Try a little thought experiment. Suppose somebody invented a new kind of hospital. At first, nobody—not even the inventors—knew whether these new hospitals would work. But gradually the evidence came in—and it showed the new hospitals working better than the old ones. Not all of them, and not all the time. But most of them and more often than not.
In the new hospitals, the patients got better faster. Not only that: The new hospitals worked special wonders with the sickest patients—the poor and minority cohorts traditional hospitals often wrote off as hopeless. And just to put a cherry on top of the sundae, the new hospitals usually charged less. Sometimes much less.
Naturally, word got around. More and more of the new-format hospitals began opening. Yet demand for space in them grew even faster. People joined lotteries and waiting lists, hoping they could get in. They held rallies demanding new-format hospitals and wrote to politicians, asking for help in getting a new-format hospital in their neighborhood.
Well, you could imagine what would happen next. The old-fashioned hospitals would start raising heck. They would complain that the new hospitals were cherry-picking patients. That they were kicking out patients who didn't heal fast enough. That they were in the hospital business to make money, not to help cure the sick.
And when those claims turned out to be false, the old-fashioned hospitals would accuse the new ones of stealing patients and dollars from them in order to destroy the traditional-hospital system. The new hospitals, they would argue, had to be stopped in order to protect the traditional ones.
Confronted with an argument like that, most people would scratch their heads. Just whom is a hospital supposed to be for, anyway—the patients or the employees? If the old hospitals don't want to lose business, then why don't they do what the new hospitals are doing?
This, essentially, is the story of the charter-school movement. In the past decade the number of charter schools in America has more than doubled, and the number of students enrolled in them has more than tripled. That growth has been driven by one simple factor: success. Although charter schools are not working miracles, they frequently are leaving traditional public schools in the dust.
For instance: A 2013 study by Stanford University, examining charter schools in 27 states, found that charter-school students did roughly as well as their public-school peers in math and considerably better in reading. "The results reveal that the charter school sector is getting better on average and that charter schools are benefiting low-income, disadvantaged, and special education students," Stanford reported.
A follow-up study of charter schools in Los Angeles found that the typical charter student made gains equivalent to about 50 extra days of instruction in reading and 79 extra days of instruction in math. The biggest gainers: black and Hispanic students, students in poverty and middle-school students.
It's the same story in New York. Nicholas Simmons, a teacher at one of the city's Success Academy charters, notes that while 29 percent of sixth-grade students in the regular public schools passed a state math test—and only 15 to 17 percent of blacks and Latinos—83 percent of his school's sixth-graders did. (Nearly all of Simmons' students are black or Latino, and three-fourths are low-income.)
Moreover, while only 7 percent of special-needs students in New York's traditional public schools passed the state math exams, 56 percent of those at his Success Academy did.
Well, maybe Simmons is biased. But even The New York Times editorial page has cited research showing "the typical New York City charter student learned more reading and math in a year than his or her public school peers."
And Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently noted that "some of the most successful schools in the inner cities have been charters in the Knowledge Is Power Program, showing what is possible even in troubled cities."
Then there's New Orleans, which handed over operations of most of its schools to charter organizations after Hurricane Katrina. The result? According to the Christian Science Monitor: "The academic gains have been dramatic. The city has surpassed the state average for high school graduation by several points. . . . Yet another bright point: the percentage of students qualifying for college scholarships from the state based on ACT scores and grade-point averages. Prior to Katrina, less than 6 percent of students in 14 high schools later taken over by the [Recovery School District] qualified for these scholarships. . . . In 2013, 27 percent did."
Naturally, traditional public school interests have not taken any of this lying down. In New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio has waged a strident campaign against charters. In Illinois, the state legislature has been considering almost a dozen bills meant to restrict the growth of charters. "Charter schools are being used to destroy traditional public schools," says Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who sees "no reason to open more of them." Chicago parents feel differently; hundreds of them recently flocked to the State Capitol's Rotunda to denounce the anti-charter legislation.
In Massachusetts, friends of the traditional school system also have tried to stop the charter-school movement because it ostensibly drains resources. "In Boston," noted The Boston Globe last month, "the school system is losing $87.5 million in state aid to about two dozen charter schools this year." And in Nashville, where the number of charter schools has grown from four to 21 in just five years, nine more have applied—provoking a backlash over the same "fiscal concerns" as those in Massachusetts. But if a student goes to a different school, why should the money stay with her old one? Shouldn't the dollars follow the pupil?
Here in Virginia—which has all of six out of the country's 6,440 charter schools—lawmakers have imposed high hurdles to the creation of new ones, and in recent years have quashed efforts to lower the barriers.
Legislators from suburban areas with good school systems see little reason to rock the boat, and some legislators from urban areas remember the grim days when "school choice" was just a cover for white supremacy.
Those days are long gone. Yet like yesteryear's Massive Resistance, today's defense of the status quo still does considerable harm to minorities. Instead of standing in the way of progress, the defenders should take the same advice most people would give to our hypothetical old-fashioned hospitals: Physician, heal thyself.
This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.