After assuming office in January, Mayor Bill de Blasio wasted no time mounting his assault on New York City’s charter schools. His recent decision to pull the plug on three previously approved charter schools has drawn praise from teachers unions. However, some supporters have accused him of not going far enough. This view displays an ignorance of school choice and a misguided understanding of the purpose of public education.
Nothing exemplifies this ignorance better than the response made by Brooklyn City Councilman Vincent Gentile. Referring to one of the 14 charter schools that were permitted to move forward by de Blasio, Councilman Gentile stated that “if the overarching consideration is what’s in the best interest of the students, then we should deny charters entry into District 21.”
There has been considerable public debate about the success of charter schools nationwide. However, a comprehensive study examining charter school programs in 26 states conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes has found that “charter school students now have greater learning gains in reading than their peers in traditional public schools.”
The evidence from New York City is even more definitive, with the same study finding that a typical student in the city’s charter schools gains more learning in a year than their district school peers. This difference amounts to an extra month of learning for reading, and five extra months of learning for mathematics.
It is true that not all New York City charter schools perform better than their district school equivalents, but a significant number of them do. This is particularly the case when it comes to mathematics, with 63 percent of charter schools studied outperforming their district school counterparts.
Clearly Mayor de Blasio’s opposition to charter schools is unfounded, and assuming his concern for student welfare is genuine, it is a view based on an ignorance of charter schools and the benefits they provide.
It is, therefore, troubling that de Blasio has been attacked for a lack of hostility towards charter schools. Unfortunately, Councilman Gentile is not alone in this holding this view. On the contrary, some fellow supporters of de Blasio, including Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, have announced they are moving ahead with a lawsuit to overturn other charter school colocations that were approved by de Blasio.
There is, however, a deeper ignorance present in the debate around school choice — namely, the common assumption that school choice should be evaluated based solely on student performance. Outcomes are certainly important, but there are deeper issues of principle when it comes to school choice. The most important of these is the right of parents to decide how their children are educated.
Parents have a far greater understanding of what is in their children’s best interest than teachers unions or government bureaucrats, and they have a far greater incentive to act in those best interests. An education system that robs parents of the ability to make decisions about their child’s education clearly infringes on parental rights, as well as the responsibilities they owe to their children. This is the approach that has characterized America’s public education system for a long time, and it has resulted in American students falling behind many of their international counterparts.
In contrast to this approach, charter schools empower parents by enabling them to make decisions regarding their child’s education. This makes schools more accountable to parents, strengthening the incentives for them to provide their students with a quality education. After all, it should not be forgotten that the purpose of public schools is to educate students. It is not to serve as a source of employment, nor as a political powerbase for vested interests.
Opponents of New York’s charter schools, including Mayor de Blasio, are clearly ignorant of the benefits offered by school choice, and have forgotten the real purpose of public schools.