Charter Schools in Action
Coulson, Andrew J., Ideas on Liberty
Charter Schools in Action by Chester Finn, Bruno Manno, and
Princeton University Press * 2000 * 288 pages * $27.95
Reviewed by of Andrew J. Coulson
With the publication of Charter Schools in Action, the authors aim to provide a definitive study of U.S. charter schooling at the end of the twentieth century, complete with a brief history explaining its origins and some tentative hypotheses about its future. They are, for the most part, successful. There is at present no better source of information for someone wanting to become familiar with the concept and practice of charter schooling.
In its exposition of existing charter schools and the legislation that governs them, the book is well researched and documented, combining useful statistical tables with personal interviews and case studies. As with the authors' previous works, the prose is not only clear but also enjoyable to read. It particularly shines when the authors dissect the arguments against charter schooling leveled by defenders of the educational status quo.
No book is without weaknesses, however, and Charter Schools in Action has three. First, it does not offer an explicit conceptual framework within which to evaluate charter schooling. This causes problem number two, the book's failure to address adequately, or in some cases even to recognize, the risks and shortcomings of charter schools. Problem number three is the authors' cursory dismissal of a promising alternative reform: the creation of an unfettered educational marketplace.
The risks and shortcomings of charter schools are several. For one thing, whenever the state rather than the consumer pays for a service, we have the breeding grounds for fraud and corruption. Parents cannot be duped into paying for children they do not have, but the same can't be said of government agenties. The authors describe several fraudulent abuses, but fail to acknowledge that the problem is intrinsic to the separation of payment from consumption.
Allowing the government to hold the educational purse strings also draws the attention of charter schools away from families and toward the state. In a market, producers increase their income either by cutting costs or demonstrating improved services for which consumers are willing to pay more. Charter schools will only be able to raise revenues by lobbying the state. …