“Waiting for Superman”: in moderate defense of charters

You’ve probably heard about the much hyped documentary, “Waiting for Superman.”  If you haven’t, go read the synopsis. It’s basically about how terrible U.S. public schools are, how the teachers’ unions block meaningful reforms, and how charter schools are the answer. I had the chance to view WFS last week before its release, courtesy of Teachers College. When I said on Twitter that WFS is a tearjerker, I wasn’t kidding. I was crying by the end – it’s not a huge spoiler to say that some of the students we meet in the documentary do not win places in a charter school. Watching these children and their families’ hopes and dreams be dashed with the random selection of a lottery ball is simply heartbreaking.

WFS is unapologetically pro-charter schools, and alot of people have a problem with this (including members of the faculty panel that was held after the showing). Caution and skepticism are warranted when it comes to charters – studies regarding their quality are inconclusive, and having a blind faith in any policy is unwise. But there are a few superficial objections to charters that I wanted to address here.

1. “Charter schools were not intended to serve as a major education reform. Rather, they were supposed to be testing grounds for reforms to be implemented in public schools, or to serve student populations with special needs.”

This is probably true. But, in short, who cares? Whoever thought up charters doesn’t have special authority over their implementation for the rest of time. Figuring out the proper place of charters in our education system requires looking at the actual merits of the cases for and against them. If the reasons for which charter schools were originally intended to have such a limited role still hold, then fine. If there is now good reason to use them in a different way, then fine. The intent of charter school pioneers is irrelevant.

2. “Only 2% of this country’s students are served by charters! We must focus on the public schools that the majority attend.”

Well, more students would attend charter schools if there were not so many arbitrary caps placed on the number of them allowed. That’s the whole point of the movie. This objection expresses serious status quo bias, and little else.

3. “Some/many charter schools are worse than public schools!”

This is true. Having charter status doesn’t automagically make a school excellent. It may be difficult for a parent to tell whether the public school that her child will potentially attend is better or worse than a particular charter school. But this is just the reality of the situation: schools of all kinds (public, private, charter) differ in quality – and will continue to do so, despite our best efforts to equalize them. While it’s sad to think that a parent might send her child to a worse (charter) school than he otherwise would have attended, that parent’s decision is not irrational. The expected payoff of the charter school, an admittedly unknown quantity, may be higher than that of the known but unimpressive quantity of the public school. In any case, we allow parents to send their children to less than the best schools in other contexts: by choosing a private school, or by moving to an area with not excellent schools. And it’s not as if the politicians have clean hands, they who allow millions of children to languish in bad schools every day, when it is allegedly in their power to change that. If the charter debate turned away from the sanctity of public education and towards empirical studies of charter vs. public schools, then parents could actually figure out which schools to avoid. And isn’t that what everyone wants: students staying out of bad schools, whichever they are?

None of this is to say that charters are an education panacea. But there are much better objections than these.


  • Thanks for this, Pam. I think you’re spot-on. To that third objection, you’re right – it is unsurprising that charter schools, like public schools, vary in success. Some are much better than others, some much worse. But the benefit of this disparity is that we can then actually look at what works in stellar charter schools and reform other schools based on those elements of success. Charter schools are like little experiments in education. Why not use the results for the benefit of all?

  • Another key element to add to your last point is the potential of the charter authorizing mechanism.

    Charter schools are granted an actual charter document which is not an indefinite right to operate– they expire after a term, typically between 5-7 years. If we ever build strong, functional charter authorizers (this work is happening in a few select places right now), then the worst schools will be closed after their brief experimentation.

    The question then becomes, “Is it reasonable to assume we can identify low performing schools and close them, only to be replaced by a school of random quality?” Because the truth is, if we can identify low performers and we do have a potentially large supply waiting to run charter schools, then our expectation will be higher than the average traditional public school or charter school today.

    Charters are built as a market-based reform– why are we so eager to give up choice and positive churn as a mechanism for improvement because parents tend to make decisions based on qualities other than our working definition of school quality? There is another market here that’s actually supported by the caps which create a false scarcity which can be exploited to increase overall quality through churn.

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