Two smart writers engaged in a familiar debate about education reform this week on account of a proposition on the ballot in Massachusetts this November that would allow more charter schools to operate in the state. Esquire's Charles Pierce, a Masschusettan, wrote a column critical of the proposal on Monday. New York magazine's Jonathan Chait, a charter-school advocate, responded to Pierce's piece on Tuesday, taking offense to Pierce's suggestion that charter advocates don't "give a rat's ass about educating children in Roxbury or Mattapan," two low-income Boston neighborhoods:
It is strange to accuse people who are giving away their money to the cause of educating poor children of not “giv[ing] a rat’s ass about educating children in Roxbury or Mattapan,” and also to imply that they are going to make money off the donation, without the slightest substantiation for the charge. The people who don’t give a rat’s ass about educating poor children aren’t the ones who are giving their money away on the issue. They also aren’t the ones (like my wife) who spend their working days trying to give a better education to low-income city kids. But they just might be the people who publish strong opinions on education policy while treating what is best for poor kids as a complete afterthought.
The back and forth speaks to the way the charter/education reform issue is often framed, by pundits and advocates, in one of two ways:
1. If the writer is anti-“reform,” he/she defends the ideals of public education and organized labor against a charter movement bent on embezzling every single school dollar into the pockets of crony capitalists.
2. If the writer is pro-reform, he/she defends the interests of poor/nonwhite children (sometimes referring to the charter-school cause as the "civil rights issue of our time") against an anti-reform caucus that perpetrates the systematized graft schemes of inept, lazy teachers and their powerful unions.
This binary does not describe on-the-ground reality. I've never met anyone who worked for an education-reform/charter-school initiative who wasn't motivated by a personal commitment to doing social good—or anyone who worked in a public school who didn't complain that some teachers and administrators whose jobs are protected by unions are apathetic and incompetent. Charter school educators can obviously make hugely meaningful differences in kids' lives, and some public-school employees are obviously wasting the public's money. The best people in both charter- and public-school jobs give many rats’ asses about educating low-income kids.
What Pierce and Chait both miss is that you don’t need to argue at all about whether every charter school is a pawn in a cynical, intentionally fraudulent scheme to understand the most compelling critique of its model of education reform: Namely, that it’s a misallocation of resources on a nationwide political level. Opening individual academies, which are often supported by donors from the financial services/management consulting/venture capital industries, is not a scalable solution to the problems of educating every single American student. Moreover, the good done by individual charter schools can be coopted by unreliable and ethically challenged operators who oversell reform as the one neat trick that can close the achievement gap. And that's a sales job which suppresses the uncomfortable truth that sending undercompensated, undersupported teachers into schools radically segregated by race and class should never be considered an acceptable solution to American racial and economic inequality no matter how well a few of those schools do. Meanwhile, while some charter schools work and some fail, the one class of people the model always seems to reward are the upper-middle-class consultants who get brought in to work on reform projects at salaries much higher than the typical classroom teacher.
This isn't to suggest that consultants or reform-movement donors are, on an individual basis, not well-meaning. It does mean that maybe we need to realign our national system of incentives so that the best job title in the public school system is not “charismatic reform guru” or “data consultant,” but “public school teacher.”