By Oswald Clark

Charter Schools and Their Enemies by Thomas Sowell (Basic Books, $28, 276 pages)

The economist and erstwhile columnist Thomas Sowell is a national treasure. He wrote a regular column for 25 years and wrote more than three dozen books. He is what National Review’s Kevin Williamson calls “that rarest of things among serious academics: plainspoken.” His books have tackled everything from education to immigration to civil rights. He is back at it with education in his latest book (at the age of 90), with Charter Schools and Their Enemies. It is an extended argument in favour of charter schools and against public education, which he considers systemic miseducation.

It should be noted that charter schools are public schools: they are publicly funded and serve public-school students. However, charter schools typically do not have to deal with as many bureaucratic rules, generally have greater control of their curriculum, and, most importantly, are usually not staffed by unionized teachers. This gives charter schools a great deal of flexibility to focus on what students need and parents want. They usually are much more vigorous in their standards and have much better educational outcomes.

Sowell outlines how (standard) public education fails children and parents, and provides ample evidence that charter schools are the solution to substandard educational outcomes for many children (the nearly 90-page appendix provides tables showing test scores for public and charter schools in New York City).

Sowell demonstrates that charter school students perform better according to any number of metrics than their public-school counterparts, even when neighbourhood effects and income levels are taken into consideration. One reason, Sowell argues, is that incompetent teachers are not held accountable in public schools, nor excellent teachers rewarded; charter schools, on the other hand, can penalize or fire teachers that do not meet minimum standards and can provide incentives for excellence.

Furthermore, Sowell argues, public schools have deviated from basic education in favour of any number of social causes from sex education to ethnic studies. “Propagandists in the classroom are a luxury that the poor can afford least of all,” writes Sowell. “While a mastery of mathematics and English can be a ticket out of poverty, a highly cultivated sense of grievance and resentment are not.” He says ideological crusades, whether of the Left or Right, have no place in the classroom as they represent “the tragedy of wasting opportunities for preparing the young for a better life as adults.”

Sowell also notes that while the educational performance gap between whites and visible minorities (blacks or Hispanics) remain stubbornly large in public schools, they are being virtually erased in charter schools.

Sowell concludes with a general principle that should guide education policy, but which often does not: “Schools exist for the education of children.” The persistently lousy performance of many public schools, especially those in America’s inner cities, is testament that schools do not exist for the education of children, but rather some other goal (“iron-clad jobs for teachers,” “a market for teachers college degrees,” or “a captive audience for indoctrinators”). Charter schools do not exist to serve these other goals, and thus consistently do a better job educating children. America would be better served by having more charter schools; in Canada, there are even fewer charter schools. A more robust charter school movement might rescue children from sub-standard schooling on both sides of the border, and Sowell’s book provides ample evidence why it is needed.

Oswald Clark is the Washington correspondent of The Interim.