Commentary

Dracula Landlords and Charter Schools

This article appeared on Nationalreview.com, December 22, 2004.

“Dracula landlords.” If you lived near New York City in the late ’80s or early ’90s, you no doubt heard about them: cruel tenement owners who refused to provide even the most basic services for their tenants.

How were they able to get away with it? Because the city’s strict rent control laws kept more housing from being built, and as bad as the apartments were, the poor tenants’ only other choice — freezing in the streets — was much worse.

It was a situation like the one facing many poor parents today, whose only choices are to send their children to charter schools that are often far from ideal, or take the worse option and relegate them to failed public schools.

In case anyone has forgotten just how bad the educational “streets” are, several recent reports have come along to remind us. In early December, results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measured the ability of 15-year-olds in industrial nations to solve real life math problems, placed the U.S. in the bottom third of participating nations, behind countries like Latvia and the Slovak Republic.

A week later, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) revealed that while American youths ranked higher than in PISA, they still trailed students in countries like Russia and Malaysia in eighth-grade math.

About the same time TIMSS and PISA came out, two reports about charter schools were released. The more prominent of the two was a National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP) study, which showed fourth grade charter students performing slightly lower in math and reading assessments than their traditional public school peers — not bad considering that charters attract students who’ve struggled in traditional public schools.

None of the results, though, were terribly encouraging. Not even one third of students, either in charter or regular public schools, were proficient in math or reading.

In the second report, Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby showed that elementary charter school kids were 5.2 percent more likely to be proficient in reading, and 3.2 percent more likely to be proficient in math, than children in the nearest public schools with similar racial compositions. Of course, the normal public schools had set a low bar for charters to clear.

Despite the importance of these results, numbers can only tell us so much. In his remarks at the NAEP unveiling, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok acknowledged this, and highlighted an unquantifiable characteristic of charters that sets them apart: a “sense of ownership,” a dedication to a school and its mission that charter parents and students have because they’ve chosen the school.

Unfortunately, a “sense” of ownership is about as close to real ownership as charter schools are likely to get, because in almost every other respect, they are renters, not owners, and their landlord is out for blood.

Charter schools can’t even exist without the permission of their government landlords: state governments must pass laws permitting them, and once state governments have spoken, other entities must grant the charters.

In many states, those other entities are public school districts, which are often charter schools’ primary competition - and chief antagonists. In the 2002-03 school year, according to the Center for Education Reform (CER), almost 43 percent of charters were issued by local school boards, and another 28 percent by state boards.

So charters often start with their necks already between Dracula’s fangs, and they have the teeth marks to prove it: CER reports that on average, charters receive smaller per-pupil allotments than traditional public schools, and, unlike traditional public schools, often must pay for facilities with those funds. Moreover, hostile politicians are constantly threatening to force new standards on charters, to shrink them, or to shut them down completely.

Even under the current, dismal circumstances, many charter schools provide at least some refuge from failed traditional public schools. But that’s as far as charters will be allowed to go. As long as the Dracula landlords retain control, and treat competition like so many cloves of garlic, choice will be hobbled, restricted to cash-strapped charter schools or even worse public schools.

For truly powerful choice to occur, the dark forces must be circumvented. Parents must be able to select their child’s school - charter, private, or traditional public - and schools must be free to operate without the permission of antagonistic landlords. In other words, parents must have real ownership.

Isn’t it about time for American education to get off the streets and out of the tenements?

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.