As the blue social model gradually falls apart and American society casts restlessly about for something to replace it, charter schools may be on the cutting edge of the social transformation about to take place.
This isn’t because they are a magic bullet solution to our education problems. The research surrounding the effectiveness of charter schools is controversial and politicized. Some schools work better than others — and that is likely to be the case going forward. However we organize our educational system there will be good schools and bad schools, good principals and bad ones, good teachers and bad. And no type of school can consistently overcome the consequences of parental negligence and demoralization. A majority of New Orleans students may be attending charter schools these days, but that is not going to turn the Crescent City into the Athens of the Delta overnight.
So I don’t say charter schools are on the cutting edge because they are going to turn our inner city kids into Singapore-style math whizzes anytime soon. But they are doing at least as well as the schools we have — and they are pointing the way to the kind of political and social transformation that can take us past the stagnant and dysfunctional world of Big Blue Bureaucracy into something more sustainable and more hopeful.
The first thing they’ve done is to open the first serious debate among Blacks about the deficiencies in the blue social model. The weakness at the heart of blue politics today is not the divide between people who love government services and those who want the government to shrink. That reaction is a problem for the blues, but it doesn’t split the blue coalition. The widening gap, however, between the interests of the consumers of government services and the producers of those services has the potential to split Blue America down the middle.
The public sector unions and the many other interest groups tightly clustered around the modern state want us to think that the interests of the consumers and the producers of government services are identical: that if we want good government services we have to pay their price. If you care about education you have to pay for whatever the teachers’ union defines that to mean. If you care about universities and affordable college education you have to ask the university presidents how much they want — and fork over however many billions they tell you it takes. If you care about better trash removal or mass transit, you must pump more and more money into the existing, unionized machine without asking any questions about how that machine is organized. Work rules aren’t the problem; unsustainable pensions promised by irresponsibly demagogic politicians aren’t the problem; gold plated health programs and early retirement have nothing to do with it. The problem is a shortage of money, and the only possible cure for any problem with government services is an increase in taxpayer funds.
The charter school movement has exposed the fallacy in this argument to increasing numbers of Black parents by showing that the dysfunction in urban schools is not simply a problem of money. It is also a problem of incompetent teachers who can never be fired, of dysfunctional work rules that give senior teachers a viselike grip on choice assignments, it is a whole system that all too frequently puts children last.
Black parents who have seen charter schools at work like school choice more than Democrats. In New Jersey, Blacks like charter schools more than Republicans! According to a recent Quinnipiac poll reported on the online site Newjerseynews.com, Blacks in New Jersey favor the expansion of charter schools in the state (a proposal of Governor Christie) by 52-43 percent. Statewide, Republicans oppose the expansion of charter schools by 51-39 percent. On this issue in this state, Blacks are less blue than the GOP — even though on most other education issues Blacks in New Jersey are bluer than most of their fellow citizens.
The growing Black support for charter schools is big news. No ethnic group in America may be as invested in the urban public school bureaucracies and the teacher unions as African Americans. Teaching was historically one of the first professions requiring a college education open to Blacks, and education programs have been important mainstays at many of the historically Black colleges in the United States.
Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of them Black and many of them the first people in their families, have pulled themselves up into the educated middle class on the basis of jobs in the public school systems. The success of charter school advocates in winning support from Black parents and community leaders shows that thoughtful approaches that make life better for people on the ground can compete with institutional loyalties, political inertia — and the clout of public sector unions.
But charter schools — endorsed by, among other notable American leaders, President Barack Obama — will do more than serve as the thin edge of the wedge splitting the strong Black consensus about the merits of Big Blue. Charter schools will help to produce and promote a more entrepreneurial Black middle class. The leaders and faculty of a charter school have more responsibility than do the faceless employees of a large public school system. If their school doesn’t attract students, it goes out of business. A charter school must attract students who can always go elsewhere; the standard public school without competition can rely on the truancy laws to fill their classrooms. More, the schools have to show results while keeping their eyes on the bottom line. Charter schools can go broke if teachers adopt unrealistic work rules; public schools can stagger on for years delivering declining performance — and, with the support of the politically powerful teachers’ unions, extracting rising revenue from the public.
The proliferation of charter schools will mean the progressive replacement of teachers and principals with secure jobs for life with a new cohort of professional educators who bear the responsibility for the success or failure of their schools — and the survival of their jobs. This will make our educators smarter — and teach them valuable lessons about life in a more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic society that they can pass on to their pupils.
Finally, as we grapple with how to reform government, the charter school movement can help us visualize some of the ways in which government reform can not only make government cheaper and more effective; reform can convert much of government from the enemy of entrepreneurial middle class society into its ally and friend.
By turning the business of government services from civil service bureaucrats over to private contractors we shift resources and power from the public sector to private firms. Bureaucrats lose voting strength and power while entrepreneurs gain. At the same time, competition in the private sector (among charter schools, among different firms competing to get contracts to carry out other jobs) will lead to improvements in productivity and efficiency that will ultimately allow more service for less money.
Charter schools show us that there are ways to reform government without always going to pure for-profit privatization. This is important if we are to build durable majorities for reform; many voters are uncomfortable with ideas like for-profit prisons and schools. While charter schools can operate under a variety of institutional forms, they often occupy a middle ground between government and the private sector. Charter schools do not (necessarily) entail the privatization of public education; in practice they look more like ‘communitization’. Power shifts from functionaries in City Hall to community based educators who organize themselves into small, accountable units to carry out functions once handled by massive bureaucracies. And because parents have the right to choose among many schools competing for their kids, the public ultimately holds the new schools strictly and relentlessly accountable.
This is more than an innovation in education; it points toward ways in which we can restructure government. Communitization, whether on a for-profit or non-profit basis, will be a major element in any approach to health care that seeks to reduce costs while improving services. Systems that give consumers vouchers and allow them to purchase services from a variety of competing vendors are vital to the future of American governance. Charter schools are paving the way.
The advantages of shifting as many government functions as possible from the lifetime civil service to entrepreneurial and/or community based entities goes farther than the potential for cost savings and quality enhancement. It is also about shifting the center of gravity of American culture and society further toward entrepreneurial and creative values and institutions.
Blue model society fails dismally at one of the key responsibilities of a healthy democratic society. Democratic societies must be educational societies; the experience of living in such societies must teach each new generation the virtues, habits and concepts that allow them to make the decisions that preserve democracy over the long haul. To make decisions as citizens, members of a democratic society must learn some hard truths about the way the world works from their personal lives and careers. That is what the leaders and teachers in charter schools do — much more than most of those who work in traditional public schools.
A charter school isn’t just, potentially, a school that offers more bang for the buck because it is more flexibly managed and is closer to the community it seeks to serve. It is also an academy for politics. The teachers and managers of such enterprises will understand how the world works better than tenured bureaucrats. They have taken risks and borne the consequences; they have acquired the habits of mind that make them effective citizens in a 5.0 world. They will be natural community leaders — the skills needed to organize a charter school, motivate its staff, serve its public while balancing its budget are skills our political class could use more of. They will also be better placed to start new businesses.
I wrote in an earlier post of the danger that the Black middle class will suffer from the blue model meltdown now well under way. The communitization of government can help that middle class adjust to and even prosper from the change. The development of a mix of profit and non-profit community based firms that replace government bureaucracy as frontline service providers will enable Blacks (and others similarly situated) to shift from 2oth to 21st century ideas and values. To use a New York analogy, they will be like tenants whose buildings go co-op; they have the chance to become equity owners rather than renters while learning how to build self-managing communities that take control over their own lives.
The fight for charter schools — to have more of them, to make them work better, and to give more children (and teachers and principals) the chance to participate in them — is one of the most important fronts in the struggle to build an America that can thrive in the 21st century. School choice, including both charter schools and vouchers to give children from low income families more choices, is something that 5.0 liberals need to promote. School choice will make our society more flexible and entrepreneurial — and the biggest immediate beneficiaries will be the poor and those who seek to serve and teach them in creative new ways.