The publication date for this admirable book is Tom Sowell’s ninetieth birthday (June 30, 2020), and I doubt that’s entirely coincidental. Though Jason Riley reported three years ago that Sowell was “putting down his pen,” that obviously didn’t happen. And we’re better off as a result.
With charter schools under more political fire today than we’ve seen in decades, Sowell’s latest book is both timely and compelling. So, too, the excerpt that was featured in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Although mostly focused on New York City and California—and with the New York saga focused mostly on the successes and tribulations of Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy—the book has national resonance. As Sowell writes, “The stakes are huge—not only for children whose education can be their one clear chance for a better life, but also for a whole society that needs productive members fulfilling themselves while contributing their talents to the progress of the community at large.”
It’s a short, fast read—half the pages are appendices and notes—and the author is a superb writer. His central message is straightforward: Although not all charter schools are successful, the good ones—such as KIPP and Success Academy—are doing a far better job of educating disadvantaged children, particularly children of color, than the district-operated schools those children would otherwise attend. But because charters pose threats, both reputational and fiscal, to those district schools, the powerful interests of teacher unions and others who depend on district schools for their own jobs and reputations are doing their upmost to throttle the charter movement. Sowell estimates, for example, that if all the children currently on waiting lists for New York charters were able to enroll in them, about a billion dollars in public spending would shift from the district to the charters.
Sowell is a longtime defender—both impassioned and analytical—of quality schools for minority youngsters. He has never lost his admiration for the outstanding job that D.C.’s Dunbar High School did for its Black pupils back in the bad old days of de jure segregation—or his dismay over its “abrupt destruction” in the 1950’s. Noting that Dunbar still exists today as a shadow of its one-time educational greatness, he warns that perhaps the greatest threat to charters today isn’t their annihilation, but rather a transformation of their basic nature—essentially the loss of their autonomy—in response to the “numerous and intrusive ‘reforms’…being proposed and enacted today, closely following the agenda of the teachers unions.” We could, in other words, end up with a hollow educational shell that’s called “charter schools” but is indistinguishable from the alternative and thus not worth the bother.
Kudos and thanks to Thomas Sowell—and happy ninetieth birthday!
SOURCE: Thomas Sowell, Charter Schools and Their Enemies (Basic Books 2020).