By Russell Withers, General Counsel & Senior Policy Analyst. June. 30, 2020
Today is Thomas Sowell’s 90th birthday. Dr. Sowell is a prolific writer, economist, author of more than 30 books, and one of my personal heroes. So how does Dr. Sowell celebrate his 90th birthday?
By publishing a new book, of course.
Available now, Charter Schools and Their Enemies is an in-depth discussion of how New York City’s charter schools have changed the lives of many children otherwise stuck in underperforming traditional public schools. As Sowell explains in a recent Wall Street Journal article on the same topic:
For decades, there has been widespread anxiety over how, when or whether the educational test
score gap between white and non-white youngsters could be closed. But that gap has already been
closed by the Success Academy charter school network in New York City.
Their predominantly black and Hispanic students already pass tests in mathematics and English at
a higher rate than any school district in the entire state. That includes predominantly white and Asian
school districts where parental income is some multiple of what it is among Success Academy students.
New York’s charter school students are predominantly black and Hispanic, and live in low-income neighborhoods. In 2019, most students in the city’s public schools failed to pass the statewide tests in mathematics and English. But most of the city’s charter school students passed in both subjects.
Dr. Sowell also points out that “[i]n 2013, a higher percentage of the fifth-graders in a Harlem charter school passed the mathematics test than any other public school fifth-graders in the entire state of New York.” Also, many charter schools in New York are housed in the very same buildings as the traditional public schools they compete against. The results? “In 28 classes in these buildings, fewer than 10% of the students reached the “proficient” level on statewide tests. All 28 classes were in traditional public schools. All charter school classes at the same grade levels in the same buildings did better—including six grade levels where the charter school majorities reaching the “proficient” level ranged from 81% to 100%.”
But the success of New York charter schools is only part of the story. After all, the book is called “Charter Schools and their Enemies.” Who are those enemies? Teachers unions and the very same traditional public schools that students and their parents are falling over each other to escape (There are 50,000+ students on waiting lists for charters in New York City). Nefarious tactics used to slow the proliferation of charter schools in New York (and the $20,000 per pupil at stake for each child that enrolls) include blocking the use of buildings that have been vacant for years, demolishing buildings that otherwise could have been used by charters, laws limiting the number of charters and charter schools allowed, and laws designed to make it more difficult for charter schools to open, to name a few.
What does this have to do with Texas, one might ask?
Charter schools in Texas have the same enemies as those in New York. If there’s any doubt about this, just look at the witness list to see who is for or against any bill that touches on things like creating new streams of funding for charter schools, making it easier for successful charters to take over failing traditional public schools, making the admissions process for charters more onerous, placing geographic restrictions on where charter schools can open, or adding red tape to charter admissions processes, to name a few examples. There’s a pattern.
There are also roadblocks in Texas that make it difficult for new charters to be granted, or for existing charters to add new campuses. These are discussed in TCCRI’s 2019 School Choice and School Finance Task Force Report, which points out that “charter school expansion in Texas has stagnated,” the approval process “has become so cumbersome that it is difficult to be granted a charter in the first place,” and there is open bias against out-of-state charter applicants.
But just like New York, and despite their enemies here in Texas, public charter schools in Texas have a strong record of success. The Texas Public Charter Schools Association touts broad educational gains for students lucky enough to get off of a wait list and into a charter school, but it turns out that traditional public schools also perform better when competing with charters. For example, between 2016 and 2019, 82% of school districts with charters in their attendance zones increased fifth grade reading scores where only 67% of districts with no charters nearby increased theirs. Similarly, over the same period, “the number of [Independent School Districts] where at least 95% of fifth graders met state math standards doubled. That compares to a 63% increase among ISDs without charters in their attendance zones.”
Indeed, there is a reason why an estimated 120,000 to 140,000 students are on waiting lists for charter admissions in Texas. These voices and their parents should be given more credence than the enemies of charter schools. So should Dr. Sowell.
Image Credit: https://www.forbes.com/sites/markhendrickson/2017/01/03/a-salute-to-thomas-sowell/