The Magazine


Dec 8, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 13 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR. and JEANNE ALLEN
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Charter schools are a promising reform strategy with a semblance of bipartisan support, but they can still be choked by a bearhug from Uncle Sam. Both the executive and legislative branches are doing their part to turn this wonderfully messy, entrepreneurial, grass-roots innovation into a tidy, well- regulated Washington program.

For several years, a modest pot of federal dollars has been available to offset some startup costs of charter schools. It typically yields $ 50,000 or so per school, not a large sum but welcome if you're trying to lease a building, buy computers and textbooks, and train teachers.

The White House proposed to double this program's budget. Congress, however, sought to ensure that the money would flow only to states with "strong" charter programs. That was a worthy goal -- in the past, funds had gone to states with sham programs -- but it opened Pandora's box. Half of Congress began tinkering with the charter concept. After much jaw-boning by friends of this reform strategy who understand why charter schools must be allowed to bubble up freely, the bill's sponsors eased off. Still, the measure that the House passed (the Senate has yet to act) is too prescriptive. It charges the secretary of education with ensuring, for example, that states grant charters on the basis of geographic and curricular "diversity," opening the door for mischief when the department crafts regulations, procedures, and forms. It also sets a troubling precedent: What happens when some future Congress decides to favor state programs that, say, require charter schools to honor teachers-union contracts? Why can't Congress understand that sometimes the best way to protect a fragile reform is to leave it alone?

As for the executive branch, its view of charter schools is even more troubling. The Education Department threw a big conference at a D.C. hotel the other week, attended by hundreds of energized charter people from all over the country. Splendid things were said by education secretary Dick Riley about how much the Clinton administration loves these schools and wants to help them. Yet session after session was run by lawyers and enforcers in Riley's employ who instructed charter-school operators and wannabes on the need for their schools not actually to differ from conventional schools when it comes to special education, bilingual education, and all the rest. The administration, in short, loves charter schools so long as they're just like the schools to which they are alternatives. (The department has also begun to share the federal charter money with the greediest vultures of the school establishment, the "regional education laboratories," ostensibly to advance the charter movement. This would be funny if it weren't outrageous.)

School choice was the big GOP education-reform enchilada this session, but Republicans wound up doing more harm than good. By our count, at least four different school-choice measures were introduced, some with the support of Democrats such as Joe Lieberman and Floyd Flake. All died or were put off until next year. The one that came closest to passing would have created " opportunity scholarships" for 2,000 poor children trapped in the dismal District of Columbia schools. It was cynically sacrificed.

Rather than hold hostage the annual appropriation for the D.C. government, GOP leaders huddled with President Clinton and Senator Kennedy to devise a scheme by which Congress would split off and pass the scholarship program and the president would veto it without inconvenience to anyone. (In the end, the final vote was deferred until next year.) This enables members to claim they passed a school-choice measure and the president to portray himself once again as the defender of public education. But it's all posturing. If members of Congress actually cared about the kids, they would force the issue -- maybe by cutting off the salaries of the White House staff. But they care about the kids less than they fear Clinton's skill at branding them as anti- education and anti-government.

As for the other school-choice measures, don't ask. There were press conferences and hearings, sure, but nothing real. In the end, choice was not advanced. No child benefited.

Outside the Beltway, America has a robust school-reform movement that celebrates high standards, freedom, choice, enterprise, and accountability. It is slowly shifting power from education's producers to its consumers. Daffy ideas are being sidetracked. Common-sense alternatives are getting a chance. Defenders of the old order are retreating or at least regrouping. Avatars of change are winning elections.