Monday, September 5, 2016

John Oliver's Partially-Researched, Inaccurate Take on Charter Schools

Normally, I enjoy John Oliver and his witty take on political issues. However, the episode he did on charter schools a couple of weeks ago that (see below) was sub-par, to say the least. He criticizes charter schools by saying that proponents overstate their success, the schools siphon talented students [from public schools], and use precious resources. To his credit, he does point out some egregious cases out there, and we charter schools incompetent of managing its operations should be shut down. However, Oliver's piece was nothing short of selection bias.

He essentially cherry-picked the worst examples out there to make his case. Why don't we take a look at some major public school systems to see how they perform? Earlier this year, 12 Detroit principals were accused of taking kickbacks on supplies that were never delivered. If you want to know how bad corruption is in Chicago, read the Inspector General's report outlining Chicago Public School system corruption in 2015. To name some other major public school systems with major levels of corruption: San Francisco, Wake County in North Carolina, New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston, New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas. I could keep going, but you get the point. These are examples of how financial mismanagement and bribery are rampant in large public school systems, but I very much doubt that Oliver would ever run a piece like that because I would wager to guess that his liberal friends and allies would not take too kindly if he attacked public schooling the way he attacked charter schools.

Whether intentional or not, Oliver overlooked some points. He forgot to mention that charter schools have to voluntarily attract and recruit students, as opposed to perpetually funding the number of public school boondoggles with taxpayer dollars. At least with charter schools, if they fail, they're held accountable for their results. Public schools that under-perform most probably stay open for years, if not decades. Good luck getting that level of accountability with the public school system! Also, charter schools are more likely to enroll disadvantaged students, which creates a bigger uphill battle for charter schools. As illustrated below, this makes the performance of charter schools all the more impressive. Finally, although Oliver pointed out that charter schools are paid on a per-student basis, charter schools still receives about $3,059 less per student, which means that if charter schools perform at the same level or even outperform public schools, it's all the more impressive because it's more cost-effective on a per-student basis.

If Oliver wanted to take a significantly more objective approach on the matter, he would have compared charter schools to its alternatives, most notably to public school, in as apples-to-apples of a fashion as possible. That was the approach I took when I wrote on the topic of charter schools back in 2014, during which I concluded that in spite of receiving less funding and taking a higher proportion of disadvantaged students, charter schools on average outperformed traditional public schools. Here is some noteworthy research that I have found in addition to what I found when I wrote my 2014 blog entry:
  • A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research: Back in the early 2000s, charter schools were initially less successful than traditional public schools. However, exits [of poor-quality charter schools] from the sector, improvement of existing charter schools, and positive selection of charter management organizations that open additional schools raised average charter school effectiveness over time relative to traditional public schools." (Baude et al., 2014).
  • John Oliver cited a 2013 Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) as the basis of his criticism. I'll forget that the 2013 study showed (p. 83) that the closures of low-performing charter schools helped increase overall performance. Let's look at a 2015 study from the same Center that shows that urban charter schools outperform their traditional public school peers.
  • A 2015 study from Mathematica used a randomized control trial to find that while charter schools had a negative, but statistically insignificant effect on advantaged students, there was a positive gain for disadvantaged students.
  • There is also a 2014 Mathematica study showing that those in charter schools have a higher graduation rate and greater lifetime earnings. 

Am I here to say that the worst charter school outperforms the best public school? No. I'm sure there are some wonderful public schools out there. Does this mean that charter schools are immune from criticism? No. We should criticize when there are under-performing schools, but we should also show the same level of scrutiny for public schools. We could look through more studies, but when it comes down to it, we should be asking ourselves if it is better on the whole for schools that receive taxpayer dollars to be operated by the public sector (i.e., traditional public school system) or if schools should be able receive taxpayer dollars while being able to operate with a fair amount of autonomy (i.e., charter schools). Especially for disadvantaged students who could use an alternative from their failing public school, this is a major question for those who want to acquire a higher-quality secondary education. It might not be as glib or whimsical as John Oliver, but on the whole, charter schools provide greater advantage than the traditional public school system. I hope that in future episodes, John Oliver exercises better journalistic responsibility and brings both humor and a well-researched viewpoint to his shows.

11-1-2017 Addendum: The Left-leaning Center for American Progress makes a progressive case for charter schools.

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