"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.