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The Education Miracle … Everyone Hates

The key to opportunity for disadvantaged kids

June 2021


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How do we reward our innovators — the people who solve the problems we thought could never be overcome?

Invent the lightbulb? We give you a statue in the U.S. Capitol.

Unlock the secret to human flight? We’re gonna name something after you on Mars.

Find the key to opportunity for millions of disadvantaged kids? Wellllllll …

The year was 1983. Michael Jackson introduced the moonwalk. Return of the Jedi ruled the box office. Oh, and also: Americans were freaking the [f%&k] out.

On one front at least, they had good reason to. A group of policy experts convened by the federal government had released a dramatic report about the country’s schools. It was called “A Nation at Risk.”

How dramatic? The most famous line in the report argued that if our educational system had been forced on us by a foreign country, we’d consider it an act of war. I mean, good lord, guys, we get it.

“A Nation at Risk” created a sense of urgency around a nationwide priority: the need to reform our schools. It reported that American children were falling badly behind the rest of the world — and that the failures of our educational system were falling especially hard on minority students.

The report revealed, for instance, that while 13% of the country’s 17-year-olds were considered functionally illiterate, the rate amongst minority youth may have been as high as 40%. i

It seemed like an intractable problem. No one knew what to do. Which is why what happened next was so weird. In the years that followed, we actually did find something that worked: charter schools. And not everyone was thrilled. In fact ... no one even seems to understand what the hell they are.

Polling has shown that nearly 50% of Americans think charters are private schools or that they can teach religion.ii They’re not and they can’t. They also don’t charge tuition or have entrance exams. Charters are public schools. What makes them different is that their principals and teachers get to decide for themselves how best to meet their students’ educational needs.

Yeah, believe it or not, that’s not how it works in your average public school, where the rules and regulations can even extend to how trash should be taken out or how classroom furniture can be rearranged.iii

And that freedom makes a difference. In New York City, many charter schools are located in the same building as traditional public schools — and serve the same overwhelmingly minority students. In 2018, the charter classes in those buildings were five times more likely to have a majority of students pass a standardized English test. On math, they were seven times more likely. iv

And that’s not an isolated outcome. Research from Princeton and the Brookings Institution found that just three years in the highest-performing charters was enough to eliminate the education gap between black and white students.v

Yet despite this success charters are still only a small part of the educational mix—only about 7% of public-school students attend Part of the reason is that the government controls how many charter schools get to open. And there are lots of people out there who think the correct answer should be ‘none.’

Their criticisms are serious. There are lots of charters that perform about the same as traditional public schools. Some of them flat out fail. But the best of them are achieving incredible results.

And they’re doing it for the nation’s most vulnerable children. Two-thirds of the nation’s charter school students are non-white.vii Many of them are in tough neighborhoods. And without charters, their options would look pretty bleak.

A 2018 study from Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis revealed that sixth graders in the most affluent, predominantly white school districts, were as much as four grade-levels ahead of their overwhelmingly minority counterparts in the poorest urban districts.viii

The results in the nation’s best charter schools prove that we don’t have to accept those outcomes. And the people who need them most know this. In 2019, there were over 23,000 children waitlisted for admission to charter schools ... in Massachusetts alone.ix Nationwide, that number is over a million.x

There’s no bigger issue in America today than whether the country is doing enough to provide equal opportunity for people of all races and backgrounds. Charter schools are a mechanism for doing that. They’re not perfect. But that’s not the question. The question is: Would those students be better off in a world without them?


  1. "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform" — The National Commission on Excellence in Education
  2. "The 46th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools" — PDK/Gallup Poll
  3. "Analysis: A Brief Summary of the Bizarre (and Sometimes Funny) Things You Didn’t Know Were in Teacher Contracts"The 74
  4. Charter Schools and Their Enemies by Thomas Sowell (Page 46)
  5. "Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap" — The Future of Children (Page 6, Princeton/Brookings)
  6. "Public Charter School Enrollment" — National Center for Education Statistics 
  7. Ibid.
  8. "The Geography of Racial/Ethnic Test Score Gaps" — Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis
  9.  "Massachusetts Charter School Waitlist Updated Report for 2019-2020 (FY20)" — Massachusetts Department of Education
  10. JUST THE FAQS—CHARTER SCHOOLS Center for Education Reform


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