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The Charter School Juggernaut

Although the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, already has more charter schools than any other school system in the nation, a move is underway to create 260 more over the next eight years ("$490-million plan would put half of LAUSD students in charter schools," Los Angeles Times, Sep. 22). The plan is heavily backed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, with other huge foundations soon to be tapped.

The expansion, which would more than double the number of charters in Los Angeles, is strongly opposed by the district itself as well as by its employee unions.  Since the arguments against charters are familiar by now, I won't bother repeating them.  Instead, I'd like to take a closer look at the reason for their growing popularity.

Despite studies showing that the performance of charter schools is decidedly uneven, parents are largely drawn to them because they still believe for one reason or another that charter schools provide a better education. Showing them the results of studies are unlikely to matter because they've already made up their minds. They're not indifferent to the plight of other students whose parents are not engaged in their education. But they are disaffected with the education that traditional schools provide. Should they be made to sacrifice their own children on the altar of equity?  Ethicists have made it clear that parents can be compassionate about others and still put their own offspring first. I agree.

I've written often before why I believe parental choice is inevitable. We can argue all day long that parents are pulling their children out of traditional public schools and enrolling them elsewhere because of racism, but that is not the situation in New York City, home of the nation's largest school district.  Of the city's one million students, about 70,000, mostly black and Hispanic, attend charter schools, which are overwhelmingly located in the poorer neighborhoods.  The long wait lists for charter-school enrollment are not abating. 

If it's any consolation, I think that vouchers and their variants are far more destructive than charter schools. Whether they take the form of education savings accounts or tax-credit scholarships, they allow parents to send their children to any school.  Charter schools have more accountability, albeit more oversight is badly needed. Nevertheless, charter schools are seen as a threat to traditional public schools, and will be fought tooth and nail. In the end, however, they will prevail. 

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