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.
There's a conventional wisdom about public schools: Graduates don't have the skills needed for a technologically advanced economy. We've doubled funds for public education since the mid-1960s, but more money hasn't improved schools. Academic achievement is stagnant or declining. Public schools can't impprove because teachers are smothered by bureaucracy. To address this system failure, structural reforms such as school-based desision making or parental choice of schools are imperative.
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.