by David Safier
If I wrote, "The market mechanism just doesn't work in education," I'd expect two responses. Some people would nod their heads in agreement, and others would say, "Typical garbage from that America-hating socialist who doesn't think our children should be able to escape our failing public schools."
But what if the person who said that began her statement by saying, "I actually am kind of a pro-market kinda girl. But it doesn't seem to work in a choice environment for education"?
The "pro-market kinda girl" is Margaret Raymond, founding director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, usually known by its acronym, CREDO. It's part of the Hoover Institute, not exactly a wild-eyed liberal think tank, and it's funded by pro-privatization, pro-charter types like the Walton Foundation (That's the WalMart family). One of the major missions of CREDO is to study and promote charter schools. Raymond is married to Eric Hanushek, who also works at the Hoover Institute and is one of the deans of the conservative "education reform" movement.
For all her pro-market, pro-charter leanings, Raymond appears to value serious research, which is why I've read her two CREDO studies on the effectiveness of charter schools with interest. They compared similar students in charters and "traditional" — read, "school district" — schools. In the first study, charter school children came out slightly behind "traditional" school students in achievement. In the more recent study, charter school students came out slightly ahead. Actually, both studies were pretty much a wash. It's like saying charter school kids are taller or shorter than "traditional" school kids because their average height differed by a quarter of an inch.
CREDO's latest report looked at charter schools in Ohio, and they didn't look good.
[I]t finds that charter school students in the state are learning less than students in traditional public schools, the equivalent of 36 days of learning in math and 14 days in reading.
In the national CREDO studies, by the way, Arizona's charter school students lagged significantly behind "traditional" school students ("But . . . but . . . we have BASIS, the best charter school in the universe! Doesn't that mean Arizona's charters are better than district schools?" No it doesn't. And no, BASIS isn't the best charter school in the universe. It gets great test scores from high achieving students, a trick many schools have figured out how to do). In some other states, charters topped "traditional" schools, sometimes significantly, which is why on average, charters and "traditional" schools came out pretty much even in the national studies.
Here's what Raymond said in a recent talk in Ohio discussing the CREDO report that slammed the state's charter schools.
I actually am kind of a pro-market kinda girl. But it doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education. I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career. That’s my academic focus for my work. And it’s [education] the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work. I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.
Raymond wasn't making an anti-charter or anti-school choice statement. She was saying that parents can't be expected to make intelligent school decisions about where to send their children with the scanty information they have at their disposal.
I think the policy environment really needs to focus on creating much more information and transparency about performance than we’ve had for the 20 years of the charter school movement. I think we need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools, but I also think we have to have some oversight of the overseers.
Both Arizona and Ohio have been referred to as the "Wild west of charter schools" because they're so lacking transparency and oversight. Here in Arizona, that's how the system was designed, so the "invisible hand of the marketplace" would raise the good schools and drive the rest out of business. According to Raymond, it's not working so well in Arizona or Ohio or anywhere else where it's easy to start charter schools and there's little oversight once they're up and running.