The myth of US charter schools

Don’t buy the hype from Michael Gove – or Arne Duncan.

Arne Duncan, Barack Obama's education secretary and the man who invited the US military to run local schools during his controversial tenure as chief executive of the Chicago state school system, is in London visiting our very own Michael Gove.

The latter, of course, has been ultra-keen to push his agenda of academies and "free schools" since taking office in May, and has become fond of citing the Obama administration's support for so-called charter schools. (Interestingly, on a side note, Gove and the Tories have very little to say about Obama's position on deficit reduction, which is closer to the Labour Party's view than the coalition's.)

From the Guardian:

Gove said: "America is a bigger country and there are differences between us, but I have been impressed by what Race to the Top has done, and impressed by many of the things that President Obama and Arne Duncan have been fighting for."

It's worth noting the cynicism, however, of Gove's approach. At first, the Education Secretary championed free schools by pointing to the supposed successes of the Swedish version, which is said to have been the original inspiration for the Tories' education reforms. But, as empirical evidence emerged over the summer that challenged the Swedish model, Gove and his outriders began pointing instead to America's experiment with charter schools. Hence today's visit by Duncan to the UK.

As the Americans reject the Obama administration, the coalition embraces one of its worst ideas. Peer-reviewed academic research suggests charter schools ain't as good as their well-funded and high-profile advocates make them out to be. Here's what the CREDO National Charter Schools Study at Stanford University discovered last year:

While the report recognised a robust national demand for more charter schools from parents and local communities, it found that 17 per cent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 per cent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 per cent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.


It's also worth bearing in mind the view of Diane Ravitch, a leading historian of the US education system, former assistant secretary of education in the administration of George Bush Sr and one-time supporter of "school choice". Writing for the Wall Street Journal in March, in a piece entitled "Why I changed my mind about school reform", Ravitch observed:

Charter evaluations frequently note that as compared to neighboring public schools, charters enrol smaller proportions of students whose English is limited and students with disabilities. The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters often reflects the fact that they are able to "counsel out" the lowest-performing students; many charters have very high attrition rates (in some, 50-60 per cent of those who start fall away). Those who survive do well, but this is not a model for public education, which must educate all children.

So please don't buy the hype about charter schools – not from our Education Secretary or, for that matter, Obama's.


If you're looking for more information on US charter schools, I highly recommend the website Charter School Scandals. My favourite story from that site is the Denver charter school which "broke a new state law by offering families $400 worth of gift cards if they brought new students to the school before the day the state takes a student census", because "state money follows students into the classroom – an average of about $6,600 per pupil across Colorado, according to the Colorado department of education".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.