Depending on who you read or listen to, charter schools are either a striking success or a “failed and damaging experiment” — or even just “fads.”
Such conflicting opinions have led to bitter controversies that have raged for years. But my new book, “Charter Schools and Their Enemies,” features hard facts about educational outcomes in more than a hundred individually identified New York City schools.
These schools are listed by name so that parents, officials and anyone interested in the education of children can make their own comparisons.
What all these particular schools have in common is that charter-school students and traditional public-school students are educated in the same buildings and take the same tests in mathematics and English every year. The results of these tests are listed for each of these schools, along with information on their students’ backgrounds.
Here are some basic facts:
In these buildings, 14 percent of traditional public-school classes had a majority of their students achieve a level defined as “proficient” in English for their grade level by the New York State Education Department.
Meanwhile, 65 percent of charter-school classes in those same buildings had a majority of their students achieve the “proficient“ level on the same test. That’s nearly a five-to-one disparity.
On the mathematics test, just 10 percent of the classes in these traditional public schools had a majority of their students achieve a “proficient” level. But 68 percent of charter-school classes in the same buildings had a majority of their students achieve a “proficient” level. That’s nearly a seven-to-one disparity.
No wonder most critics of charter schools, and defenders of traditional public schools, want to argue on the basis of rhetoric.
They don’t want to argue on the basis of facts about test results.
One common example of misleading rhetoric is an often-repeated statement that — nationwide — charter schools “as a whole“ do not perform any better than traditional public schools “as a whole.“
The problem with that rhetoric is that white and Asian students add up to a majority of the students in the nation’s traditional public schools “as a whole.”
Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students add up to a majority of students in the nation’s charter schools “as a whole.” The charter-school students are usually in low-income minority neighborhoods.
For generations, white and Asian students have had higher test scores than black and Hispanic students. But New York City charter-school students have now closed that gap. An equality that few people thought possible is now being obscured by rhetoric saying that charter schools “as a whole” are no better than traditional public schools “as a whole.”
Parents in low-income minority neighborhoods do not have access to traditional public schools “as a whole.” They are stuck with whatever kinds of traditional public schools are in their own particular neighborhoods.
There may be some fine traditional public schools in more upscale neighborhoods. But that is no consolation, and may even be more like a mockery.
The very people who say that charter schools are no better — including public-school bureaucrats and teachers-union bosses — have promoted drastic restrictions on charter schools that have been attracting students away from traditional public schools. Anything to block that exodus of students.
In New York City, there have been 50,000 students on waiting lists to get into charter schools. But charter schools have now been blocked from using space in some public-school buildings that are half empty. Nationwide, cities with school buildings that have been completely vacant for years have blocked charter schools from using those buildings.
Drastic anti-charter-school laws passed in California in 2019 are part of a nationwide campaign against charter schools. If facts continue to be suppressed, or drowned out by rhetoric, the biggest losers will be children in low-income minority communities. These are children who most need schools that can give them a real equality of educational skills, as distinguished from the make-believe equality of demographic “inclusion” or “diversity.”
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. “Charter Schools and Their Enemies” (Basic Books), out Tuesday, is his latest book.
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