During the recent state budget deliberations, Gov. Andrew Cuomo chose to undercut New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — and the will of an overwhelming majority of New York City voters — by significantly expanding the obligation of the city’s and state’s local property owners and existing public schools to financially and materially support charter schools.
De Blasio ran for mayor in part on a commitment to re-evaluate the city’s relationship with the charters and objectively assess their effect on the public school system at large. Cuomo’s move, which is within his purview, effectively eviscerates de Blasio’s ability to act on that commitment.
It is one thing to be a decisive leader, but quite another to so resolutely lead in a wrong direction.
The plain facts are these. Charter schools cannot and will not produce the educational outcomes their proponents promise. Furthermore, in their existing configuration they are damaging, not aiding, the cause of public education in the state.
The state Department of Education’s charter school directory lists 11 such institutions in the Capital Region, nine of them in the Albany City School District, drawing resources from its already beleaguered budget. The other two are in Troy. The state ordered a Schenectady charter school closed in 2008 because of financial mismanagement and poor curriculum planning.
The charter school movement is based primarily on the faulty premise that school choice and competition will improve educational outcomes for students. The facts in evidence already say otherwise.
The most recent, comprehensive and authoritative study to date, Stanford University’s National Charter School Study 2013 conducted by its respected Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, found that while charter schools are improving, overall they manifest the same problems, challenges and success and failure rates experienced by traditional public schools.
Stanford’s research echoes a string of other studies reaching similar conclusions. It also asserts that much of the measured improvement cited results from the closure of underperforming charter schools, thereby raising their collective average. (However, the study says nothing about the disruptive effect that such closures are bound to have on the individual students so affected.)
These results are further underlined in “Who’s Afraid of a Public School?,” a Per Capita research paper on public perceptions of education in Australia, that has important implications for education policy in New York, especially as it relates to public and private education.
At present, 10 percent of American students attend private schools. In Australia, the figure is 36 percent and proponents of charter schools in the U.S. clearly aspire to grow in this direction.
Yet, in addition to yielding the same results as public schools overall, private schools in Australia have inadvertently increased segregation levels primarily because parents choose schools for their children with similar characteristics in terms of ethnicity, religious belief and socio-economic status.
All this is not to denigrate private schooling, which has long been an important component of American education. Nor is it to deny the good intentions behind efforts to provide low-income families with a choice, an alternative already available to students with a higher socio-economic status.
Choice not working
Unfortunately, choice has proven to be far less important than advertised. To quote Per Capita, “The free market is good at many things . . . However, free market competition does not work when it comes to education . . . This is because the education system does not operate as a ‘pure’ market in the economic sense . . . Many factors inform the schooling choice of parents, including affordability, proximity to the family home, the school’s facilities or its religious status. None of these choice factors can be changed through government policy or intervention in the ‘market’. Most of the time, schools . . . are simply not competing on performance . . . The theory that more competition will inevitably improve education outcomes is not justified by the evidence.”
In other words, educating is a cooperative, not a competitive, process. Again, from Per Capita, “Great public schools require a collective effort. And the problem for parents at the moment is that society is not exactly pushing them towards such public spiritedness.”
Neither, unfortunately, is government. While the state allocates a major portion of its budget for education, its priorities within that rubric are badly misaligned. Its own failures and misconceptions are major reasons that our public school systems are in crisis.
The two factors that weigh the most in the drive for higher educational quality and successful student outcomes are money (Yes, sorry — money) and parental support. Performance improves with socio-economic status and higher resource levels, as well as in proportion to parental commitment and engagement.
There are many worthy, well-considered solutions to the dilemmas confronting our public education system that center on these two key elements.
However, few if any of them will be implemented, let alone given a trial, if the state insists on relying on the grossly inequitable property tax as the principal source for financing its schools, continues to refuse to comply with more than two decades of high court decisions mandating equitable funding for all school districts, concocts more ways — such as Start-Up NY — to reduce the local tax base and insists on saddling local districts with supporting a duplicative, parallel school system that cannot reach its objectives.
The public education system serves as an essential underpinning of our society. In New York, an immigrant state that truly exemplifies the image of the “melting pot,” public schools provide a common foundational social and educational experience for all regardless of ethnic, cultural or economic background.
Public schooling also exposes each student to a variety of those backgrounds, turning the initially strange into the more familiar, fostering the social cohesion and mutual understanding essential to building and maintaining a strong, vibrant and mutually supportive social order.
It turns out that it does, indeed, take a village. Balkanizing and separating elements of that community on the thin basis of an ideological theory only weakens efforts to improve public education and educational outcomes. Every person for him- or herself is not a recipe for success in education.
New York state needs to re-evaluate its unqualified support for charter schools in their present form. So does Gov. Cuomo.
John A. Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.