Magazine July 27, 2020, Issue

The Collapsing Case against Charter Schools

Parents and prospective students await the results of a charter-school lottery in Brooklyn, New York, April 7, 2009. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Charter Schools and Their Enemies, by Thomas Sowell (Basic Books, 288 pp., $30)

Thomas Sowell — who will have just turned 90 when this review is published — could have retired by now. He could be publishing the memoirs of a celebrated intellectual or the late-career tracts of an éminence grise. What does he give us, instead? A methodologically rigorous, closely argued, data-driven case for charter schools, with very little high-flown rhetoric (I noted one exclamation point) and 94 pages of data tables. Charter Schools and Their Enemies is a bloodbath for Sowell’s intellectual opponents, and it ought to be a neutron bomb in the middle of the school-reform debate. But Thomas Sowell has been giving the reading public and the policymaking class some of the most intelligent advice to be had for many decades — why would they start listening to him now?

Much of Charter Schools and Their Enemies is dedicated to the seemingly simple — but not simple — project of comparing educational outcomes at charter schools with those at conventional public schools. He begins with an illustrative case that will be familiar to many conservatives: The Texas–Iowa public-school comparison. If you judged simply by scores on standardized tests, you would conclude that Iowa has much better public schools than does Texas. But there’s a wrinkle: White students in Texas outperform white students in Iowa, Hispanic students in Texas outperform Hispanic students in Iowa, and black students in Texas outperform black students in Iowa. But Iowa is very, very white, and Texas is not. The source of the disparity in standardized-test outcomes for white, black, and Hispanic students is of course the subject of some controversy, but those disparities are longstanding, they are similar in many cities and states and from urban to rural areas, and they are slow to change — with one important exception: in charter schools. In conventional public schools, the majority of the students are white or Asian; in charter schools, the majority of the students are black or Hispanic. Studies finding that charter schools perform only about as well as conventional schools actually tell us something very interesting: that in charter schools the racial gap in achievement has been significantly diminished and in many places eliminated, while in public schools it has not.

Sowell’s major analysis considers the overwhelmingly black and Hispanic student populations in both charters and conventional public schools in New York City. Why these students? For one thing, Sowell has gone to great lengths here to compare students who are very similar to one another. In fact, Sowell’s main study is limited to charter-school students attending class in the same building as conventional public-school students in the same grade, in schools that are majority-black and -Hispanic, with a special focus on the charter-school networks that meet in five or more buildings, meaning the biggest charter groups: KIPP, Success Academy, Explore, Uncommon, and Achievement First. Focusing on these New York City students has a couple of added benefits: New York keeps track of students by ethnicity and socioeconomic status, facilitating a better apples-to-apples comparison, and — crucially, for the purposes of this kind of study — it assigns children to charter schools through a lottery. Parents have to nominate their children for a spot, and there is presumably some difference between the parents who bother and the parents who don’t, but the charter schools are not able to cherry-pick the best students and thereby pad out their performance numbers.

And the numbers? That’s the bloodbath I mentioned.

There is, as one would expect, significant variability in the performance of the charter schools, just as there is significant variability in the performance of the conventional public schools. (And here it bears underscoring: Charter schools are public schools, publicly funded and serving public-school students; the difference is that charter schools are relieved of some of the constraints imposed on conventional schools by public-sector unions, their financial interests, and the political interests built atop those financial interests.) In almost every case, the charter schools — including the worst of them — outperformed the conventional public schools operating in the same buildings, in the same neighborhoods, serving very similar students. In most cases, the share of charter-school students achieving proficiency or better on standardized tests was a multiple of the number of the conventional public-school students doing so; similarly, in most cases the number of conventional public-school students receiving the lowest classification on those same tests was some multiple of the number of charter-school students doing so. Sowell lets the data speak for themselves, reporting the high and low English and math figures for each of his comparison sets.

(Sowell’s convention is to group the grade levels the charters and conventional public schools have in common in each of the buildings they have in common; so, for example, if a charter school has four grades in common with public schools in five buildings, that produces 20 grade levels for comparison. It looks a little weird at first, but it makes sense.)

For the charter schools, the data are a litany of triumph, and for the conventional public schools, they are a lamentation. In the KIPP schools, for example, the majority of students scored proficient or better in English in ten of the 14 grades meeting the criteria for comparison; in the conventional schools housed in the same buildings, a majority of the students achieved proficiency in only one of the 20 grades. (Some of the buildings were home to more than one public school, which is why there are more public grades in this case than charters.) None of the KIPP schools had 40 percent of their students ranking in the bottom English category; the majority of the conventional public schools did, and in eight of the 20 grades the majority of conventional-public-school students were in the bottom category. At Success Academy, 0.00 percent of the students scored in the bottom category in English in 26 of 30 grade levels; in the publics, the majority of students in eleven of 20 grade levels were at the bottom. In the worst-performing Success Academy school, only 5 percent of the students scored in the bottom category in English — only one point higher than in the best-performing public. A majority of the Success Academy students scored in the top category in math — above proficient — in every grade level. In the conventional schools meeting in the same buildings, none had a majority in any grade level scoring in the top category, and in the vast majority of grades (26 out of 30), the majority failed to achieve proficiency. On and on it goes.

And yet the shenanigans that the public-school interests pull to try to stop charters are, incredibly enough, not a national scandal. Not that long ago, racial deed “covenants” kept homeowners in white neighborhoods from selling their properties to African Americans; today, public-school systems with too much real estate on their hands routinely sell off buildings in a process that explicitly excludes the sale of unwanted public-school facilities to charter-school operators. Over and over again, school authorities give the same answer when challenged on these abuses: Why would we help out the competition? Sowell documents a number of these cases, in his usual bloodless style. That is both a relief and an intelligent rhetorical strategy: These are obviously outrages, and the author doesn’t need to engage in performative outrage to make that clear.

Rather than outrage, Sowell gives us some economics. In New York City, for example, some $1 billion or more would be diverted from conventional public schools to other public schools — public schools operated as charters — if every child on the city’s charter-school waiting list got a place. That would mean a lot of money going into the pockets of non-union teachers and non-union administrators rather than into the pockets of the city schools’ unionized and highly politicized workforce and into the coffers of the unions themselves, which launder a fair bit of that money back into political contributions. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio tried to charge rent to charter-school operators — which is to say, he tried to extort money from public schools teaching public-school students, and generally doing a better job of it with less money spent per student — in order to protect the financial interests of a politically important constituency. In a more self-respecting city, Mayor de Blasio would have been tarred and feathered. What actually happened is that de Blasio was blocked by the relatively sensible and coolheaded Governor Andrew Cuomo. When Andrew Cuomo is the grown-up in the room, you know you have a problem.

But these problems are hardly unique to New York City or other big northeastern metros. As Texas land commissioner and charter-school advocate George P. Bush recently told a National Review Institute audience, it can be difficult to get even relatively conservative local leaders to support charter schools simply because public-school districts are massive employers, often the largest employer in any given city. Another way of thinking about that — and Mr. Bush did not put it this way — is that poor black neighborhoods have terrible schools for the same reason they often have bad police forces. The unionized government workers have a lot of clout, and the poor people with the terrible public schools don’t.

Sowell never gives the sense that he is resting on his laurels or making rote arguments, but there is some familiar stuff in here, for example his arguments for deregulation citing the case of the domestic airlines, which maybe could use some updating. (He is correct, of course, but I am not sure I would choose U.S. airlines as the great success story of competitive capitalism. Sure, I’d rather get run over by a Fiat 500 than by an F150, but . . .) But, sometimes, the familiar thing is what needs to be said. Considering the possibility of reform going forward, Sowell advises against trying too hard to predict the future and instead offers:

What we can do is consider in advance what kind of general principles and specific institutions seem promising. Perhaps the most important of these general principles is that schools exist for the education of children. Schools do not exist to provide iron-clad jobs for teachers, billions of dollars in union dues for teachers unions, monopolies for educational bureaucracies, a guaranteed market for teachers college degrees or a captive audience for indoctrinators.

And that is sound advice. But consider this: As Chicago was turned upside down by protests against police violence, and activists called for the dissolution of the police department, Mayor Lori Lightfoot criticized the proposal not on the grounds of public safety or general opposition to insanity but because of the payroll. The police department, Mayor Lightfoot insisted, is “one of the few tools that the city has to create middle-class incomes for black and brown folks.” Who says crime doesn’t pay?

Our political culture is sick, and many of our institutions are corrupt. Many of them would not be capable of acting on what they could learn from Charter Schools and Their Enemies even if they were so inclined, which they aren’t. Thomas Sowell is a national treasure in a nation that does not entirely deserve him.

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