Expanding Charter Schools

Oct 11, 2011

We usually think of Franklin D. Roosevelt today as the quintessential liberal, big government president -- and in today’s polarized politics, both sides look back at his New Deal as the time when things either started going right or wrong, depending.

However, FDR didn’t think of himself that way. Once, when asked about his ideology, he said something like, “I try something, and if it doesn’t work, I try something else." Those who were really on the far left in his day mainly hated him. They understood what he was trying to do better than the right wing did.

As author Gore Vidal put it, “He saved capitalism. Whether it should have been saved or not is a different question. But he saved it, all right.”

I was reminded of this today by the ongoing, ferocious debate going on in Lansing over charter schools, which are independent, for-profit, public schools. A new package of bills would lift virtually all restrictions on charters, which are now limited to areas where public school performance is below average.

What bothers me is that so much of the ongoing debate over these schools is ideological or self-serving. And too few of the lawmakers debating these proposals are asking any version of FDR’s classic question, which in this case should be put this way:

What is the best way to make sure these children are being educated? Common sense means that we should all be in favor of any system that gets that job done, by any means necessary.

Creating a vast, unemployable, poorly educated army of desperate young people seems to me like a perfect prescription for destroying our democracy, our prosperity and our society.

But that’s not how much of this debate is being framed. Public school administrators and their unionized teachers are dead set against charters because they will drain money and resources from their schools. Meanwhile, a lot of Republicans are enthusiastically in favor of charters, because, they say, they will allow more school choice. Too often, however, it seems clear that they are really interested in socking it to the teachers’ unions.

The Detroit Free Press today has a significant study of charter school performance, with a helpful database ranking every charter school in Michigan.

While students at a few of them are doing quite well, most aren’t. Students at most of the charter schools for which we have data are performing below statewide averages on standardized tests.  Those in favor of more charters say that these schools are in areas where the public schools are performing poorly, and there is truth in that. But should we be enthusiastically chartering more for-profit charter schools if it isn’t clear that they can do any better?

Frankly, for all the rhetoric about choice, most of us don’t have unlimited time and adequate knowledge to evaluate either schools or heart surgeons. In both cases, we need some regulatory body which monitors them and issues a seal of approval as to their qualifications.

Western Michigan University Professor Gary Miron is a national expert on charter schools. He told the newspapers that those states that grew their charter programs slowly, with better oversight, tended to perform better. Once again, that seems like common sense to me.