Education Debates Need Focus


2020 Democratic presidential candidates are shown on a screen as members of the media work during the Democratic presidential candidate debate in Miami, Florida on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Photographer: Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg

Charter schools are under attack. They are being blamed for draining money from traditional public school coffers. They are being blamed for increasing school segregation. They are called “tools of billionaires.” They are accused of trying to profit off of the public purse by cutting corners and shortchanging students.

For the record, I don’t think this is true. I’d argue that the research is actually more tilted in the charters’ favor than opponents are wont to admit. And I’d argue that with respect to finances, student mobility has been a feature of schools for time immemorial and I don’t see anyone saying that their neighboring district “drains money” from their local public schools. Many problems that public schools have (underfunding, segregation, low teacher-pay) existed long before charter schools were ever on the scene, which makes it difficult for charters to have caused them. And, of course, no child is forced to attend a charter school, so the easiest way to prevent kids from leaving traditional public schools for charters is to make the school attractive enough that they want to stay.

But that is not actually the point I want to make here. I’d like to take a minute to think about how we argue about education policy.

Labels are powerful, for good and for ill. Too often in education policy, it is for the ill. Labels like “charter schools” or “traditional public school” become either a kind of epithet or a term of endearment, rather than a descriptive term.  This short-circuits the serious thinking that should be done about what policies should be promoted and where.

When thinking about education policy, it’s important to focus on the thing that we care about, not the label it has or the baggage that comes along with that label.  As it turns out, when we move beyond labels, the world gets a lot less black and white. Rather than seeing things as 100% good or 100% bad, we can see them for what they do and do not do, and line those things up with the things that we need to get done.

Think of it this way.