In the previous essay on charter schools I considered the monopoly argument in their favor. On this view, charter schools break the state’s harmful monopoly on education and this is a good thing. It is worth noting, again, that the state does not have a monopoly on education (there are private, non-charter schools). Instead, the state schools often have a monopoly on public money and charter schools break this monopoly by receiving public money. This, it is argued by charter school proponents, allows for more choice. They are quite right. But not all choices are good choices.
Without charter schools, people face rather limited alternatives to the public-school system. One is home schooling. While this does appeal to some people, it does limit the educational experience and requires a great deal of the parent(s). Another is attending a private school. While these schools can provide excellent education, they can very expensive. As such, they are an option only for those who can afford them. Because charter schools receive public money, they can provide an alternative to public schools for those who cannot afford a private school. However, there is the question of why there should be such choice and why people would take it.
One reason often given in favor of charter schools over public schools is that charter schools are supposed to superior in terms of the education they provide (or in some other relevant way). Proponents of charter schools point to failing public schools as evidence for this claim. While this is certainly a rational argument, there are some concerns with it.
One concern is that while there are bad public schools and excellent charter schools, there are also excellent public schools and awful charter schools. As such, there is nothing intrinsic to the public system that necessitates its badness nor anything intrinsic to the charter system that necessitates its superiority. This raises the question about what causes school quality.
The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding. It is no accident that the best schools tend to be in affluent neighborhoods and the worst schools tend to be in poor areas. After all, a significant portion of the funding for public schools is local and is often based on property taxes. As such, high value property generates more funding for schools. Low value property generates far less. Naturally, this is not the whole story for school funding, but it is an important part. It is also worth noting that not just community wealth is a factor—community health is also important for the quality of education. After all, stable communities that have families actively involved in the school can create a very good educational experience for the children. However, wealth and health often travel hand in hand.
As might be suspected, most parents would prefer their children attend the best schools—this is why parents who have the income buy houses in the best school districts. This provides another limit to choice: while anyone can attend the best public schools, they must be able to afford to live in the district. This makes the best public schools analogous to private schools; one must pay to be able to attend. The promise of charter schools is that children can escape the poor schools and go to a superior charter school, using public money.
While this does have some appeal, there are some obvious problems. One is that the poor schools will become poorer as they lose students and will presumably decline even more until only those who cannot escape remain. This would seem to be like pouring money into lifeboats for an ailing ship rather than using the money to fix it.
Of course, this analogy could be countered by saying that the public school ship is doomed and the only viable option is escape. This is a reasonable counter—if a school is so badly wrecked that it cannot be saved, then escaping to another school would be as sensible as fleeing a sinking ship. The challenge is, however, showing that this should be a charter school and not a new public school.
Another is that it would seem to make more sense to use the public money to improve the public school so that parents would want their children to attend. After all, if parents want to choose good schools, the best use of public money would seem to be to make public schools better. Since there are excellent public schools, this is clearly something that can be done with proper funding and a strong community. As noted above, there is no special magic to charters that makes them inherently better than public schools. To use another analogy, the charter school argument is like pointing to the poorly maintained roads of a community and saying that the solution is not to fix the roads, but to use the public money to put in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads. It would seem to make much more sense to fix the existing public roads rather than putting in “charter roads.”
In light of the above discussion, the choice argument for charter schools based on quality does not appear compelling. Unless it can be shown that charter schools are inherently better than public schools in virtue of being charters, then it would be more sensible to improve the quality of existing public schools rather than siphoning away public money. There are, however, other matters of choice beyond quality. In the next essay I will look at the appeal of ideological choice—charter schools that offer an ideological or theological alternative to public schools.