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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.