- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2011

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced that 82 percent of American schools are “failing” under the criteria laid forth in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). That number is more than double the current estimate of 37 percent because states are beginning to get serious about their schools meeting those standards. Under NCLB, failing schools will have to take steps - such as offering tutoring - to solve the problems or face closure.

Mr. Duncan’s response is to push Congress to weaken the law. He averred, “No Child Left Behind is broken, and we need to fix it now. This law has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed.”

Mr. Duncan is wrong: The law isn’t broken, it is American public schools that are - international test scores prove that. We need to fix the problem using a tool that the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, at the behest of the teachers unions, stripped from the original NCLB bill, namely, school choice. In this regard, Mr. Duncan would do well to promote a type of solution that he supposedly has favored all along: charter schools.

In terms of school choice, charter schools are the next best thing to fully “voucherized” schools. In a full voucher setup, all parents in a district receive an equal share of the district’s funds for each child, and they can send their children to whatever schools they choose - private or public. A charter school, on the other hand, is a public school controlled by the public school district but given substantial freedom in hiring and firing teachers, setting up the curriculum and establishing behavioral and academic standards for students.

The case for school choice has always been compelling on philosophical grounds. Allowing education bureaucrats and unionized teachers - not necessarily geniuses to begin with - to dictate which schools kids must attend or what curriculum they must follow violates parental and student autonomy. It also doesn’t encourage a diversity of schools with different orientations, such as arts, sciences, military, business and so on.

But the case for school choice is compelling on empirical grounds as well. Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center, has just published a study of charter schools. Titled “An Option for Learning: An Assessment of Student Achievement in Charter Public Schools” (available on the Internet), the study shows that charter schools are indeed proving to be an attractive option to the standard public schools.

There are 5,453 charter public schools with more than 1.7 million students. The number of charter schools is rising rapidly, having increased by 9 percent last year alone. There are 365,000 children - enough to fill about 1,000 new charter schools - on waiting lists. Why such popularity?

Ms. Finne reviews the history of charter schools in Massachusetts, which since 1993 has allowed the operation of Commonwealth Charters - public schools with five-year charters that are operated by boards of trustees independent of local boards of education. Over the 17 years of their existence, Commonwealth Charters routinely have outperformed ordinary public schools. A year in the average Commonwealth Charter school cuts the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students in half. Six of the seven highest-scoring state high schools are charters.

Ms. Finne also reviews the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Academies, a network of 99 charter schools primarily in poorer neighborhoods in Texas and New York; the Green Dot Schools, a group of 19 schools in lower-income districts in Los Angeles and New York City; and the New Orleans Charter Schools, which, after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, have grown to educate 70 percent of all New Orleans students.

In general, her review shows that charters typically outperform regular public schools, especially with minority students. And they do it without skimming the best students from the public schools. The reason is clear: Principals of charters can control their personnel, curriculum and behavioral standards, free from bureaucratic and union control. The charters are, in turn, accountable to the public, and those that fail can be closed summarily - unlike the monopolistic public schools.

Arne Duncan should read Ms. Finne’s study - but the unions no doubt will forbid it.

Gary Jason is a contributing editor to LibertyUnbound.

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