Charter Schools in Action by Chester Finn, Bruno Manno, and Greg Vanourek

Though Incomplete, It Offers the Best Source of Information Currently Available on Charter Schooling

Princeton University Press • 2000 • 288 pages • $27.95

With the publication of Charter Schools in Action, the authors aim to provide a definitive study of U.S. charter schooling at the end of the twentieth century, complete with a brief history explaining its origins and some tentative hypotheses about its future. They are, for the most part, successful. There is at present no better source of information for someone wanting to become familiar with the concept and practice of charter schooling.

In its exposition of existing charter schools and the legislation that governs them, the book is well researched and documented, combining useful statistical tables with personal interviews and case studies. As with the authors’ previous works, the prose is not only clear but also enjoyable to read. It particularly shines when the authors dissect the arguments against charter schooling leveled by defenders of the educational status quo.

No book is without weaknesses, however, and Charter Schools in Action has three. First, it does not offer an explicit conceptual framework within which to evaluate charter schooling. This causes problem number two, the book’s failure to address adequately, or in some cases even to recognize, the risks and shortcomings of charter schools. Problem number three is the authors’ cursory dismissal of a promising alternative reform: the creation of an unfettered educational marketplace.

The risks and shortcomings of charter schools are several. For one thing, whenever the state rather than the consumer pays for a service, we have the breeding grounds for fraud and corruption. Parents cannot be duped into paying for children they do not have, but the same can’t be said of government agencies. The authors describe several fraudulent abuses, but fail to acknowledge that the problem is intrinsic to the separation of payment from consumption.

Allowing the government to hold the educational purse strings also draws the attention of charter schools away from families and toward the state. In a market, producers increase their income either by cutting costs or demonstrating improved services for which consumers are willing to pay more. Charter schools will only be able to raise revenues by lobbying the state. The 14-fold increase in inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending that has occurred in government schools over the past 75 years is a sobering harbinger of what to expect under charter schooling. The authors provide evidence of this lobbying already occurring among the country’s nascent charter schools, but seem not to understand its importance or inevitability.

Finally, charter schools preclude the direct financial responsibility of parents that history shows to be crucial for the maintenance of parental involvement in, and control over, their children’s education.

Based on historical and contemporary precedents, charter schools are likely to be re-regulated to the point where they are indistinguishable from traditional government-run schools. The authors are aware of this “ominous threat,” but can offer no solution.

The downside of charter schooling would be of negligible importance if their impact were limited to charter schools themselves. Charter schools would still constitute some improvement over traditional public schools. The real concern is that previously independent private schools are being lured into the charter fold. If large numbers of private schools adopt charter status, the eventual re-regulation of charter schools will expand the government education monopoly. The authors make no mention of this Damoclean sword hanging over the charter movement.

The most surprising flaw in Charter Schools in Action is its cursory dismissal of free-market education. The authors’ one-page treatment of what they call the “chimera of privatization” is so brief as to be virtually subliminal and is out of place in an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent book. The authors make a quick grab for their rhetorical six-shooter and fire off a half-dozen bullet items intended to dispatch educational markets. But the authors succeed only at blowing a hole in their own credibility.

While the book does not fully inform readers of the pitfalls associated with charter schools, or do justice to alternative education systems, it offers the best source of information currently available on charter schooling.

Andrew Coulson is the author of Market Education: The Unknown History.