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A Really Bad Argument for Charter Schools

Charles Murray is a very confused guy. His op-ed piece in today’s New York Times uses the dreary impact of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program on student achievement to justify policies expanding school choice. Let’s get over the fact that school choice plans don’t show big impacts on students’ performance on standardized tests, he argues. After all, we’ve known for a long time that it’s hard for schools to overcome the family advantages of cognitive ability and motivation. Rather, he proposes, we should support school choice because it can allow a small number of parents to choose a curriculum that’s better than that offered to students in traditional public schools.

Setting aside some of the most remarkable inconsistencies—Charles Murray, 2010 edition, doesn’t think that test scores are meaningful measures of academic performance? Has he met Charles Murray, 1994 edition, who was quite comfortable in The Bell Curve reducing the whole of human intelligence to a single score on the Armed Forces Qualification Test?—Murray fundamentally misunderstands the historic logic of the charter schooling movement—an exchange of autonomy for accountability. We can argue over the scope of that autonomy and accountability, but even those who have disagreed on this site about whether charter schools are properly labeled as public or private schools generally agree that it’s appropriate to hold them accountable for their students’ performance on assessments measuring standards that are the de facto public curriculum of the state in which they are located. Certainly, the charter movement gains energy from studies showing that students in charter schools may outperform their counterparts in traditional public schools on state assessments. Charter schools may strive to expose students to a curriculum that’s more ambitious, but the standards of the state cannot be ignored.

It’s puzzling, then, that Murray uses the recently-released results of the Milwaukee Program, which is a program providing vouchers to low-income students to attend private secular and religious schools, to motivate an argument for school choice, and especially the expansion of charter schools. The particular example he cites is a proposed K-8 charter school in Frederick County, MD, where he resides.

Frederick County, MD is an odd place to make a stand for charter schools. As of the 2000 Census, 80% of the residents were non-Hispanic whites, and only 4% were foreign-born. Only 5% of the residents were living in poverty, well below the Maryland state average, and the median household income was more than 10% above the state average. The 2009 Maryland report card records a 94% high school graduation rate for Frederick County students.

But the real oddity is Murray’s claim that the state should underwrite the costs of a customized curriculum not available in the “ordinary” public schools. If a rigorous curriculum is what can best prepare our children for the future, why not offer it to all students? Allowing savvy parents such as Charles Murray to opt into specialized schools subsidized by the state, while consigning most students to a less-challenging curriculum, only perpetuates a system of unequal educational opportunity. Even Murray might acknowledge that it’s bad public policy for the state to exacerbate inequality of educational opportunity.

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