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Well-regulated charters improve education for low-income students, author says

David Osborne spoke at an event sponsored by the Philadelphia Education Fund before an audience of movers and shakers, but few parents and teachers.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In remarks before a cross-section of the city’s elite, author David Osborne argued Friday that to improve education for poor students, cities such as Philadelphia should create more charter schools – as long as the expansion is accompanied by meaningful accountability.

Osborne works for the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate think tank, and served as a senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore in his 1993 effort to reinvent government. His talk at the Union League in Center City, a longtime haven for the city’s political and financial power brokers, and a subsequent roundtable discussion were organized by the Philadelphia Education Fund, which is led by School Reform Commissioner Farah Jimenez.

Osborne’s new book Reinventing America’s Schools focuses on three cities that he said improved education for low-income students through charter growth with rigorously enforced performance standards: New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Denver.

New Orleans remade its school system after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and today, almost all its public schools are charters. In Washington, D.C., about 45 percent of students now attend charters after Congress passed a law authorizing their creation in 1995, and the proportion of students in charters has been steadily growing. In Denver, an elected school board has reshaped the education landscape by closing many district schools and creating charters in their place, while giving some district schools more autonomy.

All three districts primarily educate low-income students of color, and student achievement has improved in each, he said, presenting charts to support his point.

Osborne calls these cities “21st Century School Systems.” Beyond simply promoting charters and autonomy, he said, school districts must shed their industrial-era roots and adapt to an era where jobs require more advanced skills. That shift, he believes, requires schools to have more flexibility in instruction and staffing. He argued that entrenched bureaucracies and union contracts create “rigidity” that limits reform.

A roundtable discussion afterward included Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, Kevin Shafer of the Camden City Schools, and parent activist Quibila Divine. U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans was scheduled to be there, but he had to return to Washington to vote on legislation.

Whose fault is it?

There was little disagreement among the panelists, but some interesting talking points emerged from the discussion.

For instance, when Osborne called the current inequitable arrangement of public schools “nobody’s fault,” Divine pushed back. She said that the public education system had been structured to purposefully disadvantage poor and minority families.

“I respectfully disagree. I think it was somebody’s fault, somebody wanted it,” she said. Families in the poorest neighborhoods “don’t know how to advocate for children, how to obtain a higher-quality education,” she said. That makes it easier to “build a school-to-prison pipeline” that results in the employment of “more police officers, more judges, more corrections officers.”

Shafer, the Camden district’s chief innovation officer, was sitting in for Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and he backed Divine.

“I echo that,” he said. “The root of our problem is systemic poverty and institutional racism. If you drive from Cherry Hill to Camden, it’s hard … to miss.”

Hite suggested that what stood out for him in the three cities that Osborne mentioned is “stability,” or sufficient time for new models to take root, as opposed to a continual change in leadership and approach. He also stressed the importance of adequate funding.

He explained that the District gets state funds as a “block grant,” with revenue tied not to actual enrollment, but to the previous year’s funding amount. But when the District reimburses charters for their expenses, it is on a per-student basis. Today, about 70,000 city students attend charters, compared to 133,000 in District-run schools.

As a result, “If we increase the population [in charter schools], we actually spend less per child, and if we decrease the population, we actually spend more. We’ve been increasing across the total sector,” meaning that the available resources are being stretched more thinly.

“That’s not a function of charters or any decisions,” he said. “That’s a function of a bad funding structure at the state level.” It was the only line of the morning that got any applause.

Osborne also repeatedly emphasized the importance of creating a centralized, accessible application process for students in charter and traditional public schools. If the most disadvantaged families cannot navigate a choice-driven system, he argued, it will lead to further stratification.

Four years ago, there was an effort to create a universal enrollment system for city high schools that was pushed by the Philadelphia School Partnership. District, charter, and parochial schools would have been on a single application where families ranked five high schools in order of preference, and an algorithm would match students. The effort failed amid concerns and criticisms that the system would limit parent choices and further disadvantage some students.

On the issue of how to evaluate schools and determine which should be replicated or closed, Osborne said cities should de-emphasize student test scores. He believes it’s important to look at other data, including graduation rates and attendance, as well as qualitative measures such as student, teacher, and parent satisfaction surveys. As a model, he pointed to England, where teams of educators conduct periodic in-person evaluations of school climate.

Teachers’ unions are ‘doing what George Wallace did’

In an interview after the roundtable, Osborne had harsh words for teachers’ unions. Although he said he understood their initial purpose in an era where worker abuses were rampant and turnover high, he believes that unions today often obstruct progress due to self-interest. A professional model based on partnership in which teachers helped run schools would work better than the industrial union model of “labor vs. management,” which he said is not a good fit for education.

“I understand why teachers unionized, and there were good reasons, and they have every right,” he said. “What bothers me is when they stand in the way of poor minority kids getting opportunity, and they actually fight hard to do that.” Last year in Massachusetts, he said, unions spent $10 million defeating a law that would have raised the cap on how many charter schools could exist in the state.

“They’re actually doing what George Wallace did, standing in the schoolhouse door, denying opportunity to poor minority kids,” he said. “And that really bothers me. But that’s their political activity.”

Osborne did not, however, back all facets of the school-choice platform. In the interview after his talk, he said that he did not look in depth at cyber charter schools, but that many are “terrible” and “probably ripping off a lot of people.” He also said school vouchers won’t work because they’ll increase divides between the haves and have-nots.

“Would you really like an education place that looked like the marketplace for homes and automobiles?” Osborne said. “We need more equal opportunity and equality in this society, not less.”

He further said he did not support the nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education and slammed some of the reforms she supported in Michigan as a philanthropist and political donor.

DeVos, he pointed out, lobbied against a bill in Michigan that would have increased accountability for charters because she believes the only thing that matters is whether parents choose to send their children to a school.

In a polarized political climate, Osborne represents an increasingly imperiled position: that of the liberal-leaning education reformer. Allied with free-market conservatives on some issues and equity-focused progressives on others, Osborne conceded that he and others like him have found it more and more difficult to forge compromises.

He also said charter schools in some states haven’t produced the desired results, singling out Devos’ Michigan, as well as Ohio. Osborne believes, however, that the flaws there stem from lax oversight and a glut of authorizers.

The audience was made up largely of business leaders, representatives of foundations, charter school leaders, and School District officials. There were few, if any, parent or teacher activists in the room.

One of the few open skeptics in the audience toward Osborne’s message was Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Eduction Law Center, which advocates for English learners and students with disabilities.

“Charters are not a panacea,” she said. “It’s painted today, here this morning, that we should look at Washington and New Orleans as models. I’m not sure that’s the case, especially if you are thinking about the most vulnerable student populations.”

Osborne said that Washington charters outperformed district schools there, “but we have to look at whether charters in D.C. are equitably serving students with disabilities,” Gordon-Klehr said.

There was one parent activist who tried to get in and was stopped at the door by Union League employees – even though she had a ticket – because she did not meet the venue’s dress code.

Allison McDowell, who has a child at Masterman and rode her bicycle to the event, was dressed in jeans and a sweater. After she was barred from entry, she sat in the middle of the corridor between the entrance and the staircase as others arrived, forcing them to step around her.

McDowell also chalked the sidewalk in front of the building, saying “Philanthrocapitalism can take a hike, (heart) Philly,” and “fund schools, don’t disrupt them.”

In a later phone interview, McDowell said the idea of “reinvention” is just a way of reducing the investment in public schools and shifting the responsibility for educating children to nonprofit and for-profit organizations and venture capitalists.

“I don’t think that public education funded through foundations and impact investing is going to be good for kids,” she said.

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