NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 16, 2010

To uncover what is wrong with American public schools one has to consider the following: The impact of restrictive collective bargaining agreements that prevent rewarding good teachers and removing ineffective ones, intrusive court interventions and useless teacher certification laws.  Charter schools were invented to address these problems, says Paul E. Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard University and a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution. 

Compared to district schools, they have numerous advantages, says Peterson: 

  • They are funded by governments, but they operate independently.
  • This means that charters must persuade parents to select them instead of a neighborhood district school.
  • That has happened with such regularity that today there are 350,000 families on charter-school waiting lists, enough to fill over 1,000 additional charter schools.  

According to a 2009 Education Next survey, the public approves of steady charter growth: 

  • Though a sizeable portion of Americans remain undecided, charter supporters outnumber opponents two to one.
  • Among African Americans, those who favor charters outnumber opponents four to one.
  • Even among public-school teachers, the percentage that favors charters is 37 percent, while the percentage that opposes them is 31 percent.  

To identify the long-term benefits of school choice, Harvard's Martin West and German economist Ludger Woessmann examined the impact of school choice on the performance of 15-year-old students in 29 industrialized countries: 

  • They discovered that the greater the competition between the public and private sector, the better all students do in math, science and reading.
  • Their findings imply that expanding charters to include 50 percent of all students would eventually raise American students' math scores to be competitive with the highest-scoring countries in the world.

What makes charters important today is less their current performance than their potential to innovate.  Educational opportunity is about to be revolutionized by powerful notebook computers, broadband and the open-source development of curricular materials (a la Wikipedia).  Curriculum can be tailored to the level of accomplishment each student has reached, an enormous step forward. 

If American education remains stagnant, such innovations will spread slowly, if at all.  If the charter world continues to expand, the competition between them and district schools could prove to be transformative, says Peterson. 

Source: Paul E. Peterson, "Charter Schools and Student Performance," Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2010. 

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