The Washington Post’s Emma Brown has a follow-up story today about the recent Washington State Supreme Court decision finding that charter schools are not public schools because their governing boards are not elected by local citizens. Her piece characterizes the competing arguments over whether these alternative educational institutions truly fit the definition of a public school. I believe the whole controversy misses the point.
Everyone wishes that traditional neighborhood schools provided the high quality education that children deserve. But just look at what happened here in Washington, D.C. Over time the school bureaucracy became completely detached from the children it was serving. The result was that very little teaching actually occurred in classrooms. Much more common was the presence of violence, gangs, and illegal drugs. It became safer for parents to keep their kids home than to send them to school. The buildings themselves were rotting from years of neglect. When students did show up their textbooks were missing, as in many cases was the instructor.
In the 1950’s Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman wrote that if we provided every child with a voucher to attend the private or public school of their choice parents would once again become the customer of school systems. This is exactly what charters have accomplished in this town. What is so exciting about the turn of events is that this sector is being responsive to those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum. Many charters in the nation’s capital are taking low income kids who enter schools years behind grade level and bringing them up to academic proficiency and beyond. These individuals in the past might have landed in jail or perhaps been killed as a result of violent activity. As Dr. Darrin Woodruff, the chairman of the Public Charter School Board remarked when I interviewed him, “charter schools are changing peoples’ lives.”
I say forget the phony controversy over whether charters perfectly fit the public school paradigm. Instead let’s be eternally grateful for the competition they have provided that has resulted in all schools, traditional and charter, rising to levels of performance never seen before in this country. I think this should be more than enough.