Millot: Where I'm Headed With These Series On Abuse in the Charter Market
Markets don’t work very well for society if participants can’t trust the information provided by research, sellers are prepared to bend and then break the law in pursuit of their business plans, buyers lack the capacity or motivation to pursue quality outcomes, regulators can’t be expected to base decisions on objective facts, and the people managing the hundreds or thousands of market actors don’t take their duty of loyalty seriously. Public markets, funded by the taxpayer and even more reliant on good faith and transparency, work even less well.
The market for public charter schools isn't working well enough to scale.
Most people, most firms, most institutions in the charter market are not bad actors. They may not succeed as well as we would like, but they are trying to balance their own interests with those of students, teachers, taxpayers and society. Most people - yes, even most in the for-profit sector - lean towards students.
This is good, but not good enough. The financial crisis taught us that if bad actors are tolerated too long, they gain a competitive edge that forces everyone else to follow suit, creating an ethical race to the bottom that will eventually, inevitably destroy the market. There are reasons to believe the highly fragmented “national” charter market is poised to follow suit.
Over the last several months, I've used academic fraud at think tank Education Sector and CMO Imagine's disregard for the statutory independence of charter schools to draw attention to serious shortcomings in the charter market's research and provider sectors. Monday, I'll begin to analyze how political pressure from Massachusetts' Secretary of Education led its Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to see that a charter was approved by a state board "in violation of the provisions of law, regulation, and procedure.... never validly awarded and should be deemed void ab initio."
Examples of gross abuse draw attention to a broader case for reform of the public charter school market. Examples drawn from the market's best-known institutions compel attention. I've relied on the "smoking guns" unearthed by investigative journalism because they provide the general public with unambiguous evidence of more widespread activities that those close to the market know to be true but can't "prove in court." The Education Sector series relied on the original draft of a report the "think tank" failed to suppress. The Imagine series was based on a memorandum to key executives written by the Charter Management Organization's CEO. The Massachusetts series proceeds from an impolitic email.
Reporting - actually a tiny handful of very local reporters - has become a substitute for the monitoring we expect from government. Solid local reporting has uncovered stories on the market's buyers and managers, and I plan to examine the best. National education reporters need to take their country cousins seriously; stop drinking the kool-aid the new philanthropy offers in Washington and on the conference scene; stop giving its quality, scale and sustainability assertions the benefit of the doubt; and get every bit as assertive with its leaders, offspring and alumni as they are with "the blob."
Charter schools hold great promise, but a vast expansion is premature. The culture, capacity, infrastructure and regulatory environment of this market are not ready to bear the burdens of scale implied by the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant program. As a strong advocate for independent charter schools - and really whatever can be proved to work or even to have promise of working, I fear that pushing an option that is not ready for prime time will doom the charter movement to the margins. At this point we have to choose between quality and scale - and I choose to work on quality. The Department of Education’s leadership has placed the cart well ahead of the horse. My "series of series" is intended to make that case.