In the wake of the Hoxby et al report on the effectiveness of NYC charter schools, quite a few people seem to be jumping on the charter expansion bandwagon. Andy Smarick, calls Bloomberg's plan to expand the number of charter schools "fantastic." The NY Daily News prods the state Education Commissioner to create more of these "roaringly successful" schools. And the NY Post, in their article praising the report, asks "only one question left: Will Albany let more of these better schools open?"
But I can't help but wonder if this is the appropriate response. In the words of Lee Corso, I'd like to say "not so fast, my friends."
When you were a kid, did you ever wish you could eat pizza (or ice cream, or whatever your favorite food was?) as every meal? You really, really loved it when you had pizza instead of broccoli or whatever boring food you had with most meals. And you were absolutely convinced that the world would be a better place if only you could have pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.
But now that you're grown up, you know that that's silly. For a while, you'd be living the high life. Maybe you'd love every piece of pizza you had for a week or two, but eventually, you'd get sick of it (and probably literally get sick too).
And I wonder if a similar issue doesn't exist with charter schools. For a second, let's assume that the report is right: that NYC charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools in NYC. The appropriate reaction to that is not "quick, build more charter schools" it is "I wonder if that will still be true if we build more charter schools." Maybe it's my research training speaking, but I fail to understand those who cheer on policies before they're proven to work. If we truly want what's best for our children and our society, we should be agnostic about which policy is best at the beginning of an experiment.
Unproductive cheerleading aside, I really do wonder what the optimum number of charter schools is. Right now, I think there are around 80 charter schools and 1,000 traditional public schools in NYC. There's some evidence that the former are doing better than the latter. But will that be true if we have 400 charter schools and 800 others? or 2,000 charter schools and 0 others (charter schools tend to be smaller, which is why the total number of schools keeps climbing in these hypotheticals)? We can make some guesses, but nobody actually knows. I can be convinced that it's worth exploring, but I cannot be convinced that doing as such will automatically yield spectacular results. Here's why:
Scaling up is tricky. Just like it's easier to cook a good meal for two than it is for 200, I wonder whether it's easier to create good charter schools for 5% of the population than it is for 50%. Since charter schools are, for the most part anyway, highly decentralized this might be less of an issue -- if each one is self-contained, there aren't as many scale-up issues. But, as I've argued before, one crucial aspect of the charter school model is that low-performing schools are quickly closed in order to make way for better ones. And I wonder if this will be harder to monitor with 800 charters than 80.
Talent and funds are not unlimited. Many of the most successful charter schools have received an enormous amount of philanthropical funding. This may or may not be instrumental to their success, but I think they'd all agree that the talent they're able to attract is. Charitable donations may or may not expand at the same rate that charter schools do, but I'd think it's extremely unlikely that the number of talented, hard-working people willing to dedicate themselves to working long hours for middling pay at a charter school likely is. KIPP and other schools run nationwide searchers and rely heavily on Teach for America alums. Well, TFA only accepts a few thousand people each year and only some fraction of those people will be willing to spend years three through ?? at a charter school. How many more talented, dedicated, sacrificing people are out there? I really have no idea. There certainly aren't enough to staff the million plus schools in the country if we want the same level of talent/qualifications (and have the same level of turnover) that we do at the most famous charter chains, but I suppose it's possible that there are enough to staff more charters in NYC. How many more? I guess we'll have to wait and see.
Not all charters are created equal. The charter report draws a distribution of the effects on test scores of all the charter schools in NYC. Some do worse than traditional public schools, some do the same, and some do better. Which type will we create if we expand the number of charter schools? If funds and talent run out, two things could happen: 1.) we could create middling, or even poor, schools; and/or 2.) we could dilute talent and funds and currently successful schools -- ultimately hurting the children of NYC. It's certainly possible that distribution of charter success will be the same if we double the number of charter schools -- in other words, the new schools we create might be the same as the ones we have currently -- but I see no reason to be sure of this. It seems equally plausible that the new schools we create will fail to live up to the hope we have for them.
It seems almost certain that the number of charters in NYC will continue to grow. And I, for one, am not going to pretend to know how that will pan out. But I eagerly await the results.