We Americans believe in magic bullets, in bumper-sticker solutions to complex problems.
Need to spur job creation? Pass “Right to Work” (for less) laws. Want to address poverty? Make the lives of poor people intolerable, so they’ll take one of those (non-existent) jobs. Want to make government more efficient? Outsource government functions to unaccountable for-profit vendors.
Are our public schools struggling? Let’s take their resources and create a parallel system.
How is that working out?
A story that appeared at Forbes in late 2013 foretold a lot of what would emerge in 2014. That post “Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express To Fat City” brought to light for the first time in a mainstream source the financial rewards that were being mined from charter schools. As author Addison Wiggin explained, a mixture of tax incentives, government programs, and Wall St. investors eager to make money were coming together to deliver a charter school bonanza – especially if the charter operation could “escape scrutiny” behind the veil of being privately held or if the charter operation could mix its business in “with other ventures that have nothing to do with education.”
As 2014 began, more stories about charter schools scandals continued to drip out from local press outlets – a chain of charter schools teaching creationism, a charter school closing abruptly for mysterious reasons, a charter high school operating as a for-profit “basketball factory,” recruiting players from around the world while delivering a sub-par education.
Here and there, stories emerged: a charter school trying to open up inside the walls of a gated community while a closed one continued to get over $2 million in taxpayer funds. Stories about charter operators being found guilty of embezzling thousands of taxpayer dollars turned into other stories about operators stealing even more thousands of dollars, which turned into even more stories about operators stealing over a million dollars.
Does all of this prove that Charter schools are a bad idea? Absolutely not. Many charters are doing exactly what they were established to do–trying new and innovative education models, focusing on particular or at-risk populations, or otherwise offering creative alternatives from which public systems can borrow.
What it does mean is that there is no quick and easy “fix” for what ails education. No panacea.
The mere fact that a school is not part of the traditional public school system is not evidence that it is a good school, or even an acceptable one. Just as there are great public schools, there are great charter schools, but charter schools are not magic bullets. Charters and (especially) voucher programs require careful supervision and oversight–and they aren’t getting that oversight, because Americans think we can outsource all our civic responsibilities.
At some point, that hated government must exercise responsibility.