Expect Miracles: Charter Schools and the Politics of Hope and Despair
reviewed by Douglas Harris - 2003
Title: Expect Miracles: Charter Schools and the Politics of Hope and Despair
Author(s): Peter W. Cookson, Jr. and Kristina Berger
Publisher: Westview Press, Boulder, CO
ISBN: 0813366313, Pages: 240, Year: 2002
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Recent attention to vouchers has over-shadowed the much larger existing school choice program in the United States – charter schools. The charter movement, now a decade old, includes 2,357 schools, encompassing 4 percent of all K-12 schools in the U.S. How we understand and evaluate such a large school choice program is likely to have a significant impact on the future of the broader choice movement.
Expect Miracles: Charter Schools and the Politics of Hope and Despair makes a significant contribution to understanding charter schools. In “Part One: The Landscape of Charter Schools,” Cookson and Berger start with a clear and accurate description of charter school history, beginning in Minnesota and extending to the 36 other states that now have similar types of legislation. They successfully define the charter school concept. They provide up-to-date descriptions of how it has been applied across states, although it is highly questionable whether charter schools in most states are “held strictly accountable for helping their students achieve academic and other performance goals” (p.3), an argument that the authors themselves later refute. One unique contribution is the authors’ narrative that highlights the difficulties faced by those who wish to start successful charter schools, from defining an educational vision to maintaining support from parents and other supporters.
The book also does a commendable job of sorting through some subtleties that are often ignored in the debate. For instance, they make the distinction between explicit discrimination, based on race, income, class, test scores, and so on, and the more subtle forms of “de facto discrimination” (p.63), which involves excluding students by targeting an educational niche. Common niches include college preparation and a focus on the histories and perspectives of particular cultures – Western, African, and so on.
The first section of the book would have benefited from an expanded discussion of education management organizations (EMOs). While only 10 percent of all charters are run by for-profit EMOs, there are three reasons I would argue that EMOs deserve more attention in the context of charter schools: First, as the authors point out, the market argument is central to the existence of charter schools; and the inclusion of for-profits goes hand-in-hand with that argument. Second, a key reason why EMOs have not become more common is that existing ones haven’t been able to make any money; this could easily change if states decide to expand charter programs by increasing the per pupil allowance that makes up the charter school revenue stream. Third, one state at the forefront of the charter movement – Michigan – has a very large number of for-profits, in part because of the design of state policies.
“Part Two: The Social and Political Geology of Charter Schools” starts with a list of reasons why charter schools, and school choice more generally, have gained momentum over the last decade. Some of the explanations are well known – “anti-government attitudes” and “the rise of the right.” Others appear to be novel. First, the authors write that “the contrast between our antique school system and our evolving society is striking. To some degree, the charter school movement is an attempt to capture the future. By breaking the mold of traditional schools, the charter school movement leads us to a more innovative, future-oriented form of schooling” (p.123). The authors are describing here the general perception of charters, not their own views. Cookson and Berger are somewhat skeptical of the innovation claim, but still apparently supportive of changing the current “antique system.”
The authors also argue that this perception of innovation may be producing a type of product branding common to the consumer mentality. According to this argument, parents may choose charter schools because it makes them feel, and makes others perceive them to be, different from the masses who send their kids to the public schools.
A third novel argument involves the lack of opportunity, real and perceived, among the lower-middle class. The authors write that “the movement to deregulate public education coincides with a period in American history when social mobility slowed and even regressed . . . the deregulation movement tries to capture the American Dream of unlimited opportunities. ‘If you get a really good education, the good life is attainable’” (p.128). There is strong support for their argument. For instance, the wage gap has widened between workers with a high school diploma and those with a college degree over the last two decades.
These unique arguments about the motivation of behind charter schools might have been made stronger if they were tied to a discussion of the behaviors and outcomes that researchers have found in charter schools. Only the last of the three arguments, that the demand for quality education has increased, would likely lead to higher educational attainment or achievement. Few research studies have found large or statistically significant test score gains in charter schools relative to public schools, which may suggest that the increased demand for quality is not the driving force behind the charter movement. These outcomes may also suggest that charter schools have not been given enough time or money to succeed, or that the studies include inadequate controls for student characteristics. In any event, it is possible and important to test the role of various motivations.
The book ends with a third section entitled, “Postscript: The Goodness of America – An Education for Democracy.” Eloquent and passionate, the essay briefly describes the authors’ vision of charter schools, which includes the importance of free and universal accessibility, equal educational opportunity, focus on democratic values, and community orientation. The section also contains one of the best sentences I’ve ever heard about the nature of freedom applied to education: “When my liberty becomes your disadvantage, I have a privilege disguised as a right” (p.140).
If there is one clear lesson of the school choice movement, it is that the implementation of choice does not always coincide with the principles of choice or of public education. As Arsen, Plank, and Sykes (1999) point out, the rules of choice matter a great deal. A follow-up project by the authors that connects their worthy list of principles to issues of implementation would make a great contribution to the choice debate.
Overall, the book provides a solid introduction to the charter concept, the challenges faced by charter school operators, arguments in favor and against school choice, and the current state of charter policy. It also provides a compelling vision of “education for democracy.” What remains to be settled is how the principles of school choice can be put into practice without stepping on the basic principles of public education, which still have broad public support.
Arsen, D., Plank, D.N. & Sykes, G. (1999). School Choice Policies in Michigan: The Rules Matter. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University. Available at http://www.epc.msu.edu/publications/publications.htm