For a year or more, my fellow conservatives have looked at me a bit funny when I’ve suggested that maybe we shouldn’t see charter schools as part of our school choice movement. If you look past intentions and the first-order effects of charter school proliferation and take into account other forces in public education, observing what’s actually happening, you can easily foresee a future in which we discover that charter schools were simply a stepping stone to a total government monopoly of education, rather than just the near-monopoly that we have now.
First, we find it is impossible to break the insider-labor-union grip that’s preventing public schools from fulfilling their mission. Second, charter schools act as a school choice opportunity with full public school–level funding (which is much higher than most private school options in the state). Third, non-elite private schools go out of business because they can’t compete with charters’ free-to-parents price point. Fourth, once charters have killed the private school market in the state, the insider-labor-union forces flex their muscles and absorb the charters back into the education blob.
A Linda Borg article in today’s Providence Journal suggests that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence — the state’s single largest operator of private schools, most of them in the affordable range — sees the threat of step 3 and isn’t interested in playing along. The diocese has opted not to extend a lease with Blackstone Valley Prep, the largest network of charter schools.
Charter supporters claim there’s no evidence that they’re poaching students from private schools, despite the striking parallel of the numbers, but they ignore the complexity of human decisions. As contrary evidence, Blackstone Valley director of external affairs Jennifer LoPiccolo notes that “the vast majority of their students are enrolled in kindergarten, not the later grades” (in Borg’s paraphrase), so kids leaving Catholic schools can’t be transferring. But take a bunch of kindergarten kids out of a private school, and its tuition has to go up, pushing parents out. Some of their children will win the charter-school lottery, but most will simply lose their choice and return to district public schools. When the Catholic school ultimately closes its doors, that scenario plays out across its entire student body.
From a small-government, free-market perspective, one would have difficulty coming up with a better example of government’s using its ability to regulate, legislate, and direct near-limitless public resources to its preferred providers (mainly its own) than charter schools. Still, somehow, I’ve already had heated arguments about, for example, H7067, which would remove the unfunded mandate that local property taxpayers must provide big funding to charter schools. In my assessment, that would be a good, positive change consistent with conservative principles. Local taxpayers have next to zero input when it comes to charter schools, so they should have some say about whether or to what extent they want to fund them.
Whatever one’s political persuasion, Rhode Islanders need to give some fresh consideration to charters.