Charter Schools and Their Enemies

Since the 1990s, the charter school movement has taken off across the United States. These charters are essentially public schools with fewer bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and their impact is often positive, especially in underprivileged minority communities. Despite their net success (or perhaps because of it, as Sowell points out), charter schools represent a threat to many comfortably ensconced traditional public school systems. Economist and Stanford research fellow Thomas Sowell has gathered the relevant data and urges the American people to understand this movement and the systematic subversion it is encountering.

By Thomas Sowell – as reviewed by

1. Intellectuals and politicians overlook examples of black success in education when blacks succeed in ways elites did not envision.

The question of how to improve black education has persisted for decades, but it often assumes that quality black education has never existed in the United States.

When Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren famously declared in 1954 that racial segregation was the central factor impeding black educational success, he either was unaware or did not care that there was a highly successful all-black high school a mile from the highest court in the land. Dunbar High School graduated the first black Supreme Court Justice, the first black general, and first black Cabinet member, and matriculation and college acceptance rates were higher at this all-black high school than any other school in Washington D.C., including all-white prep schools. But to the disappointment of the author (and to the harm of many black students), education scholars and policy makers refused to take seriously the patterns of black success where they had appeared, at Dunbar and elsewhere. They elected to focus on the preferred (but still imaginary), patterns of black success they wished to see unfold. 

Many already had a pet diagnosis and were doubling down on their prescriptions, which meant ignoring evidence that fell outside their paradigms. The popular paradigm was integrating “inherently unequal” schools that were often all-black or all-white. However lofty and well-intentioned the aims, we still have to answer the question, “What were the effects of integration efforts on education?”

The busing initiative, for example, was a natural outcome of the Brown v Board of Education ruling (which determined that the segregation of schools was unconstitutional). Unfortunately, busing in black kids to integrate schools did not lead to any significant improvements in black education. It did fuel racial divisions and riots, with children often caught in the middle of these sad tensions. 

Decades after those rulings and busing initiatives, another option proposed was school choice, which allowed parents whose children were zoned for failing public schools to send their children elsewhere. The idea was to prevent low-income families from being locked into a poor education.

Charter schools are a corollary of the school choice movement. These schools operate like public schools, but without the morass and rigmarole endemic to traditional public schools. Charter schools receive government funding as long as their students meet standards. The charter school movement has been an experiment, and, as with any experiment, not every aspect has been a success. Some charter schools have failed—but then so have many public schools.

That being said, numerous charter schools and charter school consortiums have exceeded expectations, especially in low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Some are achieving results that are nothing short of extraordinary, often surpassing other public schools in their areas, and sometimes surpassing predominantly white private schools.

Even more surprisingly than a pipe dream realized is the vicious backlash this movement has received. A movement that should be cause for joy is being systematically repressed. Such obstructionism deserves investigation.

2. Apples-to-oranges comparisons of public schools and charter schools amplify confusion for the American public.

There are plenty of disparate opinions regarding the charter school movements. Depending on whom you ask, the charter school movement is either a phoenix rising out of the ashes of a defunct public school system, or it is a deeply harmful experiment that has gone off the rails. Still others simply write it off as a fad destined to fizzle out like any other.

The students in charter schools have to meet certain benchmarks for a school to keep its charter and continue to receive public funding, but they are not under the thumb of public education administrators and bureaucrats as public schools are. Charters emerge through the initiative of private companies or individuals who petition the government for funds to start a new school. If the official bodies approve the charter, those companies or individuals can proceed and get money as long as standards continue to be met. If a charter school fails its students, however, the charter is terminated and taxpayer dollars are redirected.

Charter schools are never the default; public schools are. Parents have to choose charter schools for their children, and usually enter the game of waitlists and lotteries, as interest far exceeds availability in many places. Because of the lottery system, the students entering charter schools are not necessarily the star students; some are bright while others lag behind. The distribution is about the same as in public school. The randomness provides a control for the charter school experiment: Neither public schools nor charters get an advantage here.

 There are other challenges to designing apples-to-apples comparisons between charter schools and traditional public schools because of the uneven distributions of demographics. Whites and Asians, for example, constitute the majority in public schools, whereas charter schools are predominantly black and Hispanic students from low-income areas. Public schools exist in wealthier areas as well as more impoverished areas, whereas charter schools show up disproportionately in low-income areas. The problem with this approach is that it compares apples to oranges while insisting that the comparison is apples to apples. Even if the error is unintentional, it has proven powerful ammunition for criticizing the charter school movement. But criticisms based on these flawed comparisons can be deeply misleading.

3. The best-designed studies of charter schools versus traditional public schools reveal that charter schools perform better—and sometimes much better.

The best way to test different results between traditional public schools and charter schools is to find individual charter schools and public schools that are highly similar, ideally within the same building as traditional public schools, with similar student demographics, and with at least one class per grade so scores can be compared at every grade level.

Given that New York City has tens of thousands of students in charter schools, and that many charter schools rent space in the same buildings as traditional public schools, we have a really large sample with similar ethnic breakdowns. It is as apples-to-apples a comparison as a statistician could hope.

The data from the 2017-2018 school year revealed that students in charter schools did far better than their public school counterparts in English and in math. The analysis involved thousands of students in numerous classes across New York City. In English, proficiency levels were five times higher in charter schools than in traditional public schools. In math, the differences in student proficiency levels were even more pronounced: 68 percent proficiency in charter schools based on 161 classes, versus 10 percent proficiency across 177 classrooms in traditional public schools. That’s nearly seven times higher in charter schools. Given the suspicion and hostility surrounding the subject, it is worth mentioning that this data was not disaggregated to isolate flagship charter school networks like KIPP Academy or Success Academy. The data set includes a sample encompassing far more schools than those.

It is also worth mentioning that in numerous places, the disparities in proficiency levels between charter schools and traditional public schools are even greater than the disparities between black and white student performance. Such statistics offer the vital reminder that, even if it is fashionable to harp on one factor to explain disparities, the reasons for differences in educational outcomes can never be reduced to a single variable.

When charter schools and traditional public schools are compared apples to apples, the results are remarkable, not just in New York City, but across the nation: Students in charter schools tend to outperform students in public schools, even when both groups are taught in the same buildings and demographic breakdowns are similar.

4. The million-dollar question of why an education movement helping low-income minority students gets so maligned is more of a billion-dollar question.

The research from the most fairly designed experiments is clear: Charter schools tend to produce better—even far better—results than traditional public schools when demographics and location are taken into account.

So why do so many people who work in education not champion this movement, which has demonstrably positive effects? Rather than a million-dollar question, that is a billion-dollar question. In the case of New York City, public funds allocated for education are roughly $20,000 per student per school year. So if all 50,000 students on charter school waitlists were admitted, that would amount to a billion-dollar loss for the public school system.

What is more, fewer students mean fewer teachers, which means smaller unions, which mean smaller cash reserves. Declining numbers in public schools would also mean school education programs would take a hit, as public school salaries and climbing the ranks are both closely tied to advanced education degrees. By contrast, student success is the biggest way to advance your career in charter schools.

A mere 10 percent of K-12 students are enrolled in charter schools, but this amounts to billions in losses for traditional public schools. Moreover, that 10 percent becomes far more impressive when we consider how young the movement is. Charter schools have only been around since the 1990s, and are taking the education establishment by storm. Those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo now strain more than ever to stop the bleeding and hang on to their students.

Here is another statistic that sharpens the contrast between charter and public schools and helps explain some of the traditional public school’s desperation: Public schools had a one percent growth rate between 2001 and 2016. Over that same period, charter school growth was almost 600 percent, and even higher when we look specifically at low-income minority communities.

Advocates for traditional public school systems often bring up cases of failing charter schools, but successful charter schools pose a far greater existential threat to traditional schooling. A failing charter school gets its funding revoked, but a successful charter school will continue to divert revenue and draw students away. It is no coincidence that the schools that have come under the heaviest fire have not been these failing schools, but the highly successful charter school networks like KIPP Academy and Success Academy. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, made undercutting high-performing charter networks part of his election campaign.

Political moves like this expose the sad reality that quality education for low-income minority children is hardly the controlling concern for many leaders in education and in politics.

5. School districts and teachers unions are eager to thwart charter school expansion, but the real losers are schoolchildren.

In Boston, there are currently 25,000 students waiting and hoping for admission into charter schools. That’s triple the number charter schools can admit. In New York City, the waitlist is twice as long as Boston’s. What makes these statistics even more tragic is that, in numerous cities across the United States, there are vacant building wings or even entire vacant buildings controlled by school districts, that charter schools could put to use. But unions have begun exploiting charter schools’ hunt for space by barring them from sharing spaces, even spaces that traditional public schools are not utilizing. It is increasingly common for teachers unions and public school administrators to obfuscate or explicitly refuse to lease or sell to charters eager to meet the exploding demand from the inner city and elsewhere.

Teachers unions form the epicenter of political animosity against charter schools. That animosity trickles into legislative and judicial bodies when candidates want backing from the education establishment.

Of course, the real losers in these scenarios are not the charter schools but the young students. But as one former leader of the United Federation of Teachers remarked with surprising candor: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”

The case of Detroit Prep is a sad and telling example of the active hostility against charter schools. Detroit Prep is a charter school running classes out of a church basement. Even in the improvised setting, Detroit Prep students showed promising signs of competence and readiness for tests. The charter school administrators had their eyes on a shutdown school facility for a future site, and the charter school was in a position to purchase the property.

But the terms of sale that the Detroit school district had put together explicitly stipulated that the property could only be sold “for residential purposes” (i.e., not for another school). It was only through fierce advocacy, adverse media attention, and public ire that Detroit Prep got the building in the end.

A charter school won this battle, but numerous other skirmishes have gone the other way. The case of Detroit Prep is not a one-off, unfortunately. Plenty of cities have passed laws making it more difficult for charter schools to find buildings. Some cities have created laws that impose ceilings on the number of charter schools allowed—regardless of the rates of success or failure, or the quality of education the students are receiving.

In Cleveland, the school district avoided public scrutiny by labeling 30 vacant spaces as being cleared “for storage” or “miscellaneous,” thus avoiding the need to sell to charter schools. Apparently Cleveland’s school district would rather see these buildings bulldozed or used for purposes other than educating its children.

The plotline ran along similar tracks in Chicago, where the school district owned 40 vacant school buildings that cost $2 million yearly to maintain. The school district sold these spaces to raise money, but said it would not sell to charter schools. The properties could be sold to “tuition-charging schools” (i.e., private schools), but that was a sleight of hand. Private schools offer no competition to public schools, especially for low-income communities where private schools are far too expensive.

Charter schools, on the other hand, do present serious competition. When the president of the Milwaukee Public Schools Board was interviewed about legislation that would force the school district to sell Milwaukee’s vacant buildings, he said that would be like Coca-Cola handing over assets to Pepsi and enabling them to compete. This is a misleading comparison, because the soft drink companies are private ventures, whereas citizens have paid for school buildings and should benefit from their use. Moreover the goal of schools is to educate children—not to insulate the education establishment against disturbances. Such comments, however, do shed light on the anti-competition mindset of some decision makers in education, and the lengths to which some school districts will go to contain any threats to their monopoly-like conditions.

In a word, charter schools represent a disruption for those in the education system with the lion’s share of power and profit. Unions and districts are bent on stamping out that threat. The dangers of all this are very clear. Nothing less than the future of thousands of children is in question. For youth in underprivileged minority communities, the stakes are even higher. The best-designed research on the subject reveals that on the whole, the charter school movement has helped children from low-income families—even if it hurts education establishment power. Whatever education departments and politicians might say about charter schools, both accurate data and struggling inner-city parents are telling a different story.

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