Schools were made to help students, not the other way around

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It’s frustrating feeling like a broken record, but Stephen Dyer’s comparisons between school districts and charter schools can’t go uncontested. His analyses are reductive, crudely simplifying poor families’ quest for better schools as mere financial transactions that—he claims—unduly harm school districts. Yet he ignores the harm that’s caused when a student attends an unsafe or educationally unsound district school. He overlooks the harm when somebody else’s child is cheated out of beautiful, high-quality learning experiences--the kind that we seek for our own children.

Given Dyer’s long established ties to active charter opponents—Innovation Ohio, the teachers unions, and the Know Your Charter project—it’s not surprising that he routinely places the interests of districts and the adults they employ ahead of families and children simply seeking a quality educational environment that meets their needs. Each blog he writes lays bare the common yet wholly fallacious view that state education dollars are “owned” by districts. Districts receive state funds to ensure that students can receive a publicly funded education in a publicly accountable institution; when a student leaves, so should those dollars.

This edition of “I can’t even, Stephen” has to do with yet another of his common practices: putting the “performance index” scores of giant school districts serving tens of thousands of children up against the scores of individual charter schools. He asserts that this comparison is justified because the performance index (a weighted measure of student proficiency on state exams) dictates charter start-up eligibility: Districts that fall into the bottom five percent on this measure are designated “challenged,” which means they’re places where new charters can locate.

A refresher on why this comparison is misleading: If you contrast Columbus City district, which includes schools in highly educated, wealthy neighborhoods, with schools located in the city’s toughest neighborhoods, the district will come out ahead. That’s generally true whether those schools are district-run or charter. Years of social science research has found that school performance on proficiency-based metrics largely correlates with income.

But let’s talk about the second part of this and how alarming it is. When districts earn scores low enough to trigger eligibility for charters to locate there, charter opponents view this as a sanction for districts. In other words, they view poor families’ ability to access better alternatives for their kids as punishment for districts rather than opportunities for people.  

Imagine treating other family-driven choices—especially when the choosers are mostly black, brown, and poor—as a sanction on the institution from which those families fled.

Now imagine that those leading the complaints most likely have never been trapped in a schooling situation they couldn’t buy or move their way out of.

Okay, now try these on for size:

  • I can’t believe that woman left our hospital to seek cancer treatment somewhere else. That is so unfair to us!
  • If this region’s hospitals score in the bottom five percent on health outcomes, alternative hospitals can come to town. What a terrible idea; this will steal money from us!
  • Alternative daycare providers, separate from the ones to which children are “zoned,” are providing false choices. We deserve to be paid back by the state each time a child elects to leave.
  • You should have your baby at the hospital closest to your house. That’s what’s best for the community. We need strong neighborhood hospitals. You are ruining our neighborhood hospital by sending your dollars to a different one.
  • I understand that your child needs a specific kind of trauma treatment that our center currently doesn’t have. Nevertheless, you must stay with us. It harms our center and our clients if we lose your health insurance money. 

It’s obvious how self-centered and selfish these statements are and how ridiculous they sound. They place institutional interests above the needs of clients or patients each time. Yet such arguments are made repeatedly in education and largely go unchallenged.

If a family isn’t forced to select the hospital, daycare center, trauma treatment center (or library, grocery, bus stop, etc.) closest to their house, why on earth do we force families to do that with schooling? To suggest that families should have no choices because their neighborhood institutions lose money—be they hospitals, daycares, or schools—is outlandish. In almost no other instance do we give primacy to the effects of private choices on public institutions. We don’t force people to stay in deteriorating urban cities—or even struggling rural areas—simply to ensure that public services are maintained. Rather, we expect these places to reinvent themselves to attract and retain residents and/or “right-size” their budgets in ways that match present realities. The same should apply to school districts.  

Nevertheless, people like Dyer continue to say these things out in the open, in plain daylight, even with pride, about schooling. They fight to enact policies to keep people in their “zones” to ensure that institutional—rather than family and student—needs are met. In this type of system, the primary losers are nearly always the poorest among us. Does this make you angry yet?

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.