at your Facebook--there is some confusion, but understandably so--the misinformation out there is tremendous.

I think we need to stop defining ourselves by tribes in the States. I'm going to post in a day or so about "God Bless America," a wonderful song written by a Russian Jewish immigrant who once ran with gangs, Israel Beilin.

I have no idea what my labeled leanings should be called, and it matters not. What does matter, though, is that I am an American, part of a great experiment that has veered a bit the last few decades. Democracy cannot survive based on a citizenry that bases its choices on emotion alone. Many of us are willfully ignorant.

Dear Kathryn,

I feel our sense of public slipping away--the commons has been misunderstood by the last couple of generations. You are right--it's an old idea, and it's a good one.

Kathryn J said...

@ John - you were clear about your lack of agreement with your family. I don't agree with many in my family about this and they would make similar statements. I guess I really shouldn't be surprised.

cnoocy said...

Where are you getting your information that charter schools don't accept students equally? At least in MA, charter schools are required to accept all students they can, and use a public lottery if the number of applicants exceeds the number of available seats.

John said...

There are charter schools where my family lives, in Philadelphia. Since we can afford to live in an affluent neighborhood, my daughters could have attended a good school that's run by the school district. Instead, we sent them to a charter school which accepts students equally from anywhere in the city. Which of the two is more deserving of the term "public school"?

doyle said...

Dear cnoocy,

Here's what I said:

Yes, I know that charter schools are part of the public school systems, but they are not public in the sense that they equally accept all students. This difference matters.

Charter schools have both selection bias and retention bias. If all students in a district were in the lottery, you'd have a point. But they're not. Only the students whose parents participate in the selection process are eligible. A lot of parents do not apply for a variety of reasons (time, awareness, proximity to school, etc.)

Are charter schools in Massachusetts required to retain all the students that win lottery slots to the same degree that non-charter public schools in your state are? In NJ, students can be kicked out for not following charter school policies, which puts them back into the regular public school, opening a slot in the charter school for a pupil who can meet the charter school's expectations. Regular public schools do not have that luxury.

Dear John,

I again refer to my comments above--there's a selection bias in charter schools. That may be a good reason to send your child to the school. Heck, I could have sent my kids to a fancy private school instead of the local high school in town, but I preferred the democratic mix we had in our public schools.

I'd be interested to know specifically why you chose a charter school over a "good" regular public school.

If charter schools truly took a random mix from across the district, and had the same retention standards held by the regular schools, well, then, you have a good point. I have yet to learn of such conditions holding, though.

Michael said...

All public schools suffer from selection bias, be it positive or negative. Charter schools differ primarily because their selection bias isn't based on on location unlike your typical public school which has a selection bias based on the wealth of the local community.

Anonymous said...

The New South Wales Southern Highlands town of Bundanoon will become the first in Australia to ban the sale of bottled water today.


Brian Moore said...

But to continue the analogy, I assume you still believe that everyone should be allowed to purchase bottled water, if they so choose?

So I will assume you also support allowing families to choose charter schools, and support allowing this option in places that currently do not?

doyle said...

Dear Brian Moore,

It is a regrettable confusion in our culture, but private and public interests have different aims.

Folks want to buy bottled water, fine with me, but that should not interfere with the gummint's responsibility and commitment to safe tap water.

I would not, however, support the idea that public utility dollars may be used to buy private bottled water for select citizens.

Charter schools use public monies. If folks want to send their kids to privates schools on their own dime, so be it. Charter schools are funded by the same limited dollars that regular public schools use.

I've no problem with extending the analogy--just keep the apples with the apples, and the oranges with the oranges.

Anonymous said...

Considering this summary is only two pages long, I find it deplorable you chose to cherry pick the first paragraph.

The summary quickly goes on to say that charter schools performed better in states where there were no caps on charter school growth and when there were fewer approval authorities for charter schools. Also, the report found that the longer students remained in the charter program, the better they performed as compared to their "control" counterparts. This report shows encouraging signs from the charter school program while highlighting some areas that need work (i.e. an easier path for removal of underperforming charter schools).

The good news for charter schools continues:
"The report found several key positive findings regarding the academic performance of students
attending charter schools. For students that are low income, charter schools had a larger and
more positive effect than for similar students in traditional public schools. English Language
Learner students also reported significantly better gains in charter schools, while special
education students showed similar results to their traditional public school peers."

If this is the kind of thorough investigating a traditional public school "science teacher" is imparting on students, I'll be sure my children stay as far away as possible.

Please read past the first paragraph before you subscribe an entire research effort to your needs.

doyle said...

Dear anonymous,

Ah, yes, public discourse with anonymous folks--might even call the practice of anonymity "deplorable" but that would be impolite.

I welcome folks to read the entire report, and I do not dispute that students who stay in charter schools longer do better than those who do not--charter schools have the luxury of removing students that regular public schools must keep.

The thrust of the post was about what it means for something to be public, and the unfortunate deterioration of the concept.

If this is the kind of thorough investigating a traditional public school "science teacher" is imparting on students, I'll be sure my children stay as far away as possible.

I'm not a language arts teacher, so I'll refrain from diagramming that sentence, but I think you're attempting to use "thorough investigating" as the object of the transitive verb "imparting," so I'm not quite sure of your meaning, but I'll try to answer anyway.

This is a blog, not an investigative journal. I cited the source. Unless someone is surreptitiously printing my posts, the few folks who stumble onto my site have internet access. I encourage readers to check the sources. Click. Click. Easily one.

I hope that you raise open-minded children who can think critically, and who lead happy lives. They might teach you something.


Alex Medler said...

Just a point of clarification, a charter school (in any state) that accepts federal funding for its start up is required to use a lottery in its admissions. All charter schools, regardless of whether they receive federal grants, are required to comply with federal civil rights laws, including not discriminating against students on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, or disability, or academic performance. Now getting people to enforce existing laws is never easy, and that's why the state context in which charters operate or how they are authorized (which CREDO points out) makes a big difference.

I myself try to remember to use the new steel water bottle, and fill my kids' camelbacks even when they leak, which helps because we like to walk outside of cities where the cows tend to poop in the water source. But I still recycle too many plastic bottles.

Hopefully we can focus more on hydration and education, and less on the interests of the bottling corporations or the labels on the school buildings.

Alex Medler

doyle said...

Dear Alex Medler,

I assumed (wrongly, I guess) that folks debating the issue of charter schools would already be aware of that. Thanks for the clarification--I might add it to the original post.

My concerns are the self-selected nature of population that enters the lottery, and the different rules governing retention of students once they're in.

And yes, when I'm walking around cow pastures and such (hello, County Kerry), I tote water with me, wrapped in plastic. If Ireland ever puts up water fountains in their public access ways through pastures, I'll abandon the water bottle. (I like the idea of a steel canteen, though--think I might go buy one now.)

Thanks for keeping it civil. It's not the labels I'm worried about.

cnoocy said...

Sorry if I misinterpreted your meaning. "Have both selection bias and retention bias" doesn't seem (to me) to map well to "[don't] equally accept all students" so I thought you were repeating the common misinformation that charter schools select students based on test scores.

I do think that you are overstating the retention bias, though. At least at the charter schools I'm familiar with, it's very difficult for the school to expel a student. What the school can do is hold a student back for not meeting the standards of the school, which may cause the parents to pull their kid. But that's a result of the higher standards that many charter schools impose. Is it a flaw of the public schools that they don't have them?

Eric Raine said...

Interesting post. I am compelled, then to comment. You are right about retention and it's uneven playing field. Sure there are lotteries to allow the "excess" applicants, but the last time I checked my local public school isn't allowed to deny access to anyone because their enrollment was too high.

To make the point clearer though, in some states the charter school funding isn't on a level playing field either. The divisor for teacher-student ratios are unequal and biased. Dividing tax dollars up into smaller portions to support smaller charter schools seems counterproductive in the sole name of providing choice.

I am for choice too; I am, however, opposed to charter schools that divide an already shrinking portion of the budget.

Nice analogy.

Michael said...

Interesting analogy but one that shows just how easy it is to be reductionist about what is a complex issue. As far as my memory serves it wasn't that drinking fountains were somehow seen as tainted that caused the rise of the popularity of bottled water but the fact that many areas tap water were contaminated at the source and many areas have tap water that just plain tastes bad. By analogy, I don't think that Charter schools are being flocked to because they are seen as better than other public schools as far as eduction (although I should say I did send my son to both a regular public school and a charter school and the charter school was by far superior) but in fact are popular because parents have more of a voice in a charter school than in a traditional public school, public schools leave a bad taste in my mouth. Just like bad tap water.

Tauni said...

What a thoughtful entry. I enjoyed reading it very much.

John said...

Your memory fails you, Michael. You can confirm this by trying to track down the public health warnings and reports of cholera outbreaks and widespread fatalities that you think you recall.

What really happened is that you have seen many ads for many brands of bottled water for many years. The fact that you internalized their subtext doesn't make you stupid. Or, at least, no stupider than other consumers. (I certeinly don't exclude myself!)

Anonymous said...

My daughter goes to a charter high school in Oakland, CA where the charter schools do operate with much higher standards than the "regular" high schools. There is also zero tolerance for drugs, fighting, bullying, stealing .. oh I could go on about all the crime on the regular high school campuses. Every child will graduate ready to attend a four year college. They get the same amount per child that the other schools do. The way they explained it was that they just spend it differently. Less administration, less security, more technology, more academic support. Also, because parents/guardians have to buy into the program (sign-up) there is more family participation than any regular high school. I agree that charter schools elsewhere have taken advantage of the lack of supervision by the state school boards, but from where I am in Northern California, I've only seen children benefitting from having a choice in where to go to school.

Glenn said...

The CREDO press release claimed, "States with caps limiting the number of charter schools reported significantly lower academic results than states without caps limiting charter growth." Living in Massachusetts, this didn't sound right to me. If you read the actual CREDO report for Mass., it strongly contradicts this assertion. That may explain why Mass. was not even mentioned in the press release, even though it seems to have received the same thorough statistical review as 15 other states. It doesn't fit the model, so ignore it.

The fact is, Mass. needs to lift its caps on Charter School enrollment for a lot of good reasons, but relative student performance is not one of them. Given the prominence of this dubious statement, it makes me wonder what is going on at CREDO. Much more useful and practical information would come from examining which particular Charter School operators are succeeding, rather than treating the entire industry as a homogeneous product.