School Choice

"The Scandal of K-12 Education"—and How To Fix It

Charter schools get ragged on all the time, except by grateful parents and students.


Andrew Coulson,

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Fox News personality and author Juan Williams laments the sorry state of the nation's K-12 education system. He's right to do so. Every year, we spend more public money and more resources per student and, overall, we see no increase in test scores or outcomes.

"Millions of black and Hispanic students in U.S. schools simply aren't taught to read well enough to flourish academically. For them, the end of the school year marks another lost opportunity, another step toward a life of blunted potential," writes Williams. "According to a March report by Child Trends, based on 2015 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 21% of Hispanic fourth-grade students were deemed 'proficient' in reading. This is bad news. A fourth-grader's reading level is a key indicator of whether he or she will graduate from high school."

The news isn't good for white students, either. 'Only 46% of white fourth-graders—and 35% of fourth-graders of all races—were judged 'proficient' in reading in 2015," Williams notes. Despite spending more money on education and more time in the classroom, U.S. kids rate average compared to students from other industrialized nations.

So, what to do? The first thing to do is not to spend more money. We've been doing that for decades and it hasn't helped to bump scores (and, one assumes, knowledge or skills) upwards. Check out the chart by the late Andrew Coulson of Cato. In the 40 years between 1970 and 2010, the total cost of educating a kid from kindergarten to senior year of high school more than doubled, while scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) stayed flat. You can't fill an busted bucket.

One answer that has been road-tested for going on 25 years now is the charter school, which are publicly funded schools that get a fraction of the typical per-pupil money given to traditional schools in exchange for the freedom to experiment with different sorts of programs and curricula. Charters are not in any way guaranteed revenue—they must draw students based on reputation and interest. Opponents of charters, which include teachers unions and a wide assortment of liberal groups such as People For The American Way (PFAW), point to studies which show that charters on average don't outperform residential-assignment public schools. And just for fun, PFAW tries to throw in a scare about state-financed religion, accusing charters of "robbing our public education system of urgently needed funds, and sending taxpayer money to unaccountable private and religious schools."

That's a dodge, however. Charters aren't private and they certainly aren't unaccountable (they need to keep students coming back and all have internal and external oversight boards). But more importantly, they do produce better outcome for students. As University of Arkansas education professor Jay P. Greene argues, when you actually look at specific students via "randomized control trials" (RCTs), charters clearly help disadvantaged students do much better. RCTs allow researchers to isolate the effect of going to one school over another. In urban areas such as Chicago, Boston, and New York, RCTs found that charters decreased achievement gaps between minority and white students by as much as 86 percent. Go here for more specifics on the major RCTs that have been done, but here's Greene's conclusion:

When you have four RCTs – studies meeting the gold standard of research design – and all four of them agree that charters are of enormous benefit to urban students, you would think everyone would agree that charters should be expanded and supported, at least in urban areas.  If we found the equivalent of halving the black-white test score gap from RCTs from a new cancer drug, everyone would be jumping for joy – even if the benefits were found only for certain types of cancer.

If we want less tragedy in our lives—or, more specifically, in the lives of minority kids—charters represent a proven way to make things better.

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  1. You can clearly see the problem by looking at the graph. If the orange and blue lines just increased at a steeper rate, then the rest of the lines would follow.

    1. What we really need is more administrators, assistant principals, and safety officers.

      1. “School Resource Officer”

      2. There is also the brilliant idea of hiring more teachers so we can lower class sizes.

        Instead of paying certain teachers more for their ability to teach well and command large class sizes, we hire anyone with an ed degree to stand in front of classrooms with 15 students.

      3. “Diversity Task Force Administrator”

        Oh gawd, I can’t even type it without gagging.

  2. Just wrote the check for another semester of Catholic High School for the kid. A new car would have been much more enjoyable, but the local public high school just sucks.

  3. My daughter’s charter school is awesome. So beyond overjoyed she got in there, and now she’s there til she graduates High School.

    1. …or gets pregnant and drops out.


  4. This is another case where perception truly trumps reality. If you polled the average person, I’d bet they’d say that just the opposite is true – that the number of employees and the amount of money per student have been decreasing for decades. Because those evil teabaggers keep making budget cuts. But in a way they might be right. I wonder how many of those employees are teachers, and how many of those dollars make it into the classroom?

  5. So you’re saying the solution is *more* money?

    Progs are clearly out of ideas when that’s the solution for everything

  6. No indictment.

    Where’s John to tell us that the FBI leaders would resign in protest? They recommended no indictment.

    1. Of course, that was the only possible outcome.

    2. 110 e-mails classified at the time she sent them, 8 top secret, and it’s highly likely that foreign powers compromised her e-mail. But no indictment.

      If anyone says he’s shocked he’s a goddamn liar.

      1. That writing has been on the wall for weeks.

        I don’t think anyone is quitting in protest. The ones who care will just carefully leak dirt on her for the next 4 months.

  7. Corey’s announcement in a nutshell: Hillary’s indiscretions were even worse than surmised; but “no reasonable prosecutor would bring charges”.


    1. What was it Scott Adams predicted?

      Trump in a landslide.

    2. That thud you just heard was the rule of law dropping dead.

      1. It’s been dead for a long time. Where have you been?

        1. I thought it was mostly dead, not completely dead.

          1. So now we go through the pockets looking for loose immunities?

    3. Someone needs to get a hot take article up before the anger fades.

    4. Because Mr. Clinton made it clear to Ms. Lynch (in a chance airport encounter) just what would happen if any other outcome occurred. Bad optics, yeah.


  9. You can’t fool me. As a resident of the great state of Massachusetts, I am regularly told that charter schools are ruining education for everyone. If charter schools would just be eliminated then our wonderful teachers could get children back on track.

  10. Comey sez; Leave Hillary Alone!

    Why would we recommend prosecution of this noble, selfless public servant merely because of her ongoing callous disregard for the law and common sense State Secret safety regulations?

    “Honest? Honest as the day is long.”

  11. Here are some facts that should be taken into consideration when evaluating this topic:

    1. Looking at the trends of reading and math scores is misleading without “disaggregating” the information about the demographics of the students who are taking the tests. Although the trends are flat over time, the demographics have changed dramatically. White students comprised 73% of the population in 1992, but only 51% in 2015. The percentage of Hispanics increased from 7 to 25 over that same time frame.

    2. Thus, scores have been increasing within demographic groups (reading scores for Hispanics have gone up by 11 points since 1992, which is roughly one grade level, and reading scores for Blacks have increased by 14 points), but because there are a higher percentage of students from demographic groups that score low the overall scores don’t increase.

    3. In math the score increases are even more dramatic – an increase of 30 points for 4th-grade Hispanic students since 1990, and 36 points for Black students since 1990.

  12. Out of an abundance of caution for education outcomes, we should close down all the public schools. Imagine how much more involved parents will be with their children’s education when they are paying for it themselves. Imagine how much learner and efficient schools will be when they have to compete for customers based on price and educational outcomes.

    1. I always enjoy anecdotes from kids who came here as immigrants from places where education was “pay to play,” even at the elementary level. Places like Vietnam, many African countries, India, for example. I’ve got a coworker from Ghana whose kid wanted to quit public high school in the U.S. after two days, citing the appalling disrespectful behavior of the kids, the total lack of standards, the constant noise and distractions of cell phones and electronic shit all day long, the filth of the buildings, etc.

      When families have to take responsibility for paying to educate their kids, they suddenly become a lot more interested in the outcome of that investment. Instead of being a bunch of mouthy truant crack apes who threaten their teachers, kids become respectful, because they know if they waste others’ time and money, the teacher will just send them home (where there are actual consequences for wasting their parents’ money, too). They take pride in their school because they’re paying for it, and for many families, it’s a luxury; so the kids don’t stink it up and cover it with graffiti and garbage.

      Families who pay for education themselves place a higher value on achievement; in many of these countries, school is a kid’s only ticket out of abject poverty: there’s no welfare or “disability” to fall back on.

      At the least, we need to end public teacher unions, and give per-student vouchers to families. Make education a family responsibility and it becomes a family value.

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