Charter School Metaphors

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There are a lot of charter schools in Harlem and they’re a very popular option for Harlem parents, so many local residents were involved in advocacy for the New York State Legislature to allow more charters to open. The local state senator, however, has become a charter opponent. And his stated reason for opposition is mighty odd:

But Mr. Perkins’s stance on charters has turned him into something of a polarizing figure himself. He says he opposes an increase in charter schools, even though many of his constituents seem to want more of them, because he believes they have allowed the mayor and the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, to abdicate their responsibility to improve Harlem’s regular elementary schools, which have shrunk as more parents have chosen charters.

“If there are people fleeing from something, it is cause for alarm,” he said in an interview in his office. Using an analogy he favors when talking about charter schools, he said: “That should tell you there is a fire, and those who are responsible should find out what is causing that fire, not just create a new place for those who flee and leave the rest inside to burn there.”

It’s of course true that it would be strange to ignore an ongoing fire in favor of simply creating new places for people to flee to. But by the same token, it would be strange to refuse to accommodate people who’ve fled a burning building on the grounds that you need to put the fire out.

The world of education politics often seems oddly dominated by the presupposition that doing one thing somehow precludes you from doing anything else. New York’s relative stinginess about letting charter schools open has created a very high quality pool of charters. You almost certainly couldn’t increase the number of charters to a high enough level to accommodate everyone while maintaining the standard of quality. So as Perkins says, it’s crucial to work on improving the city’s “regular” public schools. But there’s no reason to think that creating some new opportunities for people to open charters in any way prevents improvements in the regular city schools from happening.

If anything, the existence of a modest degree of competition from charter operators can help motivate the officials in charge of the main NYC public schools to think hard about making the schools they’re running more appealing. In the suburbs of a large metropolitan area, you basically have parallel public school systems competing against each other—if Town A’s schools perform much better than Town B’s, then that makes Town A more attractive and its property values go up. Which gives officials in both towns incentives to try to deliver a reasonable standard of educational services. Lower income urban families typically don’t have that range of options in terms of where they want to live, but having charters operate in parallel with other schools creates something of the same effect.