Book Review: ‘Charter Schools and Their Enemies’

A closer look at an important issue
September 27, 2020 Updated: September 27, 2020

Despite having worked for 45 years in the public school system exclusively, I believe strongly in school choice. It’s not that I think public schools are inferior to other solutions, but I realize that one size does not fit all, especially in today’s rapidly changing world.

Alternative schools are not just chosen for academic excellence, but also for their religious emphasis, strict behavioral standards and expectations, their ability to meet pupils’ needs or promote traditional values, and so on.

At 90, black intellectual Thomas Sowell weighed in on the matter of school choice with his book “Charter Schools and Their Enemies.” It’s about one type of alternative public school that has become increasingly popular: the charter school.

In exchange for being freed from some of the regulations of public schools, charter schools receive government funding only so long as their students’ educational outcomes meet various educational criteria. Charter schools, like all public schools, are tuition-free.

Sowell, who has written extensively on race and politics in the United States, believes in charter schools. He favors the idea that low-income parents can choose where their children go to school, just as high-income parents can. He wonders out loud why people are surprised when children in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods are able to excel when they attend good schools.

Sowell’s book is more than just a conventional book. He includes many pages of documentation, charts, and references to meticulously lay out the facts about the success of charter schools and about the critics who seek to destroy them.

charter schools cover
Thomas Sowell’s latest book.

Compelling Examples

Sowell feels that we have not been looking at the data correctly when comparing students of charter schools with traditional public schools. All the arguments in his book are really compelling, especially when he compares schools that are similar.

Readers will find it hard to ignore when Sowell focuses his attention on New York schools. He examines cases where the charter school and the traditional public school have one or more classes at the same grade level in the same building and where there is a similar ethnic composition of students.

Traditional public school students are assigned. Parents have to nominate their children for a spot in the charter schools, and children are then chosen through a lottery. This guarantees that charter schools are not able to pick only the best students.

However, charter schools clearly have an advantage since a parent’s interest and encouragement in a child’s education can greatly affect the child’s attitude toward school. Interestingly, though, the students who fail to win the lottery and have to continue at their traditional public schools never perform as well as their charter school counterparts.

To compare the two groups, Sowell used two tests given annually by the New York State Education Department to both public charter school students and students in traditional public schools. These were officially designated as the English Language Arts test and the Mathematics test. In school year 2017–2018, the charter school students considerably outperformed most of the traditional public school students in the same building.

Looking at the Opposition

Sowell goes on to say that such compelling data should have meant bipartisan support for charter schools. It hasn’t. He spends the majority of the second half of the book chronicling the reasons for this lack of support.

Losing Funds

An enormous amount of money would be lost by the traditional public school system if the number of charter schools were not restricted. Take New York City alone, where per-pupil expenditures average more than $20,000 a year. Multiply that by the 50,000-plus students on waiting lists for admission to charter schools in New York City. This is more than a billion dollars! That is just the initial financial loss in one city during one year.

Hurting Unions

Substantial declines in the number of students remaining in traditional public schools would also mean fewer teachers employed in public schools, and correspondingly declining union dues, since most charter school teachers do not belong to a teacher’s union.

As a result, officials in charge (often elected through the help of unions) have begun doing more and more to limit charter schools to protect the vested interests of adults in traditional unionized public schools, such as blocking charter schools from getting vacant school buildings or slow-walking applications to set up charter schools.

Exposing Teacher Performance

Schools that educate teachers would likewise be affected negatively because many more students would be able to transfer out of traditional public schools, where degrees in education are important for advancement in a teaching career. In charter schools, education degrees mean far less than a teacher’s actual performance in educating students.

Undermining Liberal Ideology

Charter schools on the whole have curriculum that is more traditional and academic than the more liberal policies and curriculum of public schools. Progressives oppose an agenda that runs counter to their ideological agenda. The educational success of these charter schools undermines many theories of “genetic determinism, claims of cultural bias in the tests, assertions that racial ‘integration’ is necessary for blacks to reach educational parity and presumptions that income differences are among the ‘root causes’ of educational differences.”

Making Children Accountable

Public schools are more likely to utilize nonpunitive discipline strategies than charter schools to avoid unjustified punishment of minority students. Traditional discipline is often thought as racist because blacks are suspended at higher rates than whites. Charter schools, on the other hand, usually impose firm, consistent discipline. The rationale is that just a small number of disruptive students, who defy teachers with impunity, can ruin the education of many other students who are trying to learn.

The Future

Sowell hopes for the day that charter schools will be independently overseen and not as dependent on politicians. While the hard facts are on the side of the charter schools, the politics at the moment favor the unionized public schools. There is also a fear that future legislation on charter schools might erode their autonomy and end what makes them special.

School choice is particularly important right now, when education is suffering during the pandemic. Remote learning has proven less effective, and yet many public schools remain closed. The result is that many families are looking at alternatives; families no longer feel a personal stake in public education.

If school choice is important to you and your family, I recommend you read this book.

Charter Schools and Their Enemies
Thomas Sowell
Basic Books
288 pages; hardcover

Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher with 45 years’ experience teaching children in a working-class neighborhood (many were English Language Learners).  She can be reached for comments or suggestions at LWiegenfeld@aol.com