Last night I got to see the master of the trivium, my rhetorical hero George Will speak at the J. Schiedegger Center at Lindenwood University.  He spoke of many things political and baseball, to which I vigorously nodded my head in approval.  There was one statement he made, however, to which my head would not  so vigorously nod. He made the oft heard call for free market competition in K-12 public education as the most efficient means to improving student outcomes. Competition would raise all boats.

In a truly free market where the public is free to choose whatever product they want, or even choose not to buy a product, where the producer is free to select his raw materials, suppliers, investment strategies and product design, then yes, tying the money to the child and letting parents choose where to send them would be a great way to deliver education. It would foster competition among education suppliers. It would produce differentiated products, innovation and customer satisfaction. We can see exactly how this would work because such a system already exists in the university system. But none of the conditions I just mentioned exist in the K-12 public education system which is one of the reasons charters have never done terribly well and thus far have not delivered on the promise to improve all education.

The CREDO study of charters showed that only one fifth of charter schools were able to improve student performance (i.e. test scores). Another 37% had worse numbers than the local public schools and 46% did about the same as the local public schools.  A study by Chris Walters at MIT showed that charter schools helped low scoring urban students the most. However, they were not as successful in demonstrating improvement in suburban settings. John Angrist who was the faculty advisor for the MIT study lamented, that “While the weakest students benefit the most from charter schools, their parents, paradoxically, are the least likely to apply for them to go to charter schools.”

Critics were quick to point out that the Boston charters, which Walters used heavily in his research, require parents to fill out 15-page gate-keeping application and sign parent “contracts” promising to do mandatory “volunteer” time at their child’s school. This confirms what has long been known, that parental involvement or support for education is a key ingredient for student success. The parents who were not interested in such heavy involvement did not bother to apply or commit to charter schools. The school was not the transformative agent. They were in essence cherry picking the best students, by picking the ones whose parents were most engaged in the process.

Critics also pointed out that there was a mismatch on charter student’s MCAT (the Massachusetts standardized tests) scores and their SAT scores. SAT scores remain typically low for the graduates of these charters hinting that maybe the charters were just better at test prep, not actual learning.

The MIT study was not able to refute the claim that charters cherry pick their students. Walters claimed that, “at a certain, but unspecified, point, the addition of more charter schools no longer produces the same gains in academic achievement.” If charters were able to lift all boats, there would be no cap on improvement. The fact that such a cap exists supports the idea that charters are picking the best students and telling the ones who don’t make the cut that they “aren’t the right fit” for that particular charter. At some point you run out of good students to populate your charter.

This is where I think Will’s claim falls apart. In a free market, producers can choose their raw materials or component suppliers. Free market principles mean that producers (charters)  have incentives not to use lesser quality materials (students) so that they can control the final quality of their product. In public education, we have a social contract to try to teach everyone. We end up using the force of government regulation to make charters follow the existing social contract to take all comers. This is not a free market principle. Though intended to produce social justice, such public policy actually leads to failure of many charters.

Charters will work well for a percentage of students, but not as well for the ones who face physical, mental or cultural deficiencies. This is because the definition of “works well” means “has good test scores.” In the current system, the producer in K-12 education does not get to choose the product design. Remember the product is not the campus, curriculum or staff. That is merely the production process. The product in public education today is the preloaded college and/or career ready graduate.  The specifications for that product are designed neither by the producer, nor by the parent. They are designed by the test developers, external quality control agents (EQCA) if you will. That is why charters can and do skew their curriculum to be heavily focused on test prep, like Success Academy in New York Does does. That is why they can produce a product that looks good (on MCAT), but isn’t really functional (on SAT).

In a free market, the consumer/student/parent could select the final design they wanted for their child. In the actual system we have,  they can only pick the location that will be best at forming their child in the way the EQCA have decided they should be. Another study, done by the University of Chicago, looked at parents who chose to keep their kids in the public school system after Rahm Emanuel closed down 50 schools in Chicago. The researchers thought that such parents did so due to lack of information or thought. It turns out the parents had given considerable thought to their choice, but what they were looking for from a school just happened to be different from what the EQCAs said it should be. Those parents were less concerned with test scores and more concerned about class size, or curricular focus on topics like science or language. They wanted a school in their neighborhood where they were likely to know the parents of the other students. They wanted stability in their teaching staff, not a revolving door of teachers who were doing their best with students who came from all different levels of home support and often failing to meet an arbitrary test score. A rigid, driven system like Success Academy did not appeal to such parents.

A truly free market system would see these parents as an unserved market segment and would develop programs and services to meet their wants thus gaining a customer base. However, if such programs do not produce the end product designed by the EQCAs, the existing governance structure will shut those businesses down. What Will and others are describing is the type of free market system children experience at Chuckee Cheese when they take their winning tickets to the, as my husband affectionately called it, “useless crap” counter to exchange them for toys. They have choices, but only in a limited section of comparable quality stuff.

Consider this hypothetical under Will’s system. A child who falls on the autism spectrum with moderate impairment of executive function takes his government allotted tuition money and applies to several charters in his area. His tuition is not going to cover all the special services he is going to need to get the scores the system will require the charters to produce in order to stay in business. He is told by most of them that he “is not a good fit” for their program. There is one school that says they specialize in helping such students, but the family will have to kick in again half as much as the state has allotted in order for him to attend. The family doesn’t have that money. Another school, forty minutes away agrees to take him, but his family will have to provide transportation there. His classmates have a number of different challenges. Some are emotionally disturbed. Some have violent tendencies. He makes very little progress towards the goals of the EQCAs at that school, but it doesn’t really matter. Most of their students do poorly and the school is shut down in three years. This pattern is repeated throughout his K-12 career.

Even if, under this mostly free market system, there remained a public school option for such students, Walter’s study shows that there would be no improvement to that school by having all the charters competing. What parents may want does not match up with the goals of the EQCAs and those are the people controlling the supposed free market education system. They will shut down anything that does not: produce high test scores, maintain diversity, show continuous improvement, produce higher and higher numbers of graduates going into college.

Free market prices are dictated by what the market will bear. What the market will bear in the public education system is already determined by taxes. Therefore, the only levers available to make more money, which is the goal of capitalism, is to find a way to charge parents more for your production services, or reduce your costs. The first option is practiced by the collegiate system. The good ones skim the cream of the crop of high school graduates, they have good raw materials coming in, they have great branding and can crow about their final product output quality. They are able to charge a premium for their production system. But they are not operating like their competitors.

The competitors like public colleges, promise to take lower performing students to give them an opportunity to succeed.  Thus, they cannot brag quite so much about their final product stats, so they focus on making their production line seem more appealing with country club level athletic centers, professionally staffed job placement centers or customized degrees that feel good while you’re there but have no demonstrable track record of profitability. These marketing features cost money which means that the only thing comparable between the different producers is the rise in tuition.

Our social contract for K-12 education (i.e. taxes) says we are all prepared to pay for a Honda Accord for every child, but not for just any type of car and certainly not a Lexus. The only way charters could work as a free market system for the delivery of K-12 education was if government recognized parents as consumers and allowed them to pick the school they really wanted and were prepared to accept that some schools parents really want do not turn out top test takers, don’t have the majority of kids going to college, may be fairly homogenous so that social distractions do not interfere with learning and may not be highly efficient. Government would have to accept a stratified system where those of more means could pay for more school. In a society as focused on social justice and ROI as we have now, I just don’t see those types of freedoms being accepted which is why my hero’s vision of free market education is not likely to become a reality any time soon.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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