In these tough economic times, Arizona should re-examine its charter-school program

One of the most disappointing aspects of the Obama administration is the president's almost-giddy support for charter schools. It is a head-scratcher on par with his predecessor George W. Bush's backing of No Child Left Behind. And, based on a mountain of data, it is support that is largely unwarranted.

A new Stanford University study—one of the most comprehensive ever done on the subject—shows that fewer than one-fifth of all charter schools nationwide offer a better education than comparable local public schools, while nearly 40 percent offered an education that was below the level of the nearby public school. And, for a variety of reasons, Arizona's charter schools do even worse than their national counterparts.

In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the charter-school movement was born out of frustration with the traditional public schools. That frustration was, in some cases, understandable, if not entirely based in fact. As baby boomers flooded into education in the late 1960s and 1970s, many took with them the fire of their generation—a desire to do things better than the previous generations had done. But, in many cases, "better" turned out to be just different, and different isn't always better. Experimentation in teaching techniques was all the rage, sometimes with less-than-exemplary results.

Said experimentation led to colleges studying these experiments and debating the philosophies behind them. Pretty soon, you had others studying the procedures that had been employed in the initial studies. Then, you had studies of studies of studies, and etc.

It's not surprising, then, that some on the political right looked at education and saw it as a hotbed of radical philosophy being pushed by the liberal elite. Plus, there were unions. (I've never see any data on this, but I would bet that a majority of teachers would rather not belong to a union, considering themselves to be white-collar professionals who deserve respect rather than having to collectively bargain for it.)

"Back to basics!" cries arose on the right, but by the time the educational establishment nudged itself back in that direction, the landscape had changed. The traditional American family had all but dissolved, replaced by a patchwork of single parents, stepsiblings, shifted priorities and widespread abdication of responsibility. Educators were suddenly expected to be teacher/cop/extra parent to the kids, with the admonition that they'd better not be too hard on the poor darlings in the process.

Critics of public education decided to (rather hypocritically) counter the perceived radicalization of their public schools by adopting an even-more radical approach: Charter schools would be granted licenses as autonomous places, largely free of state intervention, and staffed by nonunion teachers and administrators who were free to experiment to their hearts' content. The thinking was that "free-market principles" would take root, and that parents would identify and patronize the schools that worked the best.

This is macabre thinking, in that anyone who has lived through the past couple of years recognizes that free-market principles, if they exist at all, don't even apply to ostensibly free markets, let alone something as complex as education. And even if they did, much of an entire generation of students would be lost in the shakeout process.

The birth of charter schools here in Arizona was even less altruistic than in other places, if such a thing is possible. Most Arizona legislators don't even try to mask their hatred of teachers' unions, and the charter schools gave the Legislature the perfect opportunity to fling a giant "Screw you!" at public schools. It's entirely possible, I suppose, that a handful of legislators believed their own rhetoric—that allowing an unlicensed administrator to operate a school with little or no government oversight while paid a theoretically unlimited amount of money on a bounty-per-reported-student basis was a good idea. In most cases, it has turned out to be anything but.

Arizona's charter-school experiment has had a few successes, including the Sonoran Science Academy, which does a bang-up job of teaching kids Turkish, and BASIS, the advanced-placement factory over which Newsweek magazine slobbers every chance it gets. As mentioned here before, the criteria that Newsweek employs are so narrow that it's actually a criterion: the ratio of Advanced Placement tests taken to the number of kids in a graduating class.

Arizona also has a larger number of nonfailures (meaning that the students fared about as well—or as poorly—as the students from nearby public schools), and a whole lot of disasters. We really don't know how many disasters, because when it instituted the charter-school program, the Legislature—possibly by accident but probably on purpose—failed to provide a suitable structure and adequate funding for oversight. Conservative estimates are that tens of millions of Arizona-taxpayer dollars have been lost due to inadequate oversight, mismanagement and/or outright theft.

Perhaps the economic crisis and the need to self-impose an added sales tax might prompt a closer look at charter schools.