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Debate: Are charter schools a legitimate alternative to public education?

A file photo of school buses.

A file photo of school buses. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Are charter schools the conservative movement's version of Solyndra? Education reformers -- mostly but not entirely on the right --have long peddled charter schools as a solution to the nation's education woes.

Such schools, paid for from public funds but run by private and non-profit organizations, have more freedom to try different approaches to schooling. But trouble can pop up: In Philadelphia this week, the founder of three charter schools pleaded guilty to charges in connection with a federal fraud case that has ensnared other leaders in the city's charter movement.

It's just the latest prosecution against charter operators in the city.

Are charter schools a legitimate alternative to public schools? Or do they exist to profit off of taxpayers? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.

BEN BOYCHUK: Solyndra failed. The business model -- manufacturing specialized solar panels in a state with one of the highest labor costs in the United States -- couldn't survive without heavy taxpayer subsidies, and it fell to pieces anyway. As an example of crony capitalism at its worst, you couldn't do much better.

Charter schools aren't a good example of crony capitalism, since most charters are nonprofits. They aren't exactly a "right-wing" phenomenon, either.

The earliest proponents of charters, which are simply public schools with fewer bureaucratic encumbrances, were reform-minded liberals such as teachers' union president Al Shanker and Minnesota Charter School founder Joe Nathan.

The appeal of charter schools lies in their flexibility. Unlike conventional public schools, charter schools usually let their principals hire and fire at will. They have greater leeway with curriculum. They can extend school hours and impose discipline more effectively.

Of course, when charter school operators use tax dollars for their own personal enrichment, as Dorothy June Brown did in Philadelphia, they make upstanding charter operators look bad. That there are plenty of examples of fraud and embezzlement elsewhere makes matters worse.

Fraudsters deserve harsh punishment. But the crimes of the relative few shouldn't diminish the accomplishments of others like Harlem Success Academy's Eva Moskowitz, or Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, who founded the Knowledge is Power Program in Houston in 1994 and quickly expanded to New York and California.

What's odd about the angst over charter school fraud is the apparent absence of it when it comes to routine and massive waste in the public schools. Where is the punishment for the district bureaucrats in Philadelphia and all around the country who have squandered billions over the decades with practically nothing to show for it? The problem isn't with charter schools, per se. The problem is a system that encourages waste without accountability.

JOEL MATHIS: Charter schools aren't too unlike Solyndra: Without taxpayer subsidies, they simply don't survive at all. And as is often the case, where the taxpayers subsidize private activity -- even when it's technically "nonprofit" -- opportunities for graft abound.

Take Philadelphia as a further example: The Dorothy Brown case that is nearing trial isn't a sudden, unexpected anomaly after years of great charter performance. Since 2008, 18 area charter schools have reportedly come under investigation by federal officials, mostly for suspicions of financial malfeasance.

And in 2010, City Controller Alan Butkovitz audited 13 of the city's then-63 charter schools -- there are now 84 -- and found "financial mismanagement and questionable practices" at all 13 of them. One problem, he found, was that there was little day-to-day (or even month-to-month) oversight of the charters; officials mostly check in with them when it is time to renew their licenses.

These problems are built into the system, of course: The foundational idea undergirding charters is that they're supposed to be free of all the bureaucratic rules that supposedly constrain public schools from offering a better education to students.

In Ohio, for example, there are reportedly 200 state laws that do apply to public schools but not to charters. You see the results.

Which might be worth it, if charter schools delivered better educational outcomes. The results are mixed. In a recent study, only about a third of Pennsylvania charter schools did significantly better than public school peers in reading; about a third did worse, which of course means a third did about the same. The results were similar in math. "There is always a distribution around an average," one official commented.

If you throw in the results of "cyber" charter schools, the overall picture is actually much worse.

Sputtering about the shameful state of public schools is no answer to all of this. Charter schools must prove their own worth in order to continue receiving taxpayer money. Some are good. Some are less so. And some are just rip-offs. But charter schools simply aren't the panacea they've been made out to be.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis is a contributing editor to Philadelphia Magazine.


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