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.