Reforming education in a genuinely liberal way: the success of charter schools

People often think of the debates about charter schools, vouchers, and public education in terms of the general opposition between the left and the right in American politics, and anecdotally there is some good reason for that. Teachers’ unions, a typically left-wing constituency, vigorously oppose charter schools and vouchers while conservative Christians, a typically right-wing constituency, are often quite suspicious of heavy-handed government involvement in education.

The reality , however, is that supporting education reform by means of expanding choice, handing schools over to private management, and giving kids the right to attend the school best suited to their needs is a decidedly liberal cause. Despite typical associations of the words liberal and conservative, it is the public school system that is the old, bureaucratic mess dragging down American kids, and it is innovation geared towards liberty and equality in education that shapes the push for charter schools and vouchers. Ironically it was George W. Bush who greatly expanded the federal role in education through his No Child Left Behind legislation, and it is Barack Obama who has gutted that bad law of its significance by giving half the country permission to ignore it. What’s more, it is “liberal European” countries like Sweden and the United Kingdom that have demonstrated the great success of charter schools.

The Economist reports,

This revolution is now spreading round the world. In Britain academies, also free from local-authority control, were pioneered by the last Labour government… But the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has turbocharged their growth, and has launched “free schools”, modelled on a successful Swedish experiment, which have even more independence. By the end of this year half of all British schools will be academies or free schools. Free schools are too new for their performance to be judged; in academies, though, results for GCSEs (the exams pupils take at 15 or 16) are improving twice as fast as those in the state sector as a whole.

What makes charter schools so successful are the very same things that make them so controversial. They represent a privatization of education, they bypass the powerful teachers’ unions, and they vary in their success. Bypassing bureaucratic rigidity and stagnation, they make the sort of experimentation and competition possible that may not always work in every instance, but that in the long run are the surest route to both freedom and success.

[T]he virtue of experiments is that you can learn from them; and it is now becoming clear how and where charter schools work best. Poor pupils, those in urban environments and English-language learners fare better in charters. In states that monitor them carefully and close down failing schools quickly, they work best. And one great advantage is that partly because most are free of union control, they can be closed down more easily if they are failing…. It is pretty clear now that giving schools independence—so long as it is done in the right way, with the right monitoring, regulation and safeguards from the state—works

To be sure, without that proper regulation and without necessary safeguards charter schools are less successful. In another report on the same issue The Economist describes the varying levels of success in terms of diverging state approaches to charter schools. As one study performed by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Credo) at Stanford University suggests,

the variation in quality can be traced to the governing legislation behind the schools. Margaret Raymond, director of Credo, points to Arizona’s terrible results in 2009, which were the result of lax screening of those who were allowed to set up charter schools, and no serious reviews thereafter. Ohio, where most charters are worse than the traditional schools, gained a reputation as the “Wild West” of charter schools because it exercised almost no oversight.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, has had excellent results and is strict about the schools it allows to operate; the state will step in and close an underperforming school at short notice. Caps on the number of charters in a state drag down performance as much as lax oversight, because they cramp the diversification of the market and discourage investment. Bad laws make bad charter schools.

The problem with the public school system is that it has always been guided by the assumption that the purpose of education is to shape and mold children according to the national interest as determined by the cultural elites, whether those elites were Protestant Christians, as in the 19th and early 20th centuries, or secularist liberals, as in more recent years. Those who do not want to give up on government administered education always fear the fragmentation and diversity that will result from freedom in education. In that sense, the public schools are a quintessential conservative, state-interest oriented institution, whereas charter schools and vouchers represent the decidedly liberal approach that places the individual – in this case the child – first.

Here The Economist gets it right: “Charter schools have been successful because they offer freedom to shape the school to the pupils, rather than the other way round.” Yet on this point the rich countries of the world have a lot of work to do.

In rich countries, this generation of adults is not doing well by its children. They will have to pay off huge public-sector debts. They will be expected to foot colossal bills for their parents’ pension and health costs. They will compete for jobs with people from emerging countries, many of whom have better education systems despite their lower incomes. The least this generation can do for its children is to try its best to improve its state schools. Giving them more independence can do that at no extra cost. Let there be more of it.

As I have argued repeatedly on this blog, there are few things more central to justice than ensuring the basic welfare of our children. Giving our children a chance to succeed doesn’t simply involve preserving the life of the unborn or building stable families. It also means allowing them to attend schools that can actually teach them. And once again, it seems, liberty and equality point to the best way forward.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 6, 2012, in Children, Education, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Reforming education in a genuinely liberal way: the success of charter schools.

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