THE BLOG
01/09/2013 10:43 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Michelle Rhee's Charter School Push: Good For Kids? The Debate Continues

Last Friday, I wrote a story about a crop of high-profile Democrats leaving StudentsFirst, the organization run by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.

Several sources suggested that the move spoke to a broader change in StudentsFirst: a group once extremely self-conscious about its positioning as a bipartisan organization is now more interested in being purist and ideological in implementing its ideas. (This theory played out interestingly on Monday when the group released its report card of state education policies).

I was excited to see that the piece spurred dialogue on a few different corners of the web -- particularly on the blog of Diane Ravitch, an education historian who vehemently opposes Rhee's ideas.

"It is hard to see how any Democrat could be part of a campaign to curtail collective bargaining rights and to diminish the rights and status of teachers. Unions and teachers are the base of the Democratic Party," Ravitch wrote.

One of those departing Democrats is Hari Sevugan, a former Democratic National Committee spokesperson who served as Rhee's communications chief (and still advises her). He responded a few hours later, saying he disagreed with Ravitch's premise. "To suggest that folks working at StudentsFirst or in education reform are doing anything but working for the benefit of kids is plain wrong."

The exchange continued, and on Monday, Ravitch posted an open letter to Sevugan from a Florida teacher and parent. "I do not believe it is possible to convince us [that charter schools benefit children]," the parent wrote. "I applaud you for coming on this blog and trying ... but these are our kids. We know they deserve better. ... Charter schools are furthering that division."

Sevugan was kind enough to send HuffPost his (long form!) response. The thrust of his argument is that U.S. students perform so poorly in school that something's gotta give. That thing just might be the structure of public schools as we know them. He rightfully notes that even in states like Massachusetts and Maryland, which tend to do well on national exams, there are cavernous gaps between the performance levels of different ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

"Regardless of how you cut the numbers, we simply are failing too many children," he writes. "To me, this demands change - including better social services and better prioritization of resources to be certain. Fundamentally, however, when a system is failing as many students as the status quo currently is, the elements of change must include massive innovation and accountability."

Charter schools, he explains, "can explore new ways to teach." (I'd argue, with no disrespect to charters, that plain old traditional public schools can do this too. But anyway.) He articulates the education reform movement's overarching argument for change: we must experiment in schools -- even if it fails -- because what we've got now isn't working.

Unencumbered by bureaucracy, and also the invisible tether of past practice, charters can explore new ways to teach, administer and learn. And, yes, some of those ways won't work. But some will, and lessons can be learned from those successes and should be scaled where possible. I'd also argue that a free school for public school students is 'public,' and should be funded accordingly. I imagine you won't agree with me on these issues.

I've left you the full memo below. I'm sure we'll be hearing more from Ravitch -- and the Florida teacher -- in the near future. Meanwhile, help me chew this over. The bigger question here is this: do you think the charter experiment -- and the reform experiment at large -- is better than the system we have now? Maybe it's more nuanced than that. I see both sides of this one. On the one hand, the idea of "experimentation" on students is scary (and sounds nefarious!). On the other hand, I've interviewed some kids who are stuck in awful situations in public schools, situations I would never wish on anyone. And I understand the desire, on the part of the reform movement, to not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. But at what expense? What do you think?

Read the full text below:

Dear Florida parent/teacher,

Thank you for your thoughtful note, and please accept my apology for the delay in responding. I ordinarily don't feel that these kinds of public back-and-forth in comments sections are very constructive, but felt that your sincere letter deserved a shot.

First, I understand your concerns and frustrations as a parent and teacher, and welcome your take. Florida has been leading many of the most aggressive reform efforts, and it's valuable to get a frontline perspective.

As these efforts take root, there have been some encouraging signs of progress. The results of the recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show Florida (which was assessed independently of the Unites States) outperformed nearly all nations at all levels, in both reading in math. Indeed, Florida fourth graders outperformed every other country in the world except Hong Kong - including Diane's would-be 51st state, Finland. Florida was on par with Finland in fourth grade math and one point below in eighth grade math, but in all cases near the top of the rankings and substantially ahead of the American average.

Of course, education watchers on both sides of the reform debate over-indulge in the same conceit when looking at these sorts of rankings to argue their particular case. Even the best rankings are relative to a low standard at which not every child is served as s/he deserves to be if access to a high-quality education is truly a civil right.

For example, it's often pointed out that Massachusetts and Maryland are the highest achieving states based on NAEP assessments. However, it's rarely pointed out that reading proficiency for Massachusetts and Maryland - our highest achieving states - is between 40-50 percent. No system can be considered a success if our best examples are failing at least half our students. At times, looking to these rankings is something like pinning a blue ribbon on a pig and forgetting it's still a stinker.

Regardless of how you cut the numbers, we simply are failing too many children.
To me, this demands change - including better social services and better prioritization of resources to be certain. Fundamentally, however, when a system is failing as many students as the status quo currently is, the elements of change must include massive innovation and accountability.

Charters offer innovation to a system that isn't working for too many kids. Unencumbered by bureaucracy, and also the invisible tether of past practice, charters can explore new ways to teach, administer and learn. And, yes, some of those ways won't work. But some will, and lessons can be learned from those successes and should be scaled where possible. I'd also argue that a free school for public school students is 'public,' and should be funded accordingly. I imagine you won't agree with me on these issues.

But here's where we can agree. When it comes to charters, too often from the reform side of the debate, the emphasis is on innovation, neglecting the other necessary ingredient for change - accountability.

Many, albeit, not all, reformers believe that any school entrusted with public dollars - whether they are traditional public schools, public charters schools or even private schools - must be held accountable for high curricular standards and student achievement. When we, rightfully, place those demands on traditional district schools, there's no reason charters should be exempt.

If a charter school fails based on academic performance (as opposed to administrative or financing issues) - changes need to be made, including preserving the option of revoking the charter. You cannot have 'accountability' without charter accountability. 'Choice' doesn't mean much unless there are quality options to choose from. It's not only fair, but right. And it's pretty simple.

So, we may not agree on the relative value of innovation to fixing our schools as compared to, say, resources, or the 'publicness' of a charter school, but I think we can agree on this issue: Will you work with me, and other reform-minded folks, to ensure all schools are held accountable for their student achievement? I hope so.

Sincerely,
- Hari