Five Good Questions with Erin Dillon and Shaun Johnson

Welcome to a new section of the site, Five Good Questions. Every couple of weeks, ChrossTalk will delve into a subject a little bit out of the spotlight, getting expert opinions from both sides of the issue.

Inspired by this New York Times article, we asked both Erin Dillon and Shaun Johnson five good questions about charter schools in the suburbs.

Erin Dillon is a senior policy analyst at the Education Sector, an independent education policy think thank, while Shaun Johnson is an associate professor of elementary education at Towson University and a blogger for the Huffington Post.

Below is the edited transcript of our two interviews:

When it comes to charter schools in the suburbs, how much does a change in location from an urban to suburban environment affect the discussion on the pros and cons of charter school? Is such a change justified?

Erin Dillon: I really don’t even know if it so much changes the discussion in so much as highlights different parts of it. In urban areas, the conversation is really about school improvement and offering better options to students who are often failing in their current ones. Also it’s about improving entire school districts as well as individual schools. In suburban areas, you probably have less focus on that part of the conversation because most people think that their public schools are doing just fine as is, and the conversation is really more about the choice aspects and how much choice is reasonable to provide parents. If you’ve got a good public school available, do (the parents of the school district) need to open a charter school to offer a different program, or a language immersion program, or a Montessori school? Is that really something that should be publicly funded? I think that’s an important shift in the conversation and its not that that doesn’t happen in urban areas. The focus on the conversation is more on the choice aspect in suburban areas.

Shaun Johnson: Charter schools are sort of the cornerstone of the school choice movement. If you put market based theology in education, meaning that if public school can’t do it, they’re only going to be compelled to do it through competition. If you start opening other schools and you divert those per-pupil education dollars to other places, public schools are going to wake up, realizing that they’re missing students and missing revenue because they’re not doing a good job and parents are empowered with the choice to find another school for their kids. Now that’s sort of ideology; it’s not really panned out that way. Most charter schools are in major cities, because they’re densely populated and they’re sort of more visible because education reformers like to look like they’re swooping into inner cities and saving low income and at risk youth. You don’t see many charter schools in suburban areas, or at least you don’t hear about them as much. They tend to concentrate in the major cities, because traditionally suburban schools do a little bit better and urban education reform, I guess for lack of a better word, is much sexier than suburban or rural education reforms. So you don’t really too hear much about charter school in suburban or rural areas.

A common refrain from proponents of charter schools argue that competition breeds quality, but if suburban schools are scoring well test wise, is it fair to apply the “if it isn’t broken, why fix it” mantra to education?

Erin Dillon: I do think it is fair to a certain extent because these are public dollars and we can’t afford to provide the unique school option that every parent might want to have available in their public school system: there are limits to the resources. So I think its fair to question whether or not a charter school is needed in a community and if it’s going to serve the parent’s and student’s needs that aren’t provided by the public school system to warrant shifting resources to that school.

Shaun Johnson: A lot of times within the education reform debate, the status quo is pitted against education reformers, so prominent reformers that are backed by private foundations and corporations say that they are reforming an education system that is “failing” and is “broken,” and anyone else who resists that or critiques it is for the status quo and for doing things as they’ve always been done. That’s sort of a false binary. I myself tend to be more progressively minded and still believe that there are many changes that need to be made in education. Only one story is being propagated: that market based solutions, standardized test, quantitative measures, merit pay, job security issues – that’s what’s important at the expense of a lot of other things. The discussion is being framed in that particular way right now.

Opponents argue that by having charter schools, district resources will be stretched too thin, hurting the quality of education. Do you think that charter schools have an unintended negative effect on teacher and school quality?

Erin Dillon: That’s been claimed for a long time and we really haven’t seen that borne out. It certainly is possible especially in a school system where maybe you only have one public school that everyone attends and so that one public school is really going to bear the brunt of students transferring. In urban areas, you might have one or two students coming from several schools or as is often the case, students actually migrating from the private school system into charter schools and the private schools are actually the ones seeing the biggest financial impact. So in a system where most students are attending the public schools and there’s one or two public schools they’re coming from, then you might see a direct negative effect on those schools as the finances shift. Overall to date in the charter school movement, there really hasn’t been much evidence of a negative or positive effect on neighboring schools when a charter school comes in.

Shaun Johnson: It’s certainly possible, especially since people in suburban areas tend to be more affluent. They’re the ones that typically exercise that educational choice decision. That’s why school-choice seems to break within racial and class boundaries. People who are already focused on their child’s education are the ones who are going to enact choice and fill out all of the paper work. You could say they’re more invested in their child’s educational program, and they self select into charter schools, but then on the other hand, a lot of the research says that charter schools don’t do much better than public schools so even if you had charter schools in suburban areas, maybe they really wouldn’t do much better, because overall they don’t. They only tout the few that are somewhat successful, but it may not be because their charter schools; it may be for a lot of other reasons.

A contentious facet of charter schools is their supposed selection bias. Schools weed out the weakest students in order to boost their final graduation numbers. If suburban students score higher on average then urban students, would suburban charter schools circumvent completely the problem of selection bias?

Erin Dillon: We haven’t seen too much of a selection bias in charter schools. That’s another kind of one of these things you hear a lot about but when people have looked at the evidence, you don’t really see charter schools selecting the students with the highest test scores. You do see an under representation of students with special needs and English language learner students. That’s something that could easily cross over into suburban charter schools and it’s definitely something they need to pay attention to. Those are hard populations to serve well and they’re extensive populations to serve well, but even so charter schools need to figure out how to get that done and hopefully in authorizing charter schools, local districts are paying attention to whether or not (charter schools) have the resources and the capabilities to serve the students.

In terms of whether (charter schools) could circumvent the selection bias, I think that no matter where they are locating, certainly if you have some bad actors in charter schools, you could see them selecting those students out or counseling them out. That just requires really good authorizing and oversight and making sure that (charter schools) are holding random lotteries and holding them accountable for truly serving all the students in that county or district.

Shaun Johnson: I don’t think so. People who want to set themselves apart always find a way to set themselves apart, so if you get these wide variations between student scores in urban areas, then you’re going to have this self-selection bias based on narrower metrics. Look for example at the expansion of the AP course programs in secondary schools throughout the country. Not every high school celebrates the fact that they’ve got 300 AP classes, and umpteen hundreds of student in AP courses. Just looking at those raw numbers: it says nothing of the academic rigor. A lot of suburbs out their now say, “the AP’s have dumbed down, so now we have to establish the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs.” Those kids who were formerly high flyers in AP courses have now been joined by the huddled masses that have earned their way into the expanded AP programs. People need to always try to find ways to separate themselves. In suburban district, there is a tendency to try to separate the cream of the crop. Charter schools can be like magnet schools. If you have a charter school that caters to science and math, a particular subject matter, or priority, and you get a bunch of parents who are well heeled and affluent into those areas, I still think you’re going to get some of that separation of the wheat from the chaff. That’s always going to happen no matter where you go.

Should we have charter schools in the suburbs?

Erin Dillon: If there is demand and people with good ideas offering things that aren’t available in current public schools, then yes. Charter schools aren’t limited to just urban areas or low performing school districts. The basic tenets of more choice, providing options to students who aren’t doing well in the existing school system. Providing schools that have the autonomy to try new things and experiment in ways that you don’t see happening in the traditional public school system, all that certainly applies in suburban areas as well. So I know I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more charter schools migrating to those areas.

Shaun Johnson: Even though I support public education, and I’m of the ilk that supports teacher more than corporate backed education reforms, I’m a little weary of completely criticizing charter schools. I taught in one in Washington DC the last couple of summers just to rekindle my roots in teaching, but to also see what goes on in these places. There’s still children there that need help and they get caught in this larger debate between public schools versus charters, reformers versus regular teachers who want to preserve the status quo and want to be lazy. Caught in the middle of that debate are kids and families that still need help. I can’t say whether suburban districts should or shouldn’t have charter schools – it’s really up to the community. I just think that they’re less incentive to pen charter schools in those areas for a lot of reasons. It’s why you don’t see many. Urban education reform is really hot right now. Everyone wants to swoop in and save all of the diverse people with this missionary zeal. They want to come in and be benevolent and save people and change the world. It’s a really hot thing to do in urban areas; it’s no so much in rural or suburban areas. School choice makes a lot more sense in dense areas. Now some suburbs – like in Northern Virginia or Maryland – maybe their dense enough to open up charter schools. I don’t know, but they already have some private schools in the DC metro area that take that sort of student-clientele, so I don’t know if there will be a market for charter schools in suburban areas.

Want to read more work done by either Erin Dillon or Shaun Johnson? Check out Erin Dillon’s profile at the Education Sector and recent paper on the ratio of debt to degrees.

You can find more of Shaun Johnson’s work on his blog or at the Huffington Post.

We’d like to thank both Erin Dillon and Shaun Johnson for talking to us.

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5 responses to “Five Good Questions with Erin Dillon and Shaun Johnson

  1. Pingback: Quick Hits 8.5.11

  2. “we can’t afford to provide the unique school option that every parent might want to have available in their public school system”

    If there’s enough demand to support a particular charter program, then the charter should receive the same per-pupil funding as the district schools. We’ve already decided that we can afford to spend that amount of money educating a particular student, so we can’t turn around now and claim that we’re too broke to spend it on the school of the family’s choice.

    • Perfect competition in schooling is impossible. We should not allow any public funds, for example, to allow a white supremacist school, or one that specifically supports racial segregation, regardless if some parents would want it. There should be strict limitations to what kinds of schools should receive monies, and clearly not all potential permutations are desirable. Many parents are idiots, and we cannot allow public funds to be disbursed to idiots, when we can prevent it at least.

  3. For that matter, shouldn’t the same dedicated funding per student also be available to homeschool families?
    I think it should.
    Homeschooling is an effective, efficient, successful alternative to traditional school and should be valued as such. Instead, all we do is save the school system money by having our kids not attend.

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