I don't know if you've been following this story like I have, but some study just came out showing that Harvard students outperform students from other universities and that Harvard as a whole does a better job educating students. Naturally, this has given rise to calls for action. The one that's seems to be gaining the most steam is the call to open more Harvards. After all, if one Harvard does such a great job, imagine what would happen if we opened three Harvards or even 10 Harvards.
In case you haven't caught on, this is a set-up so I can talk about charter schools and the policy follow ups in light of the Hoxby report, which found that New York City charter schools consistently outperformed the city's traditional public schools. What made the Hoxby report so interesting was that its findings flew in the face of the results of a recent national study that found that most charters were as good or worse than traditional public schools, with a relatively small percentage outperforming their traditional peers. Hoxby's report seemed to buck that trend, at least in New York City. Hearing only what they want to hear and seeing only what they want to see, the charter school backers in New York declared that Hoxby's study proved conclusively that charters are always better schools and therefore we should have lots more of them. Calls began to remove the state-imposed cap on the number of charter schools permitted in New York (which currently stands at 200). I think that's it for exposition.
If all you know is the Hoxby report, it makes sense to want more charter schools. After all, apparently there's proof that they are better. This is problematized somewhat by the CREDO report which found that charter schools tend not to be better. What's missing from the discussion right now is someone pondering what it is about New York charter schools that makes them exceptional (assuming the validity of both the CREDO and Hoxby reports).
That brings us back to Harvard with the disclaimer that I'm working on logic here as opposed to solid research to back up what I'm saying. It's good logic, but it's not definitive nor should it be taken that way.
Part of what makes Harvard successful is that there's only one. Thus, that one Harvard is able to attract the best professors, the best researchers, and the best students (I'm not trying to get into an argument about creaming here, just stay with the analogy). If there were two Harvards, that pool of the very very elite would be diluted by about 50% at each individual Harvard. If you get to 10 Harvards (to say nothing of 200) you get even more dilution. What makes Harvard special is that there's one and they can make it the very best that it can be.
So now let's veer back into charter territory. It seems to me to be logical that when we cap the number of charter schools allowed in the state, we'll then end up with the 200 best charter schools that want to open. Just like Harvard will take the top professors and top students, the state will take the top schools. That makes sense. Doesn't it then also make sense that if we threw open the doors to everyone we wouldn't be getting the same quality? If Harvard let anyone who wanted to teach there actually teach there, do you think instruction would be of the same quality?
I've written before that I find it hard to believe that just having the label charter affixed to a school makes it a better school than one without that label. Maybe we should consider the possibility that the charter cap we have in place is helping New York's charter system by ensuring only the best get through and that lifting the cap could actually be detrimental. That may or may not be the case. But it sure seems logical.