Charter Tantrum
The New York Times takes on President Bush through charter schools.


Chester E. Finn Jr.

Move over New Yorker. Out of the way, Updike and Bellow. The New York Times is fast becoming one of America’s foremost sources of fiction. Tuesday’s “editorial observer” column by veteran Timesman Francis X. Clines (“Re-educating the Voters About Texas’ Schools“) abounds with such biased and erroneous allegations about charter schools in Texas (and beyond) as to prove once again that fealty to the facts wins no points at the nation’s former “newspaper of record,” especially if the untruths can be used to savage Republicans in general and George W. Bush in particular.

The nominal point of Clines’s tantrum is that charter schools — independently operated public schools, freed from many of the usual bureaucratic encumbrances — are sapping scarce resources from “real” public schools and putting them to no good use. Clines views charter schools as an education failure so enormous that it’s forcing Texas to lower statewide academic standards.

The subtext, however, says the education-reform initiatives that Bush launched in Texas — an energetic combination of standards, tests, consequences and competition — and then went national with via his signature “No Child Left Behind” act are not working in the state where they were piloted. The public-school establishment dislikes them. Hence readers are encouraged to conclude that the president is steering America in the wrong direction.

Perhaps Clines belongs to the National Education Association or the Democratic National Committee. He’s certainly singing their tunes. He’s also wrong in almost every sentence of this column. Four examples will suffice:

He terms charter schools a “beloved conservative stratagem” that, at public expense, provides “a nonpublic alternative to public schools.” Wrong. Charter schools have bipartisan roots, supported by Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Roy Romer, and the Democratic Leadership Council as much as by conservatives. Indeed, many on the right are wary precisely because charters are not truly independent. Embrace them or not, however, everyone save Clines recognizes that they’re a genre of public schools: publicly financed, zero-tuition institutions that are open to all comers, obliged to teach to state academic standards and administer state tests, and dependent for their existence on decisions made by government officials.

Clines alleges that Texas is one of the “states that have had to ease their own third-grade reading test standards to avoid failing thousands of students” — and that the failure rate is especially high in charter schools. The fact is that Texas has, in recent years, been toughening its academic standards and the new ones are just being phased in, more rigorous than before, albeit not so rigorous as one hopes they’ll become. (Instead of starting high, Texas has a long history of slowly ratcheting up its academic expectations for schools and pupils.)

Clines cites the demise of an eighth of Texas charters as proof that this reform strategy is a fiscal and educational failure. Nationally, some 200 charter schools have closed. Yet most people celebrate this as a victory for accountability. Instead of keeping unsuccessful schools on life support as the regular school system does, the charter movement buries its dead.

Like many education establishmentarians, Clines uses verbs like “siphoning” and “divert” to describe what charter schools do to the funding of conventional public-school systems. This canard makes sense only if you believe the money belongs to the school system, not that it was appropriated for the education of children in whatever school they opt to attend. (Does a college student attending Rice with the help of a state scholarship or loan “siphon” money from the University of Texas?) Whose money is it and for what is it being spent?

No point in saying “shame on the New York Times” because that paper’s shamelessness has long been on display. Perhaps we should simply view it as America’s only major daily source of fiction — and then plead for less predictable plots and more finely drawn characters.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education.