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(Update: Adding a response from Ravitch/Burris)

I recently published a post by Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris titled “Why It Matters Who Governs America’s Public Schools,” which took issue with some parts of a new report — “The Tapestry of American Public Education: How Can We Create a System of Schools Worth Choosing for All?” — released by a California think tank founded by education expert Linda Darling-Hammond. This post is a response from Darling-Hammond and colleagues to that piece.

Ravitch, Darling-Hammond and Burris are three of the most prominent voices in the national education debate about how to create equitable schools in this country and more often than not agree with one another. This piece and the earlier one reveal a split in the way they view school choice.

Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, is an education historian and advocate who for years was seen as the titular leader of the grass-roots movement against corporate school reform. Burris is a former award-winning high school principal in New York. Both women are leaders of the nonprofit advocacy group the Network for Public Education.

Ravitch and Burris oppose the expansion of alternatives to publicly funded and publicly operated schools and districts, including charter schools, which are privately operated but funded with taxpayer dollars. Their piece criticized the new report for, among other things, failing to take a strong stand on the expansion of charter schools.

Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher preparation and equity, founded the Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at Stanford University, where she is professor emeritus, and is founder and president of the California-based Learning Policy Institute. The nonprofit think tank was created to conduct independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice, and it was the institute that released the report.

As the post below explains, the report looks at the issue of school choice in a different way than many of the debates on the subject, and in contrast to Ravitch and Burris. You can read their initial piece here. After the following post is a response from them.

By Linda Darling-Hammond, Peter Cookson, Bob Rothman and Patrick Shields

Last week, the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) released a report, “The Tapestry of American Public Education: How Can We Create a System of Schools Worth Choosing for All?” that takes up the issues of choice in public education from a different perspective from the one that has been driving debates since the election of President Trump.

Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have made “choice” their central education policy — defining it primarily as vouchers and tax credits for private schools and funding for charter schools, which include for-profit as well as nonprofit entities. DeVos has actually been a shareholder in K12 Inc., one of the largest for-profit charter chains, and was substantially responsible for designing charter policies in Michigan, where 79 percent of all charters are for-profit.

Yet, as we point out in our report, the vast majority of schools of choice in the United States are operated by public school districts which have used open enrollment plans (found in 25 states), magnet schools (found in 34 states), theme schools (think of the New York City school that long-ago inspired the TV series “Fame”), and other innovative models long before charters were invented.

These choice plans have been used to support desegregation, to create options that meet student needs and interests, and to improve student success. Furthermore, of the 37 percent of public school parents who report they have public school options available to them, three quarters select their neighborhood public school as their first choice — a critical option in and of itself.

Of these families, which represent 18 million students, only about 2.7 million choose charter schools. About the same number (2.6 million) choose magnet schools run by their own or other nearby school districts, and the remainder choose inter-district transfers — often designed to promote integration — or live in districts that have made all of their district-run schools open to choice. Districts such as Cambridge, Mass.; New York City; San Francisco; and many others allow parents to choose among schools in controlled choice plans that also seek to support integration and ongoing school improvement.

These districts and others have developed a tapestry of choices that provide school models such as math and science academies, career academies in fields ranging from health sciences to the arts, schools focused on community service and social justice, international schools focused on global issues and world languages, and schools designed for new English learners. Districts developing choices have sometimes brought long-standing internationally known models of education, such as Montessori, Waldorf and International Baccalaureate programs, into their schools.

Networks of schools with distinctive designs, such as New Tech High schools, Expeditionary Learning schools, and Internationals High Schools work with many districts across multiple states to support options that serve their students. Many of these distinctive school models have been found to support stronger achievement for students. Magnet schools that are designed to enhance integration have also been found to have positive effects on achievement, graduation rates, student motivation and satisfaction with school.

Thus, choice and innovation are not concepts unique to private providers of education, but are and have been part of healthy public school systems for many decades. However, the outcomes of choice depend on how it is designed. Districts must struggle with how to provide successful schools for all students; how to ensure that choices do not lead to winners and losers; and how to ensure that choices do not lead to greater segregation of students by race, ethnicity, economic background or measured abilities.

The major point in our recent report is that, while we all like choices, choice in education should not be an end in and of itself, but a means to a set of ends that are important in a democratic society: a quality education for every child, access for all children to excellent schools that meet their needs and settings that foster the integration of our diverse country. Useful systems of choice should improve student learning opportunities, strengthen educational attainment and prepare young people for their civic roles in a democracy.

The fact that choice does not guarantee quality should be clear each time we flick through hundreds of cable TV channels without finding a single good viewing option. In public education, this kind of choice is not an acceptable outcome. It is clear from our research that choice alone is no magic bullet. Simply creating options does not automatically result in greater access for all students to better schools — or to more equitable opportunities, stronger learning or greater integration.

School choice is a means that can lead to different ends depending on how it is designed and managed. For example, while parental choice in education has been used to foster voluntary desegregation through magnet schools and transfer plans within and beyond district lines, it has also been used to maintain racial and ethnic segregation through vouchers for all-white segregation academies or so-called “freedom of choice” plans.

Open enrollment plans, such as one in Minnesota that allows families to choose schools across district lines, produced gains in achievement, integration and intergroup relations when it was managed with these goals in mind but became more segregative when the law was changed to ignore these goals.

Similarly, while some excellent charter schools have been developed across the country, others do significantly less well than district schools serving similar students. Among charters launched between 2001 and 2015, 40 percent were later closed, leaving families in the lurch and frequently shuffling children from one failing school to another, causing them to fall further behind academically in the process.

Just closing schools is not an adequate option for accountability, as it does not by itself ensure strong instruction for all children. Furthermore, research has found that, in unregulated settings, students with disabilities, English learners, and others with high levels of need are often kept out or pushed out of schools that end up choosing the students they will serve, rather than enabling students to choose the schools they want to attend and supporting the schools to serve them well. Virtual charters, most of which are for-profit, have strong negative effects on achievement almost everywhere and graduate fewer than half as many of their students as public schools generally.

Our report notes that state accountability and governance play an important role in charter school quality. Massachusetts, which is among the highest-achieving states in the country, enables charters to operate under tight numerical caps and very strong accountability rules that ensure quality of staffing and curriculum, as well as equitable access and retention for students with special needs. For-profit charters are outlawed there.

In a recent commentary in this column, authors Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris erroneously asserted that our report aims to promote unbridled alternatives to publicly funded and publicly operated school districts. Quite the opposite is true.

The report aims to help states and districts consider how to manage the broad tapestry of choices available in public schools in ways that create quality schools with equitable access and integrative outcomes. Our analysis does not frame the problem as one of school choice versus no school choice, but as one concerned with what kind of school choice and to what ends. The report lays out the evidence and examples of how various systems have worked and can work to foster equitable access, strong student outcomes and diversity and inclusion.

It suggests that, to ensure equitable access, excellent student outcomes and diversity and inclusion, districts consider the following:

  • Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures for adults.

In some cities, such as Los Angeles and New Orleans, advocates have set goals for the expansion of charters to represent 50 percent or even 100 percent of all schools. This sets up debates focused on how many charters a district should have, rather than on how the district can best meet the needs of children. Decisions about system design should instead focus on creating high-quality learning environments for all children, for example, by looking at ways to expand oversubscribed and successful programs rather than rationing access, and to ensure supports for underserved groups, schools or neighborhoods, including community school models, more effective bilingual programs, greater training and recruitment of special education teachers, or investments in new curriculum or technology.

  • Work to ensure equity and access for all.

Simply opening up the “market” to parental choice tends to favor those families with the most social capital, rather than those whose children lack quality choices. Districts should proactively initiate efforts to ensure good schools in every neighborhood — with investments in high-quality personnel and programs — and develop the means to protect access for the full range of students to all schools.

  • Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities and resources.

Districts that maintain an array of quality school options provide parents, community members and policymakers with consistent, comparable and easily accessible information on all schools. Such information includes, among other things, admission processes, recruitment and retention outcomes, enrollment patterns, finances, access to high-quality curriculum and learning opportunities, and student outcomes, such as achievement and graduation, and disciplinary practices. As in New York City, these data should also include the results of school quality reviews that provide qualitative evidence about school practices, programs and climate that can guide continuous improvement and diagnostic investments.

  • Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.

For a system to work effectively, all students need access to high-quality schools, and all schools must be of high quality. No neighborhood should lack an effective school for parents to choose. Creating such a system requires a laserlike focus on understanding student and school needs and then investing in program resources as well as teachers and leaders, individually and in professional learning networks, to build their capacities to create strong schools and serve all students. It also means investing in the wraparound services and supports that students need to be healthy and ready to learn each day, often provided by community schools that are anchors for education from pre-K to adult education and for health and mental health care, as well.

The issue of school choice is now embedded in public discourse as either a blessing or a curse. If we can move from polemics to evidence, and focus on approaches to serve all students, we can go about the business of building systems of public schools worth choosing, while bringing children together to build unity, rather than create division, in our nation.

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Here is the original post by Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris, and following is a response to this post from them:

We agree on many issues with Linda Darling-Hammond and the Learning Policy Institute. Our goals are the same. We want excellent schools for all children. But we don’t think that charter schools bring us closer to our shared goals.

As Darling-Hammond acknowledges, 40 percent of the charter schools that opened from 2001 TO 2015 have closed. Instability and churn do not provide a path to excellent schools for all. Darling-Hammond and her team believe the problems with charters are fixable. Given the charter sector’s continual resistance to any real accountability, transparency or serious reform, we are doubtful. It has become increasingly apparent that the corruption, mismanagement and self-dealing by private management are not “bugs,” but rather features of the charter sector.

We also think that the LPI team underestimates the damage that privately managed charter schools do to public schools, by siphoning off the students they choose and diverting resources, causing budget cuts to the schools that most students choose.

As Jan Resseger a former chair of the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education explains here, scholars including Gordon Lafer and Bruce Baker have demonstrated the inefficiency of dividing scarce public resources among multiple systems of schools.

Some of the language we criticized in our prior blog has been deleted from the report, such as the word “portfolio.” We are grateful. Other language has been modified to soften the critique of those who are concerned about school governance, and language that we interpreted as opposition to caps has been clarified.

What remains, however, is a perspective that is consonant with the portfolio model, that is, the belief that privately managed charters can be seamlessly folded into the public school system as one of many choices. Based on what we have reported about charters school scams, frauds, and cherry-picking of students, we remain skeptical.

Given Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ love for charter schools, we continue to see private management of public dollars as privatization and to see privately managed (and unaccountable) charter schools not as public schools but as government contractors in serious need of regulation and oversight.