Richard Rothstein is a Prospect contributing editor, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley School of Law.
Liberals and progressives have generally believed that shifting federal
authority for social programs to the states will typically lead to a "race to
the bottom" as states try to attract business and keep taxes down by cutting
expenditures and regulations [see Mary Graham, "Why States Can Do More"]. But a
common trend of the last quarter century has also been a race to the top in
which state policies can become more generous over time and even rival those of
the federal government.
Charter schools probably will not settle the education wars, but they may provide an armistice. Conservative privatizers see charter schools as a next-best alternative to voucher plans, which have now lost political momentum; progressive educators, on the other hand, see charters as places where they can implement long-sought reforms, free from constraints imposed by rule-bound school bureaucracies. Each side hopes to exploit charter schools' disarmingly simple tradethat almost any group can get public funds to run almost any kind of school, provided they are "explicitly accountable" to the public for "improving student performance," in the U.S. Department of Education's words.
Fifteen hundred charter schools have been established nationwide since 1991, enrolling 300,000 schoolchildren. The original idea was for parents and teachers, with educational visions, to establish independent publicly funded schools, free from regulations that impede innovation. Superior results would stimulate imitation by regular schools. Charters have been endorsed by both liberal reformers and conservative critics of public education.