Charter Schools: A Democratic Move toward Liberty

New York Mayor De Blasio has been waging a war against charter schools – a reactionary attempt to protect the interests of teacher unions at the expense of poor and minority children. Happily De Blasio has already suffered a reversal of fortune at the hands of his own party and that reversal provides good news  about the structure of democratic politics and its capacity to sustain liberty enhancing reforms.

On Tuesday, the governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, attended a rally of charter school supporters in Albany—an obvious riposte to De Blasio’s decisions to take money and property away from charter schools. Cuomo has ambitions to be President and it shows that even Democrats who count public unions as part of their coalition cannot ignore the crisis in public education and the need for reform.

Because the decline of public schools is rooted in no small part in centralized bureaucracy and in the power of teacher unions, solutions take the form of injecting more competition by such means as charter schools, vouchers and merit pay. These forms of competition are liberty enhancing and can help improve standards and increase innovation, particularly in big cities, where the jurisdictional competition afforded by different suburbs is absent.

One might think that teacher unions and bureaucrats as powerful interest groups could thwart these reforms, because they help only diffuse and relatively powerless groups like parents and students.  They could halt reforms at one point but not so much today, because education has seized public attention. In 1983 the National Commission on Education, a group of experts, published a report called, A Nation at Risk, detailing a decline in the performance of educational institutions.  More and more reports of America’s failings, particularly in comparison to other nations, got attention because American citizens largely share an interest in imparting high educational skills to their children. A better educated population is perceived as necessary to compete with other nations and to produce the goods and services that will sustain the economy and the future of entitlement programs.

Charter schools may be the preferred option of Democrats to address the public’s concern as they do not directly permit pay differentials—anathema to unions—or permit wholesale privatization of schools—an even greater threat to the ideological transmission of often left-wing ideas through public schools. As a result, it is not only Cuomo, but other Democrats from Arne Duncan, the Education Secretary, to Rahm Emmanuel, the Mayor of Chicago, who promote charter schools. This is a very happy development for children and for liberty. Charter schools, being independent of centralized control, can offer a variety of approaches that may be better at meeting the demands of a particular type of student. They are free to make experiments, without much regard to the mandates of bureaucratic uniformity. This kind of independence not only is likely to improve the performance of students in the charter school, but also increases competitive pressure on public schools.

The success of the charter school movement shows that democracy can create liberty enhancing reforms when a crisis becomes large enough. And it succeeded against many obstacles. Charter schools with their decentralized order sit uneasily with a hierarchical mindset. They create nonunion alternatives. Introducing charters is also in tension with the bias toward the status quo. Yet charter schools are multiplying and with them  more choice and freedom.