August 2004
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Day August 17, 2004

Charter schools: useful experiment or potential disaster?

The New York Times published today a national comparison of charter versus public school performance, from the National Center for Education Statistics. By themselves, the test results don’t look good — across racial, income, and geographic categories, fourth graders in public schools did better than charter school peers.

This is an issue which has become highly — and wastefully — politicized. Republicans are supposed to support privatization of education and charter schools in particular. Democrats are supposed to revile the charter school movement, and protect public schools at all costs.

But I have to admit this is an issue where I’m conflicted. I keep walking past the petition volunteers who want signatures against vouchers, because I’m not sure we shouldn’t be experimenting with better approaches to education. I’m definitely sure that current approaches to teacher’s union contracts provide little way to recognize excellent teachers and replace sub-standard ones (1). So, when I only consider the issue from an insular standpoint, thinking about how to improve education, experimentation beyond public education seems like a sound idea.

But then you read about 80 charter schools being closed due to financial malfeasance. And you have to wonder whether, since we can’t seem to incent and enforce ethical corporate governance, how could we possibly expect private charter schools to be any better?

And then you read reports by People for the American Way, documenting how political groups from the socially conservative right are making a concerted effort to use vouchers and charter programs to drive the religious privatization of education.

And all of a sudden it seems like we have no choice but to retrench our support for public education, and shut down venues like voucher programs and charter schools.

I need to read more deeply in this area. Does anybody know of good literature on the subject?


(1) And yes, I understand the difficulties involved in evaluating whether someone is a good teacher or not. But there’s a vast difference between the difficulty involved in making fine distinctions, and the ease with which parents and peers can typically identify someone who’s truly not able or willing to do a good job teaching.