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A Time to Charter Congress?


New Jersey Turnpike

Passing the Joyce Kilmer Rest Stop


I am traveling through New Jersey heading home. The turnpike is an easy road to follow because exit signs are clearly marked and I can steer a steady course on the straight road. It's much more difficult to navigate the mind of a politician because roads labeled north and south too often head east and west.

My radio is tuned to a local talk radio station and a bombastic politician is responding to a teacher who asked him a question about possible teacher layoffs in the New York City. The congressman steers away from the question and decides to talk about charter schools.

"Charter schools should be promoted and expanded," he says, "because public schools are not productive, do not reward merit, and do not provide competition."

I was hoping to hear what the lawmaker had to say about layoffs rather than listen to another discussion about charter schools.

"It's time for schools and public school teachers to change because the public is unhappy with the performance of our schools," he concluded before a commercial break.

The fact that the congressman's state is on the fringe of complete dysfunction due to political corruption and ineptitude is never mentioned. But the art of using hyperbolic rhetoric to obfuscate personal incompetence has been the aegis of politicians throughout the ages. Better to focus on schools and teachers than matters lethal to the body politic.

But it's all a ruse. Charter schools are essentially no better or worse than local public schools. A few charter schools do better than the local competition and that's probably a good thing for the fortunate student attending such a school. Other charter schools fail due to the same dynamics that cause all schools to fail: poor leadership, insufficient funding, apathetic students and parents, and a lack of quality teachers. The literature about charter schools is voluminous and predictable: Studies funded by charter school proponents favor charter schools and studies funded by opponents of charter schools do not favor charter schools. A more objective meta-analysis of charter schools has been undertaken by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009. NAEP is considered the gold standard of educational testing and the results of their testing demonstrate that charter schools, on average, do not outperform regular public schools.

The politician returns to the airwaves and doesn't skip a beat. "People are unhappy with schools and demand change."

I can't argue that some people are not happy with our nation's public school system but the vast majority of Americans respond that they are pleased with their local public schools and can fondly recall a teacher who made a positive impact in their life. Can the same be said of Congress or a politician?

I continue to steer a steady course on the turnpike. I tried to navigate the mind of the politician on the radio, but the path of his words is littered with detours and dead ends. Roads labeled north and south did head east and west. Is it any wonder that we are all lost and confused?

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