Letter: Where Charter Schools Fall Short

A reader responds to The Atlantic’s recent piece on the charter-school crusader Eva Moskowitz.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The Charter-School Revolutionary

In the January/February issue, Elizabeth Green asked what the growing empire of Success Academy charter schools means for the future of public education.

In her essay “The Charter-School Revolutionary,” Elizabeth Green indeed raises cautions about the charter-school movement, but ends up appearing starry-eyed overall about what she finally describes as “the most promising model we have for public education.” I would add many, many more cautions to her list.

As a former public-school principal and current instructor at the university level for preservice teachers and administrators, I completely concur with Green’s concerns that the quality of students’ education should not be determined by their zip code. We also agree that parents of students in poor communities should have school-choice options similar to those available to parents who have more resources. The idea, however, that the imposition of a “no-excuses style” requiring “good posture, precisely folded arms and legs, and silent hallways” has been overlooked by union-constrained teachers and administrators in traditional public schools paints a misleading and naive picture. There are good reasons that public schools have backed away from the misguided notion of “zero tolerance.” If we have learned anything over the years about educational reform, it is that raising expectations is not hard—the hard part is raising the level of support for students to meet those higher expectations. Similarly, public schools have figured out that the practices of suspending and expelling students from schools have been vastly overapplied to poor students of color. In a great majority of cases, suspensions and expulsions from school do not result in improved student behavior or achievement and certainly do not offer a benefit to society.

Ms. Green and I agree that providing equitable education, particularly in our hypersegregated urban areas, is an enormous challenge. But Moskowitz’s defense of a practice such as “opting out of backfilling” so that “students aren’t distracted by peers that lag behind” sounds a whole lot like skimming off the cream and making sure we do more for them. Our communities are filled with low-performing students—“distractions”—who need more intervention, more support, more time, and more instruction.

Certainly the charter-school movement bears watching,  but we are a long, long way from declaring [as the cover of The Atlantic’s January/February 2018 did] “How Charter Schools Won.”

Mary Ellen Schaffer
Chicago, Ill.

Elizabeth Green replies:

I appreciate—and share—Mary Ellen Schaffer’s dedication to more-equitable schools. I also share her concerns about “no excuses” or “zero tolerance” discipline, as I and other reporters at Chalkbeat have written about elsewhere. As for the other particular she points to as evidence of my being unfairly “starry-eyed,” I never intended to endorse Eva Moskowitz’s decision to opt out of backfilling, because I don’t endorse it. Indeed, I included the detail because I wanted to draw attention to it for the same reasons the policy disturbs Schaffer. In the last line of the piece, I argue that Moskowitz and other charter-school leaders need to take more responsibility as they grow. As I wrote, they need to take responsibility “not just for their students … but for all students.” By “all students,” I very much include those Schaffer calls, with appropriate irony, “distractions.”