A recent article in the New York Times by Jon Hurdle reported that Philadelphia will be closing 37 schools by the end of this school year. Students who stay in the district will be relocated to another school further away from home than any parent would find comfortable. 1,100 teachers will be transferred or laid off. Philadelphia’s contraction highlights the failure of competition between public and charter schools to accelerate school reform. In reality, public schools do not have any incentive to compete. Thus, the introduction of market principles into education reform has failed, and should be left out of the reform conversation from hereon.
The theory behind competition in education is similar to competition in economics; the introduction of schools that outperform established schools should increase student achievement in all settings. Ideally, charter schools innovate to evolve their pedagogy, curriculum, and structures in ways public schools could not. If accomplished, public schools would be pressured to produce the same results. The resulting public/charter competition would be a healthful benefit to students and communities alike.
Instead of competing, however, public schools are now more likely to give up in the competition and close schools. Competition in Philadelphia did not push their schools to reform. Instead, “declining enrollment, competition from charter schools and overcapacity” was a reason to close schools. Competition failed to reform.
Two rebuttals in favor of competition in education are likely to emerge. First, public/charter competition eliminated inefficient schools and improved the market for public education’s consumers. Second, closing underperforming schools is a fiscally prudent decision. To the first I would suggest that market corrections don’t address underlying behaviors and attitudes of students and parents that negatively affect school performance. To the second, I would pose a question: do local governments not have any interest in the education of its citizens? Common sense says that government owes more to citizens than fiscal prudence. A recent report published by the Council on Foreign Relations titled U.S. Education and National Security affirms, saying education affords “all Americans – rich and poor, black and white – opportunity,” as well as the “continued innovation, growth, prosperity, and security of this nation.” Certainly, education should be more than a fiscal concern.
Closing public schools also levies costs on incapable families. Charter schools often rely on familial contributions as a resource, rendering them unavailable options for students most in need of opportunity and choice. Were competition embraced and choice increased, students certainly would benefit. But in reality, competition is raising the price of an urban American education. The afore mentioned report points out that “opting out [of public schools due to associated costs] is only possible for those with financial means, [while] poor children are often trapped in failing schools.” The lack of competition is thus structuring school reform disproportionately, and reminds that market principles of competition cannot level the playing field for all market participants. Does American government not have an ethical obligation to its citizens, and only an obligation to fiscal reform?
Many charter schools have consistently challenged the entrenched pedagogical dogma of public education successfully. Charter schools can also claim innovative and important steps to reforming the ways in which teachers are developed, evaluated, retained, and assessed. Most importantly, many charter schools have been successful at raising student achievement higher than its public counterparts. As a teacher these last 4 years in charter schools, I bear witness to this truth. But public/charter competition is only beneficial to our communities with a willing competitor. My charter colleagues and I relish competition. Our only animating fire is enabling the success of our students. But it is hard to know where we stand, and where we need to go next, if our public competitors give up their fight. If public schools give up, then the benefits of competition contract in proportion to the amount of schools closed. This is no way to ensure our collective health, well-being, and prosperity.
At a time when fiscal austerity is en vogue, let us not forget the ethical obligations owed to us from government. It is easy to see all issues touched by politics as an economic issue. Competition between charter and public schools is no different. As Philadelphia showed us, however, competition is not producing its expected return in public education. Instead, competition threatens to evolve urban education into parallel districts with divergent resources, cleaving communities once more into those that have, and those that have not. Until competition is embraced public schools in the same way it is for charter schools, or abandoned, the health of our nation will be threatened.
Justin R. Harbour, A.L.M