Politics & Policy

Save the Charter Schools

After Barack Obama gave a thousand campaign speeches on Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the economy, one of his first actions upon taking office as president was to begin gutting a tiny school-choice scholarship program in Washington, D.C. And now newly inaugurated New York mayor Bill de Blasio has, as one of his first agenda items, begun the gutting of the city’s charter schools, which are public schools that operate with some limited measure of independence from the usual education bureaucracies. Like President Obama, Mayor de Blasio is here engaged in plain, naked payback, rewarding the teachers’ unions that funded and manned his campaign by taking hundreds of millions of dollars away from projects they despise. If a private city contractor had bankrolled the mayor’s campaign and been repaid by having him hobble its competition, we’d call it simple corruption. And it is simple corruption, legal though it may be.

Mayor de Blasio intends to redirect money from the city’s charter schools to help pay for expanded pre-kindergarten education, which is to say for a full-employment program for his union supporters. Expanding pre-kindergarten education is a questionable investment: The premier federal pre-kindergarten program, Head Start, has been shown time and time again to provide no lasting results to its supposed beneficiaries. Robust support for early-childhood education sounds like the sort of thing that should work, but the empirical results are that it does not deliver on its promises.

#ad#New York City’s charter schools are consistently flooded with applications from parents desperate to rescue their children from the city’s dysfunctional standard-issue public schools. There are many metrics by which the success of an educational institution can be measured, but if we are guided in some part by the revealed preferences of New York City’s parents, then the evidence is overwhelming that charter schools are a much more attractive choice when the alternative is the product Mayor de Blasio’s union bosses are offering up. Charter-school operators, pointedly seeking to remind the administration that they are, still, operating city public schools, have asked only that their capital and operating funds be proportional to the populations they serve: “A kid is a kid is a kid,” as charter-school executive Eva Moskowitz put it. “We are public charter schools. The operating revenue should be the same. The capital revenue should be the same.”

New York’s charter schools serve a largely minority and low-income population, in a city where the traditional schools barely manage to retain half of the young black men who enter the ninth grade to graduation four years later. Educating the children of New York City entails some serious challenges, and the charter schools have not achieved what anybody would call dramatic success. They simply provide a superior alternative to traditional schools for many families. Results need not be spectacular to be meaningful.

As a report from the Brookings Institution put it:

Two recent rigorous evaluations have found that NYC charter schools are, on average, doing a substantially better job for students than the regular public schools with which they directly compete. For example, student gains in math in charter schools compared to traditional public schools are equivalent to roughly five additional months of schooling in a single school year. Likewise, students attending the small high schools of choice opened by the Bloomberg administration have high school graduation rates that are about 10 percentage points greater than students who wanted to attend these same schools but lost a lottery for admission.

Judging by the application rates, New York City parents love charter schools. The evidence suggests they do a meaningfully if not radically better job than their traditional counterparts. They are seeking only the same resources to which they would be entitled if they were not charter schools, meaning they place no special burden on taxpayers. The only faction opposed to them is the teachers’ unions, which seek to legally eliminate all competition and all alternatives.

Charter schools are a tiny crack in the Berlin Wall of the government-school monopoly, far short of the liberalized approach to education we would prefer. But they are a significant improvement that comes at very little cost, and Mayor de Blasio’s attack on them elevates the interests of his political cronies over those of the city’s children. It is low and it is shameful, and the Panel for Education Policy, which has the opportunity to stop this abuse in March, should see to it that the mayor’s proposal does not stand.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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