Success is generally a good thing. But you wouldn't always know it, when certain people scramble to redefine "success" as "change, probably for the worse."
A Rand Corp. study released recently reported that "more than 190,000 students nationwide had left a private school for a charter by the end of the 2008 school year," according to The Los Angeles Times. Since 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, charter schools have increased in number substantially; the Los Angeles Unified School District boasts the most in the country, at 193. (1)
One of the best pieces of evidence we could have that charter schools are working is that they are successfully competing for students, not only against under-performing, inner-city public schools, but also against private schools.
Despite naysayers' complaints, this is good news for taxpayers, who are at least buying satisfactory education with their tax dollars, as well as for families that no longer feel the need to pay private school tuition. But charter schools are no panacea for the broader problem: Too many places in America pay too much for education that produces too little in the way of results.
Charter schools are one element of an answer. Another that is slowly but steadily gaining ground is vouchers that parents can use to pay for education at any private, charter or traditional public school. Such voucher systems are not only fostering improvement in public schools, which now have to compete more directly with charter and private alternatives; vouchers are also reviving private schools, especially parochial institutions, that were hit hard by the recession and faced the possibility of closing.
Teachers' unions, public school boards and administrators generally hate voucher systems. The National Education Association even offers a list of talking points specifically aimed at arguing against vouchers. (The organization is more ambivalent on charter schools; given the nature of charter schools, this is as one would expect.) But the current system is geared toward preserving a status quo that doesn't work. The goal of publicly funded education is to educate kids, not to create publicly funded jobs for public school employees. This hasn't stopped principals in Indiana from going door-to-door, however, trying to convince parents not to withdraw their students - and the public funding that comes with them - from struggling public schools.
What makes an individual child succeed or fail is a complex mix of many factors. Still, it is similarly not hard not to see why the National School Boards Association would be quick to dismiss a recent study from the Brookings Institute at Harvard that shows voucher systems have had significant positive impact in college enrollment among African-American students. Anne L. Bryant, the association's executive director, called the study's conclusions "grandiose" and claimed that parental involvement allowed for the difference observed. (2)
Public school productivity, like that of most public agencies, has lagged behind gains that the private sector has made over the last several decades, despite heavy investment in manpower and technology. In fact, those investments in manpower have arguably made public schools less productive, as we have more employees serving fewer students without commensurate gains in student success.
Competition is usually the best long-term solution to productivity problems. The results in charter schools and voucher programs across the country are evidence that it works for education, too.