The Lesson of Charter Schools


Ted Vecchio’s essay in this space, yesterday, puts charter schools into a helpful spotlight as an example.  They occupy an interesting position.

On one hand, taxpayers and those involved with district public schools in one way or another have grounds for their complaint that the schools are being funded as if they were public, but the public has limited control over them.  Charter supporters might point out that there is a reason for that — namely, that labor unions and other special interests have interposed themselves in such a way as to falsely speak for the public and to prevent the public from reforming the system.

On the other hand, private schools and those involved with them have grounds to argue (as I have done) that charter schools act as sort of public foray into the private school market, with the risk that they’ll undermine the private system and then be absorbed back into the regular public system, leaving the families even fewer options than before.  Here, charter supporters tend to turn around and emphasize that they represent “public school choice,” leaving taxpayers with at least some say.

The lesson, it seems to me, is the initial error of half measures, of attempting to avoid real reform.  If government schools are not performing, and are failing expensively, then that system needs to be rethought, with real, practical mechanisms to force reform in ways that the labor unions and other special interests can’t affect as easily.

The only feasible solution that I’ve seen is total school choice that gives some portion of funds that would go toward a public school student’s education — an amount well short of charters’ guaranteed full per-student compensation — to families, who can use those funds for education wherever they’d like.  By lowering the price of private school, such a program would empower more families to find the right balance between cost and benefit.

In the ordinary way of the market, families with more wealth (but not enough to afford private schools without help) would find the decision easiest, but the factor most likely to be key to decisions will be students’ needs.  The greater the need for something other than a district school, the greater the willingness of families to find some way to afford something else.  Even wealthy families won’t choose the expense of private schools if they are satisfied with the public services that their children are receiving.

Giving partial tuition will leave money in the public schools attributable to students whom they needn’t educate, and the decisions of families will, over time, better allow government schools to fill the gaps for the students for whom public schools are the preferred option.

But all throughout government, we have to get away from this notion that we’re supporting systems just because those systems are something government is supposed to do.  We have to ask:  Why is government in the education business in the first place?  If we start policy debates with that sort of question, we won’t find ourselves enmeshed in these messy debates about a system, like charters, that is actually attempting to accomplish goals that nobody wants to name.

  • BasicCaruso

    Q: Why is government in the education business in the first place?
    A: Thomas Jefferson
    …whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those person, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance; but the indigence of the greater number disabling them from so educating, at their own expence, those of their children whom nature hath fitly formed and disposed to become useful instruments for the public, it is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expence of all, than that the happiness of all should be confided to the weak or wicked.

  • BasicCaruso

    “The tax which will be paid for [the] purpose [of education] is
    not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings,
    priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the
    people in ignorance.”
    –Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1786.

  • It’s funny when Jefferson’s support for his public education plan is used as justification of our existing public education system when our existing system is nothing like what he supported.

    Jefferson vehemently opposed centralized administration of education beyond what we would consider a larger neighborhood — about 5-6 square miles. If you actually read his plan he warns that if a governor and state officials were to control the school districts they’d be badly managed, abused and would eventually run out of money. He argued that a government could no more manage schools than it could manage farms and stores. He also opposed compulsory attendance.

    What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or the aristocrats of a Venetian Senate.

    • BasicCaruso

      “If you actually read his plan he warns that if a governor and state officials were to control the school districts they’d be badly managed, abused and would eventually run out of money.”

      I’d be interested to read his opinions on mismanagement of education if you can provide a source. I would be a bit surprised to learn he wrote that. He founded the University of Virginia after all and of course the memorial has this quote (granted a mashup of two quotes but doesn’t get much clearer than that)…

      “Establish a law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state and on a general plan.”

      Always interested to read more Jefferson.

      • The relevant section is on p493.

        He founded the University of Virginia after all

        Founding an institution of higher learning does not imply that he felt the government, through taxation, should fund it, staff it, or direct it. I don’t imagine he would feel opening a university would be much different than opening up a barber shop, in that respect.

        • BasicCaruso

          Never saw Jefferson write about opening state run barber shops, but he wrote many times about using taxes for education, including for the University.

          “…we wish to establish in the upper & healthier country, & more centrally for the state an University on a plan so broad & liberal & modern, as to be worth patronising with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other states to come, and drink of the cup of knolege & fraternize with us.”