Pondering Chartering: False Markets & Liberty as Substitute for Equity?

Today’s musing:

It is important to acknowledge that charter school market shares are not, in recent years, expanding exclusively or even primarily because of market demand and personal/family preferences for charter schools. Traditional district public schools are being closed, neighborhoods left without options other than charters, district schools are being reconstituted and handed over to charter operators (including entire districts), and district schools are increasingly deprived of resources, experience burgeoning class sizes, reductions in program offerings sending more families scrambling for their “least bad” nearest alternative. [i] These are conscious decisions of policymakers overseeing the system that includes district and charter schools. They are not market forces, and should never be confused as such. These systems are being centrally managed without regard for equity and adequacy goals or the protection of student, family, taxpayer and employee rights, but instead, on the false hope that liberty of choice is a substitute for all of the above (including, apparently, loss of individual liberties). [ii]


[i] See, for example:

Mezzacappa, Dale (2015, Oct. 1) Hite Plan: More charter conversions, closings, turnarounds, and new schools. Philadelphia Public School Notebook. http://thenotebook.org/blog/159023/hite-plan-more-renaissance-charters-closings-turnarounds-new-schools

Weber, Mark (2015) Empirical Critique of “One Newark”: First Year Update. New Jersey Education Policy Forum. https://njedpolicy.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/weber-testimony.pdf

Weber, Mark (2015, Jun. 5) Camden’s “Transformation” Schools: Racial & Experience Disparity in Staff Consequences. https://njedpolicy.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/weber_camdentransformationsfinal.pdf

[ii]   Green, P.C.; & Baker, B.D.; & Oluwole, J. (2015, forthcoming). The Legal Status of Charter Schools in State Statutory Law- University of Massachusetts Law Review.

Green, P.C., Baker, B. D., & Oluwole, J.O. (2013). Having it both ways: How charter schools try to obtain funding of public schools and the autonomy of private schools. Emory Law Journal, 63, 303-337.

Mead, J.F. (2015). The Right to an Education or the Right to Shop for Schooling: Examining Voucher Programs in Relation to State Constitutional Guarantees, 42 Fordham Urban Law Journal 703.

Civil Rights Suspended: An Analysis of New York City Charter School Discipline Policies (2015). Advocates for Children of New York. http://www.advocatesforchildren.org/sites/default/files/library/civil_rights_suspended.pdf?pt=1




  1. In many instances, the current situation reminds me of the old segregation academies that were started in the south after Brown v. Board. These were abetted by all manner of “Freedom of Choice” rhetoric and legislation. But “choice” simply cannot be an adequate substitute for governmental inequity. The incentives to DENY equity are huge in a market based system. And markets are even worse than the political ills they are supposed to remedy. To be Arendtian, it’s a deliberate category error. To solve a political problem, you must use political means–not economic means. It is doomed to fail. Just sayin.

    1. What kills me is the insistence in the “reform” community that “liberty” is the ultimate form of “equity.” Now, I’m no political theorist or historian, but even my feeble understanding is that the two are at constant tension. That liberty has never been substitute for equity and in fact, emphasis on liberty often leads to greater inequality. Let’s be clear here though… that this isn’t a market based system at all. It’s centrally managed system masquerading as a market system and inducing inequality in the name of liberty, with the intent to ignore the more expensive public policy alternative of achieving an equitably distributed, adequate system for all.

  2. This has been very true in Philadelphia. We’ve had “choice” for years–you could apply to a school outside of catchment if you wished. But within the catchments of the 7 North Philadelphia elementary schools that were closed in 2013, the majority of families stayed with the neighborhood school–until they were forced out by the closures. The choices of those families mattered not at all. Two years ago, when parents were allowed to vote on whether their school should be turned over to charter management, the parents overwhelming said no. This year, surprise, surprise, the parents of the three schools targeted for charterization, are not getting the choice to vote at all–just some input into which charter manager will take over.

  3. This is an excellent point — the idea that market forces should be applied to education has been a driving force behind the charter school movement. But it is clear those market forces are often substituted with brute force when the market does not drive to desired results. We know that charter schools have had some positive effects on outcomes in urban areas, but the policy implications are unclear. (Could these results be replicated in public schools?) These results are too little understood.

  4. Thanks for this musing. I have often wondered how the charter faithful get away with the notion that charters are a “market” response to an educational crisis. In addition to all that you say, the tuition is not paid by the “customers,” but by the state, in some form. Despite all of the waving of waiting lists, the only effective “demand” for charters is from the government bodies that pay the freight, as a matter of policy. Remove that massive subsidy and they go the way of the Edsel which, by the way, also had its benefits.

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