The case for charter schools

Kevin Williams reviews Thomas Sowell’s new book on charter schools in the July 27 issue of National Review. The review is published under the headline “The Collapsing Case against Charter Schools.” The review opens:

Thomas Sowell — who will have just turned 90 when this review is published — could have retired by now. He could be publishing the memoirs of a celebrated intellectual or the late-career tracts of an éminence grise. What does he give us, instead? A methodologically rigorous, closely argued, data-driven case for charter schools, with very little high-flown rhetoric (I noted one exclamation point) and 94 pages of data tables. Charter Schools and Their Enemies is a bloodbath for Sowell’s intellectual opponents, and it ought to be a neutron bomb in the middle of the school-reform debate. But Thomas Sowell has been giving the reading public and the policymaking class some of the most intelligent advice to be had for many decades — why would they start listening to him now?

Much of Charter Schools and Their Enemies is dedicated to the seemingly simple — but not simple — project of comparing educational outcomes at charter schools with those at conventional public schools. He begins with an illustrative case that will be familiar to many conservatives: The Texas–Iowa public-school comparison. If you judged simply by scores on standardized tests, you would conclude that Iowa has much better public schools than does Texas. But there’s a wrinkle: White students in Texas outperform white students in Iowa, Hispanic students in Texas outperform Hispanic students in Iowa, and black students in Texas outperform black students in Iowa. But Iowa is very, very white, and Texas is not. The source of the disparity in standardized-test outcomes for white, black, and Hispanic students is of course the subject of some controversy, but those disparities are longstanding, they are similar in many cities and states and from urban to rural areas, and they are slow to change — with one important exception: in charter schools. In conventional public schools, the majority of the students are white or Asian; in charter schools, the majority of the students are black or Hispanic. Studies finding that charter schools perform only about as well as conventional schools actually tell us something very interesting: that in charter schools the racial gap in achievement has been significantly diminished and in many places eliminated, while in public schools it has not.

Sowell’s major analysis considers the overwhelmingly black and Hispanic student populations in both charters and conventional public schools in New York City. Why these students? For one thing, Sowell has gone to great lengths here to compare students who are very similar to one another. In fact, Sowell’s main study is limited to charter-school students attending class in the same building as conventional public-school students in the same grade, in schools that are majority-black and -Hispanic, with a special focus on the charter-school networks that meet in five or more buildings, meaning the biggest charter groups: KIPP, Success Academy, Explore, Uncommon, and Achievement First. Focusing on these New York City students has a couple of added benefits: New York keeps track of students by ethnicity and socioeconomic status, facilitating a better apples-to-apples comparison, and — crucially, for the purposes of this kind of study — it assigns children to charter schools through a lottery. Parents have to nominate their children for a spot, and there is presumably some difference between the parents who bother and the parents who don’t, but the charter schools are not able to cherry-pick the best students and thereby pad out their performance numbers.

And the numbers? That’s the bloodbath I mentioned.

There is, as one would expect, significant variability in the performance of the charter schools, just as there is significant variability in the performance of the conventional public schools. (And here it bears underscoring: Charter schools are public schools, publicly funded and serving public-school students; the difference is that charter schools are relieved of some of the constraints imposed on conventional schools by public-sector unions, their financial interests, and the political interests built atop those financial interests.) In almost every case, the charter schools — including the worst of them — outperformed the conventional public schools operating in the same buildings, in the same neighborhoods, serving very similar students. In most cases, the share of charter-school students achieving proficiency or better on standardized tests was a multiple of the number of the conventional public-school students doing so; similarly, in most cases the number of conventional public-school students receiving the lowest classification on those same tests was some multiple of the number of charter-school students doing so. Sowell lets the data speak for themselves, reporting the high and low English and math figures for each of his comparison sets.

(Sowell’s convention is to group the grade levels the charters and conventional public schools have in common in each of the buildings they have in common; so, for example, if a charter school has four grades in common with public schools in five buildings, that produces 20 grade levels for comparison. It looks a little weird at first, but it makes sense.)

For the charter schools, the data are a litany of triumph, and for the conventional public schools, they are a lamentation….

Williamson concludes his review on a bitter if realistic note: “Our political culture is sick, and many of our institutions are corrupt. Many of them would not be capable of acting on what they could learn from Charter Schools and Their Enemies even if they were so inclined, which they aren’t. Thomas Sowell is a national treasure in a nation that does not entirely deserve him.” The review makes for compelling reading. I wanted to bring it to the attention of readers along with Sowell’s new book.

Mark Levin devoted a recent episode of Life, Liberty & Levin to an interview with Sowell about the book. I can’t find a video of that interview online, but Peter Robinson got there first last month just after Sowell had turned 90 (video below).

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