03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Slow And Steady As We "Race To The Top"

The first point to take from President Obama's creation of the"Race to the Top," fund whose regulations were issued last week, is a wholly positive one: We have a president who wants to invest a real, if modest, sum of new federal dollars in public schools. To improve the quality of public education is an unambiguously laudable goal, and so too are many of the more specific undertakings that Obama is encouraging: "reinvigorating math and science education," promoting stakeholder collaborations, implementing "statewide longitudinal data systems," hiring great teachers and "improving teacher preparation," and so on.

But let's heed the moral of the fable that Aesop taught us in grade school: In the end, the Tortoise beats out that haughty Hare. Obama's plan isn't perfect, and certain aspects of it could have deep downsides -- particularly if there isn't strong oversight of the charter schools whose growth the Race to the Top will propel.

Alan Gottlieb recently wrote about a plan by the Denver Public Schools to effectively morph charters into standard neighborhood schools, whereby kids in a particular catchment area would be steered to them by default. This is a terribly important move whose outcomes we should carefully observe.

Charters typically require students' parents to enter them into lotteries, from which they might be selected to attend the given school. This can create a huge self-selection bias problem, whereby the students who wind up in charters will be the children of engaged parents, and who will therefore tend to do better than their peers, no matter the school they attend.

I wrote about this in the Boston Globe a few months back:

Critics of charter schools have long expressed concern that charters tilt toward students with certain advantages over their peers in traditional public schools. To matriculate at a charter school, a child typically needs to be entered into a lottery of all those students seeking admission. This requires having a parent or guardian who is highly involved in a child's education -- enough to know about the possibility of his or her child attending a charter, to conclude that to do so would benefit the child, to apply to enter the lottery and follow its proceedings. Charter parents must also frequently agree to substantial participation in the child's schooling.

Children of parents who play this active role in their education will tend to perform better in school than children of less-involved parents. The effect of such parental involvement has been measured: Controlling for race, gender, and socio-economics, students with involved parents will tend to achieve at about the 75th percentile -- well above average.

Surely, most parents want their children to excel in school, and beyond, and will work as well as they can toward those ends. But for any of a variety of reasons -- health, language barriers, constraints from employment, or, sometimes, lack of concern -- some children simply do not have stable adult guidance in their schooling. Parental engagement in education should be strongly encouraged, but having involved parents should never be a prerequisite for a child to gain access to the best opportunities. That would mean many kids - those who are already somewhat disadvantaged -- would unfairly miss out.

Different jurisdictions have studied this phenomenon to varying degrees; it doesn't necessarily manifest everywhere, but in Boston, for instance, it's well-documented: A 2009 study by the pro-charter Boston Foundation made it clear that students entering charter schools entered with higher test scores than their peers.

Despite these inherent advantages, and even more disturbing because of them, charters vary wildly in the quality of education that they provide. The pro-charter hype can make it hard to believe: While some charters are wonderful, studies have repeatedly demonstrated that, on average, charter students tend to perform at or below the level of their peers in traditional public schools. (Here's a recent study out of New York. And there are multiple federal studies, undertaken by the charter-friendly Bush administration, with similar findings.)

Cash-strapped states need to be cautious as the federal government urges them to reorient their budgets and education policies in order to vie for a one-off shot of $4 billion in stimulus funds -- which amounts to less than one percent of annual total public school spending across our nation.

And they need to keep their priorities straight: While Rhode Island is the only state with no school funding formula, and has the worst reliance on property taxes to fund education, creating a single new 75-student charter became the focus of local education "reform" efforts this year, as advocates scrambled for a piece of the Race To The Top pie. Equitable, increased state support for education would be of much greater benefit to the state's general population of students, and one hopes that the Feds will signal that this ought to be a priority as RI pursues Race To The Top funds.

There's no quick fix to our education system's woes: While many are indeed of high quality, the current crop of charters has proved no panacea. Where charters outperform traditional public schools, we need to make sure that placements are fairly distributed, and replicable ideas are incorporated into policies that govern traditional publics. Where they perform worse, states must stop turning a blind eye, and reign them in, just as they would an under-performing traditional school.

Pedagogy is quite important, but genuine equity in education will occur only in a generally equitable society: No education reform is comprehensive that does not entail progressive taxation, a stronger labor movement, and environmental and social justice more broadly.