Charter Course

By Gillespie, Nick | Reason, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Charter Course


Gillespie, Nick, Reason


As vouchers go to court, charters erode the old-school monopoly.

"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold, "wrote W.B. Yeats in 1920, in his apocalyptic poem "The Second Coming." The famous line is a fitting epitaph for the 20th century, though experience has robbed it of its dark resonance. All sorts of bids for centralized, consolidated power in politics and economics thankfully came up short in the last century. At the start of the 21st century, command-and-control models are blessedly out of fashion everywhere.

Everywhere, it seems, except in public education, where an old guard still struggles to defy the turn toward decentralized decision making that is energizing American society in myriad ways. In 1940, there were 117,000 public school districts in the U.S.; by 1970, there were 18,000; today the figure stands at about 14,800. Like Yeats, who feared that "anarchy" would follow the collapse of the center, public education's old guard is terrified by individual empowerment.

The most obvious battleground is school choice. The old guard was heartened by the decision in late December enjoining Cleveland, Ohio's popular and controversial voucher program. The program, enacted by the state legislature in 1995, gives some 3,500 low-income students in grades K-6 up to $2,500 each to enroll in any of 56 private schools that accept the vouchers. After the Ohio Supreme Court declared last June that the plan did not violate the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause, opponents took their case to federal court, where they found a more sympathetic audience in U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr.

Noting that over 80 percent of the participating schools were religious, Oliver concluded that "the program has the effect of advancing religion through government-supported religious indoctrination" and ruled the voucher program unconstitutional. Mindful of the fallout last summer when he issued a temporary injunction against the program just days before the school year began, Oliver this time has delayed enforcement of his order until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit rules on the case (a decision is unlikely until some time after June). Since both sides have vowed to pursue all appeals, Oliver's ruling sets the stage for an eventual U.S. Supreme Court decision that may well settle not simply the fate of the Cleveland program but the larger issue of tax dollars being spent in religious schools.

Given its recent rulings on similar topics, it's unclear whether the nation's high court will ultimately certify or quash the Cleveland program. But even if Oliver's decision is upheld in the end, power is already leeching out of the system there, due to another, less dramatic reform. Ohio, like 31 other states and the District of Columbia, has a robust and rapidly growing charter school community that is slowly but surely subverting traditional public schooling.

On the face of it, charters--essentially, public schools that are exempt from most state education laws and regulations--appear less radical than vouchers. Hence, they are more palatable politically. But like vouchers, charters inject unmistakable elements of choice and competition into primary and secondary education; they take power from educators and deliver it to parents. By giving parents and students a ready exit from existing schools, charters facilitate the product differentiation, market segmentation, and customer satisfaction that Americans have come to expect and demand in every other sector of the economy. …

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