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One Clear Advantage of Charter Schools

Mayor de Blasio’s threat to pull public support of charter schools has elicited powerful reactions, none more so than Peggy Noonan’s column this past weekend: "When a school exists for the students, you can tell. When it exists for the unions, you can tell that too."

The controversy centers on whether charter schools should pay rent or no longer be "co-located" within public schools. To review the bidding, charter schools in NY are privately-run schools that receive roughly the same stipend as the public school district spends. Since the public budget calculation excludes the free rent of existing schools (as well as unfunded pension costs), it’s hard to see why charter schools shouldn’t be kept at parity by getting free rent as well. 

De Blasio’s objection to charter schools seems to be that they are "privileged": they receive supplemental outside funding, often from wealthy people, and tend to attract children of parents seeking a more rigorous educational environment. Many charter schools operate longer hours, more days, and with a longer school year. They also are liberated from the constraints imposed by central public bureaucracy and by the teachers’ union. 

The huge advantage of charter schools is that everybody involved—teachers, parents, yes even funders—have a sense of ownership. The operative question, at all times, is this: "What’s the right thing to do?" If something isn’t working, administrators and parents and teachers can get together and talk about how to make things better. If there’s an opportunity, they have the authority—the freedom—to make exceptions.  

This ownership of daily choices brings with it human power exponentially greater than found in most rote organizations. My youngest daughter teaches first grade in a charter school in the middle of Brooklyn. She leaves just after 6 am and doesn’t get home til after 7. She is bursting with stories about her students. Last year most of her first graders, all from the projects, were reading well above grade level.  

Not all charter schools achieve better academic results than public schools, and charters are (appropriately) subject to periodic re-accreditation. But charter schools almost can’t help but be better in instilling social values of right and wrong. Basic values needed to be a good citizen and hold a job are fostered by a school culture run by human values instead of mindless compliance with thick rulebooks.  

It is correct, as Mayor de Blasio surmises, that charter schools therefore enjoy advantages over public schools. People in charter schools are energized about their ownership of daily choices. But is the solution to impose extra financial burdens on them? Dragging the best down is perhaps not the optimum public policy (as in Vonnegut’s short story "Harrison Bergeron," in which the intelligent get zapped whenever their brains start thinking too much). Maybe the correct policy is to reorganize public schools so that they, too, enjoy the freedoms and energy of charter schools. I bet even the union teachers would like it.