Don't Believe the Charter School Hype
The people seeking to blow up the cap on the number of charter schools here in the Commonwealth (God save it!) have turned on the afterburners in recent weeks, as we get closer to balloting in which a referendum on lifting the cap will be placed before the voters. The airwaves are thick with commercials about how lifting the cap on charter schools will provide more money to public schools, which is a dodge, because charter schools are not in any important sense public schools.
There is no public oversight. There is little public input. They are privately run and funded with public money. This is the same principle that has worked out so well with prison food.
In New York on Monday, Jonathan Chait jumps into the issue with both feet. (To his credit, Chait is quite clear that his wife works for a charter company.) He argues no less a case than that the referendum is "one of the most important tests of social justice and economic mobility of any election in America this fall." Glorioski! And, of course, he characterizes the opposition to lifting the charter cap as wholly influenced by the all-powerful teachers union, which he casts as a thoroughgoing villain, and which he comes dangerously close to accusing of enabling racism—or, at the very least, as heedless to the concerns of the poor and disadvantaged.
This is noxious garbage; the great majority of the people represented by the teachers union work in classrooms that most of us wouldn't walk into on a bet. And, anyway, as the very excellent Diane Ravitch points out, a huge number of local school boards have lined up against lifting the cap. These are not all puppets of the evil teachers union. Many of them are composed of people who have looked around the country and seen that an untrammeled charter system is an amazing entry vehicle for waste and fraud. Chait dismisses these people as the heirs to Louise Day Hicks or something. From New York:
The localism argument is correct: Charters are regulated by the state's excellent, rigorous oversight board, which has closed 17 schools it deemed ineffective or mismanaged. If you believe that schools must be managed by local communities rather than by statewide regulators, you might oppose charters. But a fetish for localism is an off principle for liberals to espouse. The "separate but equal" argument is bizarre. The defining trait of a segregated system is that people are forced into inferior systems and given no choice. It is the unions who want to deny them choice. The cap unions support is what forces urban students to attend inferior schools. Lifting the cap would give more of those students the choice to attend high-performing schools.
If Massachusetts has done charters better than, say, Ohio or Florida, it is because the state has exercised the excellent, rigorous oversight that he mentions, and the cap has been an essential part of that oversight. The current campaign to eliminate the cap is not being done to benefit poor children. It is being waged to benefit the charter school industry, which wants to demolish that Don't Believe the Charter School Hype: