Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Charter Schools – Good, but Not the Long-Term Answer

New Jersey recently approved a record 23 new charter school applications, as its Republican Governor Chris Christie launches his promised efforts to majorly reform education in his state. Charter schools are institutions that operate outside of the mainstream public schools, relatively free from regulation and teachers union influence. Although they are publicly funded, they enjoy much more freedom to innovate, and generally offer superior educational services compared to the traditional public schools in their respective districts.

What the Charter school experiment tells us is that more freedom from government controls yields higher quality over time in education. The reason is simple: Throwing off central planning in favor of even limited freedom liberates the minds of parents and educators who are then freer to act on their own judgement. Free markets – even a limited version – unleashes an intellectual division of labor, and the explosion of ideas that goes with it.

The value of freedom in education has gotten a most dramatic chance to demonstrate itself from an unlikely source – Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, which had one of the worst public school systems in the nation prior to that storm, is now boasting one of the best. How did this happen? Holly K. Hacker of the Dallas Morning News reports:

When Hurricane Katrina struck five years ago, it displaced families and destroyed schools. And the storm unwittingly provided a chance to reinvent public education in a failing school district.

So was launched the nation’s biggest charter school experiment.

One early lesson: The relative freedom of charter schools — they’re independently run and exempt from many state education laws — appears to have been key to an overall boost in student performance in New Orleans. But the charter school setup alone did not guarantee success. The best ones have strong leaders, capable teachers and a relentless focus on learning.

In other words, freedom in the right hands works.

Hacker goes on to describe how “the right hands” use their freedom to act quickly to further the education of the children. As she points out, “the charter school setup alone did not guarantee success”. Nothing can guarantee “success”. What the relative freedom of the charter schools does guarantee is that the best, most motivated educators are free to flourish.

Charter schools have their detractors, especially among the entrenched establishment. And they can trot out statistics from standardized test scores and the like to “prove” that charters are at best equal in quality to the public schools. But there is nothing like the market – i.e., individuals acting on their own judgement – to tell us what the real truth is. The New Jersey Star-Ledger’s Julie O’Conner describes the force behind the charter school movement:

[F]or all the talk about urban parents not being interested in their children’s education, each year thousands … line up in districts all over the state in a desperate bid to get them into better schools.

New Jersey’s suburban schools are among the best in the nation, judging from test scores. But in the cities, many of the districts are disasters, failing students year after year. The most notorious ones become dropout factories, churning out hundreds of students each year who are unable to read, do basic math or function at a community college.

Pent-up demand is growing among an army of urban parents who want to escape that. Gov. Chris Christie has pounced on the issue with an aggressive plan to expand choice. He wants to expand the alternate public school system — charters — and supports a bill to provide vouchers for poor children to attend private schools.

Overall, charters show mixed results. But some are vastly outperforming urban district schools. Students are chosen by lottery, and an estimated 20,000 are on waiting lists across the state.

However those “mixed results” are determined, those 20,000 waiting to escape the public schools trumps the experts, in my mind. While bean counters pour over test scores, the “army of urban parents” who actually know their individual children are telling us that there is no contest between the traditional public schools and the charters: The charters win hands down. Or, at the very least, the traditional public schools are failing their children miserably, and those parents are looking for an alternative.

But for all of the success of the charter schools, they do not constitute a long-term solution to our widely acknowledged educational problems. The reason is simple: They are publicly funded and therefor ultimately subject to being smothered by special interest politics and the entrenched establishment. In other words, they will eventually morph into the public schools they are designed to be an alternative to. There are already danger signs. In an article entitled Unions knocking on charter school doors, Steve Gunn reports:

For years, our nation’s powerful school-employee unions, like the AFT and the National Education Association, opposed the very concept of charter schools and pressured state governments to cap their numbers or shut them down altogether.

They simply didn’t want the competition.

But now that charter schools are obviously here to stay, the unions have adopted a new strategy. Their goal is to aggressively recruit charter school teachers into their ranks, so that charters will be burdened by the same type of labor problems that plague so many traditional public schools.

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, was honest when he wrote the following in a recent union newsletter:

“It is reasonable to believe that as more charters are faced with having to be more like traditional public schools, many of them will dry up.” One of the most compelling features of charter schools is their lack of a union and collective bargaining agreements.

Let me state, for the record, that I am not against unions, as such. Indeed, I am a life-long union man myself. But, unlike my private sector trade union, the teachers union has monopolistic powers: In other words, it is backed by government’s legalized coercion. Specifically, the power of the teachers union stems from the nature of our government-run public school system. It is backed by compulsory taxation and compulsory attendance laws. The teachers union draws on that compulsion. Add to that the lack of competition due to the inability of parents to choose their children’s schools. Hence, the union’s inordinate powers to shackle education.

The problem is not the union, per se. It is the compulsory nature of public education. The success of the charters will not be enough to sustain them, as long as the compulsion remains. Because they are publicly funded, the teachers union and the establishment rules will combine to smother them. Gunn goes on:

Perhaps the Houston Chronicle summed up the situation best when it wrote: “Allowing unions to infiltrate too many charter schools will eventually lead to the death of the innovative conditions that led these campuses to prosper. Successful charter schools need less regulation, not more — and efforts to impose more are really just thinly veiled attempts to undermine the entire concept.” Thus far only a small percentage of charter schools across the nation have union teachers.

But the number will continue to grow as more students flee to charter schools, and the unions increase their efforts to organize the teachers at those schools.

This movement could effectively destroy the very qualities that make charter schools different, and eventually kill the charter schools themselves.

The only long-term solution to our educational problems is a free market. That would entail the elimination of tax supported schools altogether, and empowering the parents to direct their childrens education with their own money. Anything short of that will ultimately prove Keith Johnson to be right. The charters will be “faced with having to be more like traditional public schools, [and] many of them will dry up.”

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