Politics & Policy

Can You Read?

Charter schools vs. public schools: the real battle.

The New York Times treats as the topmost news item of the day a report that students at (most) charter schools are doing worse than students at (most) public schools. These are data put together on fourth grade students. The question asked was: How well are they reading?

We are told that the public school students are one half year ahead of the charter school students. This is certainly headline news, and what makes it a headline is that the findings are so unexpected. If the poll had established that students do better, learn more quickly how to read, at charter schools, that news would have got nowhere on the front page. Why? Because it would merely confirm what the reader would assume, or intuit from the basic facts.

A charter school operates outside the authority of the school board. If dissatisfied parents join forces and hire a lawyer to walk them through the bureaucratic paces, they can organize a charter school. The hiring of teachers and arrangement of the curriculum would be left to the organizing council, and lo! a charter school has been founded. There are about three thousand of these, 88,000 public schools, and the new federal program called No Child Left Behind anticipates a growth in the charter schools corresponding to the growth of the number of public schools that are shut down because they perform so poorly.

On the same day that this story broke, a Florida court narrowly (2-1) disallowed a voucher program that permits students to attend religious schools. To permit vouchers, said the court, flouts the provision of the Florida State Constitution forbidding state money to religious schools.

Now there are huge mountains and valleys of thought that distinguish between supporting a religion and granting a voucher to a student who uses it to attend a school in which religion is also taught. These are qualifications acknowledged by the Supreme Court, and the ruling in Tallahassee may not last till the next hurricane. Governor Jeb Bush has ordered an appeal, the school will proceed as before until that appeal is heard, and constitutional adjustments are always possible.

But the endless question dogs all Americans, which is: Many public schools are doing a bad job in educating American children; what can be done about it? Do we need to surrender to a constitutional vise that seeks a theological commitment to the separation of church and state binding enough to choke off any flow of state funds to schools that mention Adam and Eve?

The big headline on the matter of the charter schools doing less well than the public schools is obviously based on findings which are either aberrational or tendentious. If a charter school is organized and the superintending citizens who put it together are motivated by a desire for improved education, why should such a school do less well than a public school? It is possible that the students in the charter schools whose reading scores were compiled were especially retrograde, bringing average accomplishment down for the short term. If a charter school devised to perform better than the public school from which the students were withdrawn fails to meet its goal, it should cease to exist.

Or it can go private. The unending phenomenon in Washington, D.C., inviting indignation and frustration, is the private schools to which all congressmen send their children but which are not permitted to educate the children of lesser creatures because they can’t pay the fees, lacking vouchers. They lack vouchers because of the hard fist of teachers unions, and the underlying fear of offending racial minorities, never mind that these minorities plead for the succor of better education.

The charter schools will handle such setbacks as yesterday’s poll — there is no reason for the charter school to fail. But yesterday’s judicial finding is sustained by a hard and superstitious prejudice against any religion in schools. That will take longer to cope with.


The Latest