Charter schools: an antidote to one-size-fits-all education

Share via

Education historian Diane Ravitch is half right.

In her March 14 Times Op-Ed article, “The Big Idea — it’s bad education policy,” Ravitch warns that there is no silver-bullet solution to our education problems.

For the record: In a previous version of this article, one sentence incorrectly referred to Diane Ravitch as a man.

She is correct.

Having been an ardent supporter of the standards-based accountability strategy of the last 25 years and a champion of school choice, she has seen the light and become a convert, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

Specifically, one big idea Ravitch once supported but now denounces is our national test-driven approach to school improvement, recognizing that it is harmful to schools, to kids and to teachers.


Again, she is correct.

The other big idea she once championed but now rejects is school choice, saying it is a fad and won’t work.

She is wrong.

The evidence that our overemphasis on testing is not improving schools and is actually having a negative effect is so persuasive that Ravitch doesn’t elaborate on it in her column. But she does make a case against evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores. That, of course, is a logical result of our obsession with testing that she has helped fuel for decades.

It should be apparent to those who make education policy that students’ test scores are influenced by much more than teachers. If we really want better educators, we should change teacher preparation programs to include much more clinical experience. We also should improve teachers’ working conditions and share our leadership roles with them as professionals, not union members.

Ravitch devotes much of her article to criticizing choice and, particularly, charter schools. Her arguments are not new:

Charter schools are no better than public schools and aren’t really improving student achievement.

First of all, she obviously knows that charter schools are public schools that receive public monies. It is misleading to suggest, as Ravitch does, that district schools are public but charters are not.


Second, Ravitch cites research that relies solely on test scores as a measure of success. If “test-driven” reform is unacceptable, why should test scores be a reliable basis for judging charter schools?

One of the main justifications for charters is that they offer an alternative to conventional schools and encourage innovation and experimentation. Charters often do not mirror traditional public schools in their curriculum or standard 50-minute classes.

Researchers who compare conventional schools to charter schools might just as well compare one-story schools to two-story schools. Chartering is a form of governance that allows schools to be different. What matters is not the way schools are governed but what happens inside them.

Charter schools get better students because parents who apply obviously care more about their children’s education.

Again, Ravitch’s argument is strange. Don’t we want parents to care about their kids’ education? She also says charters admit by lottery and “counsel out” unwanted students; “public” schools, on the other hand, have to take all comers, including the students charters don’t want.

Charter schools are public schools and are therefor required to accept all students on a first-come, first-serve basis. They resort to lotteries when demand exceeds supply, which is better and fairer than following the example of private schools and colleges. She points to the widely publicized schools run by the Knowledge is Power Program as evidence of “counseling out.” Interestingly, KIPP schools are charter schools that are essentially traditional schools on steroids.


Ravitch cites studies in Boston, Washington, New York and Houston showing that district schools end up with a disproportionate share of the hardest to educate students. I haven’t seen the study, but its conclusions don’t surprise me. The student bodies in many big-city schools are made up almost entirely of poor and minority kids. For various reasons, the parents of those kids send them to the neighborhood schools without regard to educational quality. Charters attract students who are dissatisfied with conventional schools.

Charter schools will undermine (Ravitch says “destroy”) public education by luring students and draining funds that would otherwise go to conventional district schools.

I repeat: Charter schools are as much a part of “public education” as any other public school. If they undermine anything, it’s the bad schools entrenched in the system.

Students who choose a charter school do take their state funding with them. That is the way the system works. The migration of students to charter schools is no different than the migration of students to suburban schools. Affluent parents have long had school choice because they could afford more expensive homes, which is really the “tuition” for attending a suburban school.

Ravitch criticizes the notion of competition and “free market” forces that are often cited to justify charters. I’m with her on that. There is little evidence that those forces, if they really exist, have made much of a dent on the larger system.

But choice is less about competition than it is about providing a diversity of educational opportunities for the most diverse student body in American history. Conventional schools offer the 50-million-plus kids who attend them the same one-size-fits-all education. This is no longer tolerable.


Ron Wolk is the founder and former editor of Education Week and is now chairman of Big Picture Learning, which has more 70 small public schools in the U.S. and abroad.