Tag Archives: charter schools

Do Charter Schools in Colombia Provide Sufficient Accountability and Choice?

In 1999, Colombia joined many other countries in amplifying educational options by introducing a form of charter schools called Concession Schools (Colegios en Concesión). So far, the Concession schools have been confined to the capital city, Bogotá, where they grew to number 25 in 2003, remaining at that count through 2014. During that period, they accounted for 4 percent of the nearly 1 million students in the city’s primary and secondary schools.

In “Theory versus Reality in Charter Schools in Colombia,” a paper published at the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Dr. Brent Edwards Jr. and Hilary Hartley go beyond assessing academic outcomes to examine the process of authorization, evaluation, and enrollment to determine the degree of accountability and choice the Concession Schools offer.

Edwards and Hartley find (a) that competition among schools has not been realized due to an insufficient quantity of charter schools from which parents can choose (with the implication being that public schools do not feel pressure to compete for students) and (b) that the government’s ability to hold schools accountable has been limited by a lack of clear performance criteria, by weak evaluation methods, and by the politically charged relationship between the government and charter schools. 

While the paper focuses on the original CEC (i.e., charter school) contracts that were set to end at the conclusion of 2014, Dr. Edwards provided IEN with an update on what’s happened since then:

While the leftist mayors of Bogotá have since 2004 been opposed to the CECs because they represent a form of privatization, Mayor Petro, in May 2014, proposed the following: three-year contract extensions for 17 of the 25 CECs; one-year contract extensions for 5 CECs, after which point they would revert to government management; and, for the remaining 3 CECs, conversion to management by the government of Bogotá at the end of their initial contracts in December 2014.  The basis for these decisions was a ranking of all public and CEC schools in Bogotá, with this ranking being the result of a weighted score based on academic performance on standardized tests (50 percent weight), student retention (25 percent), and school climate (25 percent). Those 17 CECs that ranked in the top 50 were deemed to have “good results.” It is not clear from where the data for this ranking came; the Secretary of Education for Bogotá stated that they came from “various entities and studies.”

Interestingly, however, in September 2014, the City Council of Bogotá obstructed the renewal of CEC contracts in accordance with the proposal mentioned above by the mayor. Approval from City Council—a democratically elected body of 45 councilmen—is required for contracts with the government that extend beyond one budget cycle, and in this case CEC contract renewal was voted down. The association of parents from CEC schools lobbied the national minister of education for support, and, indeed, other national ministers got involved (including the minister of government, minister of the interior, and minister of estate) once the President of Colombia came out in support of the CECs. These ministers offered to provide technical and legal support to the City Council of Bogotá, some members of which did not feel that they had the capacity to properly evaluate the situation and to make a decision related to a three-year budgetary commitment. Some council members were also doubtful as to whether they could legally make budget commitments beyond the period of the current government. Yet others, closely associated with the teachers unions, voted down the proposal because they saw the CECs as a form of privatization.

In the end, despite pronouncements from the country’s President regarding the importance of the CECs, despite involvement from the national ministers, and despite pressure from CEC parents and students, it was only possible, based on the laws regulating the city government, to extend CEC contracts for one year, except for those three poorly performing CECs that were initially scheduled to switch to government control at the end of 2014. This outcome resulted from the fact that Mayor Petro never resubmitted his proposal to the city council due to insufficient support from this body for the proposal to pass.

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Private, Subsidized Schools in Chile

Chilean private subsidized schools operate in a radically different environment from charter schools in the US. Since the imposition of the voucher-based system during the Pinochet dictatorship, virtually anyone, at any time, for any reason, could start and run a school. Furthermore, up until recent reforms, those schools could continue to operate largely without any evidence that students were learning or even that the schools were offering an education that complied with the legal regulations. Under these conditions, the percentage of students in municipal schools (so-called because they are run by municipalities much like district-run public schools in the US) has dropped significantly over the past 20 years, from over 55% of the student population in 1990 to under 40% in 2011. At the same time, enrollment has risen in private, subsidized schools to over 50% of the student population, with about 7% of students attending non-subsidized private schools that receive no public funding.

As Gregory Elacqua, Director del Instituto de Políticas Públicas, explained to me, several different kinds of both for-profit and not-for-profit private, subsidized school operators have emerged in Chile. These include a number of school operators with backgrounds in education or related fields who often start a single school and then may expand to a few others. Among these operators are former teachers – or now the sons and daughters of former teachers who inherited the schools their parents started. In some cases, the founders were kicked out of teaching in the public schools during the Pinochet regime largely because of their left-leaning politics. (In other words, even members of the political left took the opportunity to create schools in a system generally assumed to reflect the policies of the political right.) Organizations related to the Catholic Church have also opened and operate many private, subsidized schools. But a wide variety of other individuals and businesses with relatively little in the way of an education background have also started schools and networks of schools. These include an owner of a chain of restaurants and bars who also decided to start a network of schools (see Elaqua and colleague’s Scaling up in Chile for a description of several different kinds of private, subsidized school operators).

Despite the considerable differences in terms of what it takes to open and operate these kinds of schools, what I learned in my conversations in Santiago suggested numerous parallels in the issues for charter schools in the US and for private, subsidized schools in Chile. For one thing, the voucher system in Chile grew out of the work of Chilean economists, often referred to as the “Chicago Boys,” who were trained by University of Chicago economists Milton Friedman and Alan Harberger. Friedman, in particular, is also credited by many as inspiring work on vouchers in the US. Further, approaches to choice in both contexts reflects a basic set of assumptions: if schools are not successful in educating students, parents will not be satisfied, they and their children will choose to attend different schools, and the poorly performing schools will close.

Several key issues can interfere with this relatively straightforward logic, however. First, in order to have a choice, spots in schools that offer a higher quality education need to be available and those schools need to be near enough so that parents and students can get to the schools. While this seems obvious, many students have very limited school options in areas with small populations or that are not well-served by public transportation (e.g. rural areas and many urban areas of concentrated poverty). Nonetheless, school choice policies do not always take these factors into account. Evaluations of the school choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States, for example, found that almost one half of the school districts that were required to offer school choice at the middle school level and about two-thirds at the high school level did not have any schools for parents to choose that were not already failing. Second, parents and students need to get information on school quality in a timely, accessible and clear way. Again, this can be much more difficult than it sounds, as the same evaluations of NCLB in the US also found that many parents did not get this information until after they were supposed to choose schools for their children. Third, even with good information on quality, parents and students do not always use quality as the primary basis for their choice of school. This can be particularly problematic if students from different backgrounds choose schools for different reasons, as may be the case in New York City (see High school choice in New York City).

As the private school options have increased, Chilean policymakers have also devoted considerable attention to making understandable information on quality and choice available to parents. Nonetheless, the data is mixed on the extent to which parents base their decisions on that information, as distance from the school, among other factors, also may be highly influential (see I would walk 500 (miles if it paid)). Complicating parents’ choices in Chile, up until recent years, private, subsidized schools have been able to charge “co-payments” and some schools have been able to select their own students. While the recent reform proposals described in our last post would largely eliminate these advantages, these factors have made it harder for parents and students from lower-income backgrounds or who do not fit the criteria of the most selective schools to get into the schools of their choice (see When schools are the ones that choose).

Although the extent to which Chile’s choice system has contributed to educational improvements remains a matter of debate, using PISA results as a yardstick, Chilean students have improved their performance, but segregation has increased and economic inequality remains extremely high. As the debates over choice continue, some are turning to a focus on how to ensure quality of all schools, regardless of levels of public financing or extent of public or private ownership. As Bárbara Eyzaguirre – a member of the previous Chilean administration who worked on the development of new standards – explained it, while there has been choice in Chile, it has been too easy for both public and private schools that are not doing well to continue to function. In fact, schools in Chile have not needed to maintain a minimum number of students in order to stay open, and in many areas private schools are able to attract students even if they are not performing that well (providing little incentive for them to improve).

As a consequence of concerns about quality and persistently failing schools, over the past 20 years Chile has worked to develop a quality assurance system (more on this in a future post) and raise standards across all schools. Furthermore, many successful private, subsidized schools have also attempted to expand their operations and to develop networks of schools. Elaqua’s analysis in Scaling up in Chile raises the possibilities that larger networks of schools might provide a more effective education than single schools or smaller networks. One explanation might be that these networks have the advantages of scale, though it is also possible that more successful schools or school owners are more likely to join or start networks.

The challenges of scale in Chile also sound similar to the issues encountered by charter operators in the US. For example, Eyzaguirre, originally trained as a psychologist, has worked with colleagues to create a small network of not-for-profit private, subsidized, schools. The schools serve students from lower-income families, with what she describes as a relatively traditional approach. It’s an approach that focuses on “the basics”, includes large class sizes (as many as 45 students to a class in some cases), and takes into account the need to operate with limited resources so that the schools can be replicated in other underserved areas. Even with good results and commitment to expand, however, the network has to deal with the challenges of finding or building and paying for school facilities – another critical issue for charter schools in the US. In addition, the network has plans to expand to 10 schools, but they face a human capital problem in limited numbers of teachers who are well-prepared to teach in their schools. In response, the network has developed their own professional development and training programs (as charter operators like KIPP have begun to do in the States). In the process, the focus of the work expands from student learning to adult learning, organizational management, and quality assurance – the traditional functions of the districts, municipalities and other bureaucracies that many charter advocates hoped that they would escape.

Thomas Hatch

New Zealand

Charter school trials to take place across the country
Armstrong, J.  New Zealand Herald (21 April 2012)

Act, the ruling political party, will continue with its controversial plan to set up autonomous charter schools, and it is now likely to take in disadvantaged schools across the country, rather than just being restricted to those in south Auckland and Christchurch, so as to avoid the “fish bowl” effect.  The concept of charter schools has been heavily criticised by teacher unions, academics, and some politicians who point to the failure of some charter schools in the United States to lift students’ educational achievement.  (See New Zealand’s Green Party’s criticisms of charter schools here.)  The Chairwoman of the New Zealand Model of Charter School Working Group, Catherine Isaac, said the group would look at overseas examples of success and failure as part of its development of a New Zealand model, as well as seeking meetings with teacher unions as part of an extensive round of consultations.

New Zealand

Charter schools ‘harmful’ says study
Davison, I.  New Zealand Herald (14 April 2012)

Despite an academic group’s insistence that charter schools “may do more harm than good to the under-achievers,” the New Zealand Government “has recently reaffirmed its keenness to implement charter schools…”  Under the National-Act agreement, New Zealand will be implementing charter school reform in areas that are traditionally low-achieving—South Auckland, Christchurch East, and possibly Wellington.  “The academic group welcomed the Government’s focus on the need to address educational achievement through wider social and economic policies,” but they believe the narrow focus of the educational achievement data could end up increasing the educational inequities charter schools aim to reduce.  The Government, however, countered that there were many different models of charter schools worldwide.  Said Act Party leader and Associate Education Minister John Banks, “For our New Zealand model we are taking the best of the best ideas from the most successful charter schools, as well as from the most successful schools in New Zealand.”  The same academic group also said that charter schools were a “radical departure” from the principles of social democracy and civic participation.

Despite the debate about charter schools, this video highlights how charter schools “remain a mystery” for many New Zealanders, whereas this video is an interview with Head of Education at Aukland University, Dr. Airini, discussing the aforementioned poll and the New Zealand charter school movement in general.