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No On 2: The Charter Experiment Has Failed

This November, Massachusetts voters will weigh in on whether to lift the cap on charter school expansion in the Commonwealth. Question 2 would allow for 12 new charters to open per year.

This is an emotionally fraught issue that inspires a lot of overheated rhetoric, certainly including from me, but I'm going to try to stick to the facts and cut back on my usual sarcasm and snark. Without getting too deep into the educational policy weeds here, I'm going to present two reasons why I hope you (assuming you are a Massachusetts voter) will vote no on 2. 

1.You Just Haven't Earned it Yet, Baby. We already have a public school system in Massachusetts. If charter schools are going to continue to expand, I think it's reasonable to ask whether they are doing as good a job as regular public schools.

The answer to this is a resounding no. This may come as a surprise given that what most people in Massachusetts know about charter schools is that they are innovative schools that do a better job than regular public schools. 

What this actually means is that some charter schools perform, as a whole, better on statewide standardized tests than schools in the surrounding districts.

The data that's rarely discussed, however,  is the fact that charter school demographics tend to differ greatly from those of the surrounding districts. In particular, English Language Learners (who tend to score lower on Standardized Tests conducted entirely in English) and students with learning disabilities (who may also not perform well on standardized tests) are vastly underrepresented in charter school enrollments.

(All this data is public, but few people ever put it together. Here's a data-heavy post from last year and another from this year if you want to dig into the numbers. Or you can go here and do your own research.)

We've had charter schools for 21 years, and they have proven either unwilling or unable to serve a student body that mirrors that of the district in which they are located. Why, then, should we open more schools like this?

Here is some more data. You may have heard that Massachusetts charter schools have over 37,000 students on their waiting lists. State Auditor Suzanne Bump analyzed this number and found it to be overstated and unverifiable. So it's important to be aware that people quoting this number are using data they know to be bad in order to bolster their argument.

But apart from the students waiting to get in to charter schools, it's important to look at the students clambering to get out.  Judging by this post, charter schools, at least the ones in Boston, have relatively abysmal graduation rates. Simply put, a lot of students leave. Those numbers are three years old--again, all the data resides here if you want to do your own analysis. Something to consider: in its application to open a new high school in New Bedford, City on a Hill Charter School projects losing 65% of its students. (The data is at the end of the post.) 

Again, I'm trying to keep my opinion out of this and stick to facts. To sum up: Massachusetts charter schools are failing to educate English language learners and students with disabilities at the rate of the regular public schools. They also fail to graduate students at the rate of regular public schools.

Now for my opinion: if we're going to invest more public money in a parallel school system, it should work at least as well as the one we've already got. Charter schools simply do not. So this alone justifies a no vote.   But speaking of pubic money....

2. Charter Schools Are Not Accountable to the People Who Fund Them.

This may also be surprising, but it's true. In your city or town, the people who run your public schools are accountable to you, usually because their bosses are elected officials like school committee members or the mayor. So if you have a problem with your school and you don't get any satisfaction from the school, you can go to your city councilor or school committee member for help. Also, you can look at the school department's line-item budget because it's a public document, so if you really want to investigate how your tax money is being spent, you can.

If you have a charter school in your town, the officials of the school do not report to any elected officials. You can't appeal to your local elected officials for help because they have no power over the charter schools. 

Here's how they work: charter school employees report to the charter school board. The charter school board is made up of people selected by the charter school board itself. There are no elections, and most charter schools do not have any parent or student representation on their boards. (Here's a board and here's another if you'd like to check for the kind of people on these boards. No parents or students on either.)

As you can see if you click on those links, the people on charter school boards all have other jobs. So they don't really report to anyone.   

The Commonwealth evaluates charter schools once every five years. The current Secretary of Education, who oversees the charter renewal process, served as a director of the pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools even after he was serving as Secretary of Education. 

So if you have a problem with a charter school and you get no satisfaction from the administration, you can go to the unelected, self-appointed board. If you don't get satisfaction from them, you can wait up to five years and hope to have some input on the renewal process overseen by an advocate for charter schools.

And if you are a taxpayer and want to see how the charter school is spending your money, you can't see a line-item budget. Charters put an overview in their annual reports but are not required to disclose their line-item budgets as regular public schools do. Here's a bill that is proposed in the current session. It recommends a lot of changes that even I, as someone who follows this issue closely, did not know were necessary for charters to be as transparent as regular public schools. The upshot is that charter schools in Massachusetts currently disclose far less information about their operations than regular public schools. 

Public schools are public entities funded by public money and must, therefore operate with complete transparency. Charter schools are public entities funded by public money and do not operate with complete transparency.

I'm not accusing anyone of anything; I just think, as a taxpayer, that it's very bad policy to send a bunch of tax dollars to an organization that won't tell you exactly how they are spending the money.

In Conclusion 

Charter schools have not proven that they can do the job better than regular public schools, and they are not transparent about their use of public funds. Therefore we should not vote to create more of them.



Diversity in Children's Publishing, Or The Lack Thereof

As anyone who's ever unsuccessfully queried an agent knows, publishing is a subjective business. Which is to say this: whether your book gets published depends not on the quality of the book (assuming a certain baseline professionalism) but on whether someone loves it. This is not a system you can game because love is irrational. You never know what's going to make someone respond to your book. 

Which is what made the Lee & Low diversity survey so interesting. It revealed that the children's publishing industry consists overwhelmingly of straight white women.  (The survey didn't cover agents, but I'm willing to bet that the numbers are similar.) Which simply means that if you're going to get a book for children or teens published in this country, you have to get at least one straight white woman to love it. Actually, one probably won't do since your editor will have to take it to a meeting and get other people to agree. So let's say two.

Now obviously straight white women are capable of loving books by all different kinds of people. But it's a reasonable fear that all those straight white women might be responding better to books that speak to their experience than books that don't. (Thought experiment if you're a straight white woman reading this and preparing to tee off on me in the comments: imagine you can't get published without someone who is transgender and Hispanic loving your book. How confident are you that your book is going to find love? Sure, we're all people, and we all experience the same kinds of emotions, but is the cultural context of your book just going to be too far from the experience of  a transgender Hispanic editor to get it in their guts in a way they have to do in order to love it?)

The other day someone tweeted out a link to the Publisher's Weekly rights report, which tracks which books have been bought by which editors from which agents. It includes a headshot of the author. As I scrolled down, I thought, "Whoa! That's a lot of white women! Only 6 out of the 15 projects sold there don't involve a white woman!"

So I thought, let me look at some more of these and see if this is an anomaly. So I looked at every rights report from January 11, 2016 through April 25, 2016.  I stopped at the end of April because I figured 15 weeks is a relatively decent sample size and, after all, nobody's paying me for this.

I counted the total number of projects and then counted the number of those projects that don't have a white woman creator. (So for picture books with an author and an illustrator, I counted them in the white woman category if either the author or the illustrator is a white woman even if the other member of the creative team isn't).

Major caveat: I don't know how people self-identify. I used a combination of people's names and headshots to determine whether they were white women. So I may have put a handful of people into the wrong category.  And my study necessarily doesn't take into account any diversity in religious beliefs or sexual orientations. All the Rights Report posts are free and available to the public, so feel free to double-check my work.

Here's what I found. 

From January through April of 2016, there were 330 book deals announced. 

Of those 330 book deals, 99 did not involve white women.

In other words: 70% of deals in the first third of this year were for projects written and/or illustrated by a white woman.

Quick demographic check: in the USA, 77 percent of people identify as white. Assuming roughly half of those are women, that's 38.5%.  So, demographically speaking, 38.5% of the population accounts for 70% of the children's publishing creators. 

To put it another way: all men and all people of color, who represent 61.5% of the US population, are competing for just 30% of the spots on publishers' lists. 

Now, let's be clear: it's really hard to get published. Most books that get written will never be published. If you're a white woman, it's still really hard to get published. It's just not as hard as it is for everybody else.