Every time I write or talk about charter schools and school choice, one of the most common responses (especially from my fellow educators) goes something like this: "What's so magical about charter schools? Isn't it foolish to assume that just because someone opens a school to compete with the traditional public schools somehow education will be improved for everyone?"
I would agree that such an assumption is foolish - if anyone who supports school choice actually thought this.
Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch make a devastatingly powerful case for the benefits of choice in their 2011 book, The Declaration of Independents. You don't have to agree with all of Gillespie and Welch's conclusions to appreciate the truth of their central argument that American prosperity over the last century has been directly related to the proliferation of a vast array of consumer choices. The sheer quantity of options available to consumers, whether they are buying coffee, or cell phones, or music, or what have you, has never been richer, not only in the brand or style or variety of products but in the sources from which we can purchase them (think restaurants, grocery stores, farmer's markets, online retailers, roadside vendors, etc., just in terms of where you can buy food these days).
And while the breadth of choices can sometimes be overwhelming, there's no argument that this enormous expansion of options - rooted in the freedom to decide for each of ourselves individually which product or service best meets our particular needs - contributes to and reflects the fact that as a people we have never been richer, freer, or better off (the Great Recession notwithstanding).
Consumer choice doesn't mean that every product on the market is a good one. Some are junk, of course. Many products never make it out of the idea phase for lack of investor or consumer interest. Others fail to sell a sufficient number to become profitable. This is the normal way the market weeds out products and services that no one really wants.
Consumer choice also doesn't mean that every product on the market looks the same. Some people like sports cars, others like mini-vans, others want motorcycles while some eschew these products altogether in favor of bicycling or walking or taking public transportation. Markets of many choices assure that everyone gets what they ultimately want, based on what they are willing to pay for it.
Choice also doesn't mean there aren't problems or conflicts within markets. That's why (and this is where Gillespie and Welch probably disagree with me), we need fair and reasonable (and, I believe, minimal) regulations to assure products are safe and that consumers are aware of what they're buying. But within these fairly loose boundaries, free(ish) markets mean consumers get the enjoy the widest possible array of choice to meet their needs and desires.
So what does all this have to do with education?
In American education, the range of choices is extraordinarily narrow. Government-run schools maintain a near monopoly on providing educational services. Unless parents have the resources to homeschool, pay private school tuition, or move to affluent communities with well-funded schools, families have no choice whatsoever in where their children are educated.
That doesn't mean that every public school provides poor services. Obviously some do, but others offer top-notch learning opportunities within the confines of traditional school structures. The point is that if what the school is offering doesn't meet a particular family's needs or desires, that family has no other option.
It would be like getting your cell phone and services from the government, and the government only provides one kind of phone. If you want more storage space or additional features - you're out of luck. The fact that schools do something more important than cell phones doesn't diminish my argument here, but rather reinforces it. As Gillespie and Welch point in in their book, the two sectors of the economy with the least choices - and by extension the sky-rocketing costs and lackluster quality - are education and health care.
We need lots more options in the educational market because, in part, more choices are a good thing. Government run schools must, by their very nature, tend toward a one-size-fits-all approach that glosses over individual preferences and needs.
I would like to see communities with schools featuring a veritable supermarket of educational approaches. Some schools could offer a classical, "Great Books" curriculum, others could emphasize technology (maybe with hybrid, online learning opportunities), others could promote a Montessori-type approach, while others still could focus on vocational and technical training. Some kids can homeschool and others can enter "early college" programs that greatly accelerate the progress of their learning.
And while options themselves are good for educational consumers, options also have the added effect of providing some measure of competition among providers. Choice tends to keep costs low and quality high - unless artificial monopolies are allowed to proliferate (like in education).
At this point, anti-choice advocates usually argue that, unlike cell phones and automobiles, education is a public good. But why do we assume that the only way to provide a public good is through a government-run institution? Health care is often thought of as a public good, but we recognize the importance (at least for now) of having public and private hospitals operating alongside one another to provide health services, often funded through government insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Veterans have long been able to exercise the G.I. Bill to attend colleges of their choice, whether public or private.
In short, there is no reason to assume that, with proper oversight and well-structured laws, educational markets couldn't be broadly opened up to offer a much wider range of educational choices and still meet the needs of all students (and maybe even exceed the quality we've provided in the past).
Charter schools represent one such approach to opening educational markets (for more on what charter schools are and how they work, read this). No, they aren't "magical." Some charters will fail and like any unsuccessful enterprise will be closed down if parents are unsatisfied (and if the laws governing charter schools are properly constructed).
Educators and the public in general should insist on carefully crafted legislation that promotes broader school choice, but it's intellectually indefensible to dismiss charter schools and their advocates as "magical" thinking.