How satisfied should education reformers and charter enthusiasts be when studies show charter students outperforming those in the local district schools? Sure, it’s a lot better than underperforming, and yes, it’s a fine thing for the girls and boys who benefit from this value-add (as well as from the safety, variety, intimacy, family engagement, and other pluses that typically accompany charter school attendance). But observe what a low achievement bar this kind of comparison generally sets. The “virtual-twin” district school that is generally the basis for comparison is usually a miserable excuse for an educational institution, and the kids who shifted into the charter school had ample reason to want out. Their parents had ample reason to want better opportunities for their children. But is “better than” good enough at a time when college and career readiness is the goal of the larger K–12 enterprise and when preparation for international competitiveness is the country’s education target? Would you be satisfied with your golf score if it were a few points lower than someone who shoots 100? Would you be satisfied with your weight loss if you were now at 300 pounds compared with the other guy’s 320? Would you be pleased with your child’s medical outlook if his doctor bungled fewer cases than the next one but was still on the verge of malpractice? I think not. Let's understand that charter schools, too, need to produce strong educational
Relinquishment is based on three principles: (1) educators should operate schools, (2) families should choose amongst these schools, and (3) government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.
Outside of these three principles, I hold few ironclad beliefs on education. Yet in conversation, I find that others attribute principles to Relinquishment that I don’t hold. This probably stems from a lack of clear communication on my part, so let me provide additional clarity:
Relinquishment is not anti-union
Relinquishment is a reaction against management, not labor. Admittedly, I disagree with certain policies put forth by unions and their members, but individuals should possess the right to collectively bargain with their employers. Relinquishment only posits that the government should not be a party to the bargain; rather, the bargaining parties should be union and school operator. From here, results will dictate the future of unions. If unionized schools thrive, unions themselves will also thrive. I do understand that, from an organizing standpoint, unionizing decentralized charter schools will be more difficult than signing a singular collective bargaining contract with the district—but I do not believe this issue should trump the more salient issue of academic performance.
Relinquishment assumes equity in access is not the natural state of school systems
People concerned about ensuring that all public school students have equitable access to great schools often suggest that the best solution is to (1) force all kids into one system and (2) have that one operator allocate students
Mike is usually the “glass-half-full” guy around Fordham, while I'm Gloomy Gus. On the matter of parent triggers, however, our roles seem to have reversed. He doesn't think the parent-trigger mechanism will amount to much—and comes mighty close to suggesting that we might as well therefore give up on it. He puts his faith instead in what he calls “school choice,” by which he means more charters, more vouchers, more digital options, etc.
Of course we should have more of all of those—provided they're accompanied by suitable quality control and customer-information strategies. But why so bleak about parent triggers? Well, Mike explains, they'll get tangled up in lawsuits—but so does every single one of his preferred options; just this month, for example, the Louisiana supreme court struck down the Bayou State's new voucher program. Charters get litigated everywhere. So do virtual schools.
Then he says the parent trigger is really a school-turnaround strategy and turnarounds seldom succeed in turning bad schools into good ones. He might try telling that to Arne Duncan, to Congress, and to a throng of states and districts—and philanthropists and nonprofit and for-profit groups—that, for better or worse, have placed enormous hope and many resources
It’s hard not to sympathize with the impulse behind the parent trigger. Here’s a mechanism that empowers disadvantaged parents to force speedy and transformative change on schools long considered dysfunctional. It upends the stasis that pervades so many urban districts: the veto power that teachers unions and other adult interests hold over all decisions; the culture of low expectations that blames social factors (and the parents themselves) for poor student achievement; the slow pace of reform that subjects yet another generation of students to failure while the system struggles to get its act together.
For these reasons and more, it’s worth experimenting with the parent trigger. But I strongly suspect that the experiment will fall flat, at least most of the time and at least when it comes to turning around failing schools and/or forcing significant reform on the part of failing school districts. Three factors come into play here. First, the parent trigger mechanism itself will continue to get bogged down in lawsuits and other blocking tactics, as has been the case to date. Second, if and when the trigger gets pulled, the resulting school turnarounds won’t generally amount to
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
May 16, 2013
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