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Charter Schools Are a Menace

July 9th, 2010 by Bill Brown · 4 Comments · Education

Bill Gates is the Andrew Carnegie of our era. Like him, Bill Gates generated incredible wealth by creating a company singularly driven to be the best in its industry but gradually came to agree with his detractors. And by the time he stepped down as a leader, he had committed himself to spending the rest of his life making up for his honestly-earned success. His acceptance of altruism in the midst of pursuing his own selfish values blinded him to the possibilities of economic freedom.

Most recently, he told {via} a charter school trade conference that they represented “the only place innovation will come from.” They are certainly a source of innovative techniques—no one can dispute that. But to say that they are the sole hope for education and that the future depends on “great public education” is absolutely repugnant from a man who amassed his entire fortune in one of the freest sectors of our economy and graduated from a prestigious private school that had purchased an expensive minicomputer at a time when they weren’t widely available outside of universities.

Charter schools are a bastardization, a measure to introduce some elements of competition to the calcified public school system. It is widely held that the public school system has failed—charter schools represent the way out for those who cannot conceive of an alternative. And there certainly have been some innovative charter schools that have thrived from the limited freedom that this hybrid institution allows. But like the limited market-based experiments in the Soviet Union and other communist economies, charter schools are a sop to the free market—an effort to keep the public content by giving the appearance of choice and competition. They hinge on the uncontested notion that government has a responsibility to educate children.

Practically, they crowd out private schools more than public schools did. Parents fed up with their local school or district had no other choice but to pay private school tuition. Now, they can shop around for a charter school—or, worse yet, move their children from charter school to charter school as they try to find a good fit—and never pay a dime in tuition. More importantly, those who were in private schools may find a charter school that is close enough in quality to their current school and withdraw the student. This can easily devastate an otherwise sound private school.

But the choice charter schools offer is illusory. True choice comes from businesses having to satisfy market needs without public subsidy or protection. Private schools must of necessity be responsive to the concerns of parents: if they don’t offer a quality education at a reasonable price, there are other providers to choose from. Charter schools, in divorcing this financial relationship, are naturally less susceptible to parental concerns: most charter schools have significant waiting lists and the government pays the same per-pupil fee whether a parent has one child enrolled or four.

Charter schools stifle innovation by sucking the wind out of private education’s sails. Long term, they represent the greatest threat to the privatization of schooling in America because they don’t challenge the central premise that government has any place in educating the young. The true source of innovation in education is a free market, just like the one that existed in operating systems and word processing software. Even Bill Gates, committed altruist enamored of government, can recognize that parallel.

4 Comments so far ↓

  • Ashley

    Tax Credits!

  • Bill Brown

    That would certainly be a better interim step towards freedom.

  • Mike

    Charter schools are certainly a political football here in Arizona. Basically they come in two flavors at this point, with nothing in between:

    1. Incredible, high-achievement, high-expectations institutions with waiting lists so long you need to put your child down as soon as the pregnancy test comes back positive, and

    2. Cut-every-corner flophouses that will never fail a student no matter how poor the student’s performance, that exist essentially to game the system.

    In a world where all education was private, whether for-profit or non-profit, #2 would not be sustainable in the marketplace, and all schools would trend toward #1. Problem children would be socialized to achieve or would find themselves with nowhere to go.

    Meanwhile, in public schools, you have the worst of both worlds. Staggering cost and low achievement.

  • Ben

    I agree with the 2 flavor analysis from the previous comment. I was fortunate enough to spend grades 7-11 at Arizona School for the Arts, a charter school that had college prep academic standards in the morning and world class performing arts training in the afternoons.

    The part where I have to find sincere disagreement with this post is in the idea of the charter schools as a menace in general. Many of the students I went to school with would have never had the learning opportunities that they did if the options were simply public or private. The charter school system gave these students the opportunity to truly make something of themselves and they have gone on to do great things since then that they otherwise would not have had if their options were limited by their parent’s income.

    I get your point about what it does to the school system in adding additional unfair options to the market, but in a market where some simply can’t shop due to cost, the charter schools like the one I attended provide a life boat that other wise would not exist and I think it’s an extreme to consider them a burden simply for their impact on private schools. If the private school is worth the money, then by all means, the market should prevail and their attendance shouldn’t suffer. But if a publicly funded charter school (the exceptional education I received was extremely poorly funded, they ran the school out of rented space at a church) is able to give them a run for their money, then the goal should be to improve their offerings to counter the competition, not deprive children of options.