On May 28, the Democrat-controlled New York Legislature passed a bill that could more than double the number of charter schools in the state. It was a huge victory for billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a stinging defeat for New York's teachers' unions, which have long held sway in the Legislature.
Perhaps even more surprising (and/or troubling) is the fact that the bill wasn't passed because of widespread success at New York's current charter schools, but in hopes of grabbing a significant amount of the $4.3 billion in grant money being dangled by the Obama administration.
Indeed, states all across the country are making changes to their education laws and going gaga for charters, thanks to visions of free federal money. The federal program is called Race to the Top, and it's an attempt at social engineering at its very worst. (There has to be a special place in hell for people who come up with these program names that sound lofty, even though the programs themselves end up being wastes of money and unnecessary diversions of focus and resources. We all know what the road to hell is paved with, and when the express bus to Hades is making its run, let no smarmy sloganeer be left behind.)
While proponents are dismayed that New York will now force charter schools to accept special-needs students, as well as non-English speakers and kids on free-lunch programs (which will almost certainly push charter-school test scores even lower), the vote in the New York Legislature was actually a double victory for Bloomberg, who was facing the politically disastrous prospect of firing thousands of teachers in the New York City school system. Now he won't have to fire so many, and at the same time, many teachers will be shifted over into nonunion positions at the new charter schools. His pet project will grow, while the unions' influence will diminish.
(To be sure, the teachers' unions in New York are far from perfect. They have erected significant roadblocks in the process to fire incompetent—and sometimes even criminal—teachers, and have suffered for having done so.)
Also backing the bill were many New York City hedge-fund managers, a group of billionaires (and a few sad hundred-millionaires) who are best known for, through some ridiculous loophole, paying the same 15 percent tax rate as a bus driver, and then on only a portion of their obscene incomes. The hedge-funders claim to be impressed with the business-like approach to education, joining others in believing that ill-defined free-market principles will somehow come into play.
The charter-school "movement" is the pet project of billionaires in other parts of the country as well. There is the NewSchools Venture Fund, founded by the people who started Google and Amazon. Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Dell of Dell Computers, and the Walton (Walmart) family are all throwing money in the direction of charter schools. It should be noted that these billionaires are not starting new charter schools, but instead are finding charter schools that are showing signs of success, giving the donors the ability to claim that they are backing academic winners.
In many cases, this leads merely to an unholy alliance of guilty white liberals with money, and blissfully guilt-free white conservatives with agendas. While there are some charter schools that are showing signs of success, the vast majority do no better—and, in many cases, do much worse—than the public schools from which they are siphoning money and hand-picked students. A recent report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University stated that although "charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers, this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well" as students in traditional public schools.
Proponents of the bill in New York point to the success of places like the Harlem Children's Zone, run with such stunning efficiency by Geoffrey Canada that the late Ed Bradley all but gushed when profiling Canada on 60 Minutes. As was the case with Joe Clark (the bullhorn-toting public-school principal portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the movie Lean on Me), Canada and his schools are turning out college-bound students in one of the worst parts of New York City.
But charter schools in other parts of New York City that try to copy Canada's formula—including adopting school uniforms and longer hours—either fall far short of the success of the Harlem Children's Zone, or fail altogether.
It's like researchers who study centenarians, hoping to find a magic bullet for longevity. They learn that these people have a wide variety of dietary, drinking and exercise habits, and therefore are forced to conclude that some people just live longer than others. Well, some administrators are simply better at what they do, and some teachers are just better teachers than others.
Maybe this realization could come out of these charter-school experiments. Perhaps then, some of the wide-eyed, slobbering attention and the donated money could be shifted away from the 3 percent of kids in charter schools, and back to the 97 percent in traditional schools.