Before discussing charter schools, I need to present factors that might bias me against them. Like many Americans, I attended public schools for K-12. Unlike some Americans, I got a good education that provided the foundation for my undergraduate and graduate education. Both of my parents were educators in public schools.  My father taught math and computer science and my mother was a guidance counsellor. I went to a private college for my undergraduate degree and then to a public graduate school. This led to my current career as a philosophy professor at a public university. I belong to the United Faculty of Florida, the NEA and the AFT. As might be suspected, my background inclines me to have some suspicions about charter schools in the context of the political climate of today. Because of this, I take special care to consider the matter fairly and objectively.

As with most politically charged debates, the battle over charter schools is long on rhetoric and short on logical arguments. Proponents of charter schools lament the poor quality of public education, rail against indoctrination, and crusade for choice, and praise the profit motive as panacea. Opponents of charter schools sometimes see them as harmful to the public good, places of indoctrination, and as profiting at the expense of the children.

 While there is some merit behind these rhetorical stances, charter schools should neither be accepted nor rejected based on rhetoric. As liberals and conservatives have pointed out, the American public education system has problems. Charter schools have been advanced as a proposal to address some of these problems and should be given objective consideration. I will begin with what can be called the monopoly argument in favor of charter schools.

Proponents of charter schools assert that the state holds a monopoly on education and employ arguments by analogy to show why this is a bad thing. For example, the state monopoly on education might be compared to living in an area with only one internet service provider. This provider offers poor service and there is no competition. While this is better than not having any internet access at all, it is a bad situation that could be improved by competition. If the analogy holds, then the harm of poor-quality schools could be addressed by allowing competition.

This analogy can also be used to argue that people who do not have children in school should not be forced to pay into the education system. This would like making people pay for internet access they do not use. But this is another issue.

While the analogy does have some appeal, the state already lacks a monopoly on education. There are already private schools that operate without public money. These provide competition to public schools. By going through the appropriate procedures, anyone with the resources can create a private school. And anyone with the resources to afford a private school can attend. As such, there is already a competitive education industry in place that provides an alternative to public education. There is also the option of home schooling, which also breaks the monopoly.

Supporters of charter schools can counter that there is a monopoly without charter schools. To be specific, without charter schools, public schools have a monopoly on public money. Charter schools, by definition, break this monopoly by allowing public funds to go to schools outside the state education system.

This can allow privately owned charter schools to enjoy what amounts to state subsidies, thus making it easier to start a privately-owned charter school than a privately funded private school. Those who are concerned about state subsidies and things like welfare might find the use of state funds problematic, perhaps because it seems to confer an unfair advantage over privately funded schools and funnels public money into private hands.

Supporters of charter schools can counter these criticisms by turning them into virtues. Public money spent on charter schools is good exactly because it makes it easier to fund competing schools. Private schools without public funding need to operate in a free market. They must compete for customer money without the benefit of the state picking winners and losers. As such, there will not be as many privately funded schools as there would be charter schools funded by taxpayer money in a form of school welfare.

As such, charter schools would break the public-school system’s monopoly on public money, although there is not a monopoly on education (since privately funded schools exist). The question remains as to whether breaking the funding monopoly is a good thing or not, which leads to the subject of the next essay in this series, that of choice.