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The Free Market Isn't Very Good at Running Schools

As parents and students in Chicago have discovered, closing public schools in favor of charter schools isn't solving educational woes.
Photo by Noah Vaughn

For years, reformers from Bill Gates to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have been promoting charter schools as a solution to the nation's failing public school system. But last week in the Windy City, the latest in-depth study confirmed what other careful studies have shown: charter schools do not, on the whole, perform better than traditional public schools. This has been the case in communities across the country — and yet charter schools have been expanding at a rapid pace, in some cases destabilizing public schools.


Why don't charter schools do better? They do, after all, have a host of advantages over public schools. They've been found to enroll a lower proportion of English learners and special education students.

Many have also shown high levels of attrition, meaning the graduating class has lost many students that started several years prior. The students who leave the charter schools may do so for academic or disciplinary reasons, which means these "problem" students often wind up back in the public schools.

Charters are supposed to be better because few are burdened with teacher unions, and because they compete with both one another and with public schools — and as we know from the fast-food industry, competition always means better quality. So the market-driven logic is clear: close down the lowest-performing schools, whether they be charter or public, and close them down fast.

But the drive to close public schools has not served students, teachers, or communities well.

We are teachers with experience in Oakland and Chicago, and our years in the classroom gave us a bottom-up perspective on education reform. We have seen market-driven logic lead to chaos in schools and neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, as schools that have served generations have been closed on short notice. And it's time more basic questions are asked about the ability of market-based competition to improve school quality.


Chicago's "Last Chance High," Episode 1. Watch it here.

When quality is measured by test scores, schools become focused on test preparation. As teachers, we have seen how this robs our classrooms of vitality and curiosity. Rather than developing and investigating their own questions, students are instead tasked with trying to memorize answers for questions that will be on a test.

This has reached a fever pitch in Chicago, where more than 150 schools out of 681 have been closed, with the closings often justified by comparing test scores. These closings have created turmoil in neighborhoods and forced students to cross gang lines, leading to increased tension and violence. To close a school or fire its experienced staff amid outbreaks of violence is like disabling the airbags from a car right before an accident; it is taking away vital, potentially lifesaving supports when they are needed most.

At some Chicago schools, like Gage Park High School and Julian High School, we had very strong staffs, inspiring students, and communities eager to help. We built world-class programs that took students' sincere passion to end community violence and improve their neighborhoods and turned it into wonderful activism and strong academics.

But both of those schools were dismantled and destroyed. The story of Chicago is not the failure of educational systems, educators, students, or a city. It's the story of communities having the rug pulled out from under them again and again.


Studies of past Chicago school closings show five things. One: closings increased violence among students. Two: students almost categorically were pushed into lower- or equally low–performing schools. Three: closings disproportionately impacted homeless students. Four: schools were closed despite near-unanimous parent opposition/). Five: closings often resulted in the district “losing track” of students permanently.

We do not want to shut down underperforming charter schools, even though fairness would seem to demand that they suffer the same fate as public schools in similar circumstances.

Conversely, neighborhood schools led by local school councils (LSCs) — elected committees of parents, teachers, and others in the community — show extremely positive results, despite a long-term campaign by Chicago Public Schools governance against LSCs and the schools they serve.

Similar data reflect an inability of outsiders to improve schools significantly through turnaround — a process in which outside teachers and administrators are brought into a new school, replacing existing ones — with all turnaround schools languishing below average in the district after firing more than 90 percent of their staff.

School closings and turnarounds have been a victory only for those who want to privatize schools. They have destabilized communities and injured students. More than that, they have diverted funds, support, and momentum away from what had been the most democratic school governance system in the country — one that was showing encouraging signs for students.

We do not want to shut down underperforming charter schools, even though fairness would seem to demand that they suffer the same fate as public schools in similar circumstances. We know from the research done by Designs for Change that public schools are capable of doing an excellent job of serving their students. These schools have some significant advantages over charters that make them better places to learn, better places to teach, and better for the community as a whole.

As teachers, we know that when teachers and students are supported and have strong ties to their community, wonderful things happen. Our public schools are suffering from a lack of support, not an absence of competition.

Anthony Cody taught and worked in Oakland schools for 24 years, and Xian Barrett taught in Chicago Public Schools for six.

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