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Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve and as keen an observer of social policy as you’ll find on this planet, said to a shocked group of politicians, academics and businesspeople at a recent session on school reform at a conference in Colorado: “The battle is already won. We’re already past Gettysburg.”
Having mulled this opinion over for a few weeks, I have come around to Murray’s view. The battle is indeed won, though the mopping-up operation could take a while.
Competing for better schools
The goal in the battle for school reform is to provide competition for the near-monopoly that currently teaches our kids between kindergarten and 12th grade.
If you ask yourself why K–12 education has been so poor—with so much money expended with such deteriorating results—you have to begin by recognizing what makes it different from other endeavors.
The answer, clearly, is a lack of competition. The dynamic that produces progress in the commercial world is freedom to try, to fail and to try again, combined with the fantastic feedback loops that are provided by the price system, by the realm of buyers and sellers.
We know whether something works by throwing it into the market and finding whether people buy it—and for how much.
Without this mechanism, it is extremely difficult to discover solutions—or even to generate the incentives to try to find solutions. By contrast with this well-established competitive model, K–12 schools offer command-and-control bureaucracy, headed by the aspiring politicians who run school boards and their allies among unionized and stultified teachers and administrators. It is not a pretty picture, but it is one that can change quickly by merely offering competition.
That is precisely what is happening.
The charter-school movement
Public schools are being challenged in three disparate ways: vouchers, privately funded scholarships and charter schools.
All three approaches are important, but, from my own research, I have concluded that charters will have the most impact—in part because they are more politically palatable than vouchers and easier to fund than private scholarships. Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the usual school-board structure. They are entrepreneurial and specialized, and they are funded with tax dollars that otherwise would go to conventional public schools. As of last month, there were 786 charter schools operating in 24 states, with a total enrollment of 166,000. According to the Center for Education Reform in Washington, another 429 charters are set to open, bringing enrollment to 288,000.
I am currently at work on a project for the American Enterprise Institute to determine whether conventional public schools are responding to the challenge of charters. It seems that they are.
My preliminary findings, reported in an article in the April issue of Reason magazine, focused on the best of the charter states, Arizona, which now has 241 charter schools and will add another 27 in the fall. I pointed out that a dramatic illustration of how charters have forced traditional schools to respond could be found in a full-page advertisement that the Mesa Unified School District ran in local newspapers in the summer of 1997. The headline said: “There is no better place to learn than in the 68 Mesa public schools!…Don’t miss out!” At the time, 23 charters were operating in Mesa, a fast-growing city of 350,000 near Phoenix. More than just marketing, I found substantive responses in curriculum and in relations with parents.
One reason Arizona’s charter schools have pressured conventional public schools is that charters typically deprive school boards of money. When a student leaves a conventional school to go to a charter in Arizona, the school board loses roughly $4,000 (the average cost to educate a child in the state’s public schools), which flows to the charter. Mesa’s board, for example, has lost $10 million in funding. That’s the sort of incentive that’s needed for public schools to react—to start getting better to attract students back.
Unfortunately, some states, including Massachusetts do not require school boards to lose full funding when a student leaves for a charter. The incentive is lost. In addition, some states require charter teachers to be union members—and load charters down with other burdens that keep them from being innovative and independent.
But, clearly, charters are having an impact. The evidence is that their opponents are getting desperate—like the Confederates after Gettysburg. In North Carolina, for instance, the state board of education recently raised concerns “over the predominantly African-American student population at 13 of the state’s 34 charter schools,” according to the Chapel Hill News. You read that correctly. The education authorities are worried that charters are too black.
The reason that blacks are attracted to charters is obvious. “Take a look at proficiency numbers, particularly on African-American males. They’re disastrous,” said Roger Gerber, president of the N.C. Charter Schools Association. “It’s just not unusual for people who are dissatisfied to consider charter schools.”
Indeed, a study last year by the U.S. Department of Education found that 48% of charter-school students are members of minority groups, compared with 34% for public schools nationwide.
Incredibly, the state is considering closing charters with too many black students, including Healthy Start Academy in Durham, which has second-graders scoring in the 75th percentile (up from the 34th a year ago) in the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
In their report for the Hudson Institute—Charter Schools in Action: What Have We Learned?—Chester E. Finn Jr., Bruno V. Manno and Louann Bierlein point out that charter schools nearly all have waiting lists: “Quite simply put, charter demand exceeds supply.” That’s the best market signal you can get.
Also, they say, “parent involvement is high,” and teachers are dedicated and excited about what they are doing.
A charter school in Boston, in fact, offered a “learning guarantee” that could be the nation’s first: If students do not make the grade on state exams, the school will pay their way at another school of their choice, public or private.
It is hardly a surprise that, with this kind of success and confidence, the public schools want to squash their competitors—not by beating them fair and square through quality but by appealing to their political allies. But, as Charles Murray says, it’s too late. The Battle of Gettysburg has been won.
James K. Glassman is the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fellow in Communications at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a contributing editor of IntellectualCapital.com.
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