IT TAKES a carpenter to build a barn, the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn used to say, but any jackass can kick one down.
Which would explain the recent braying and honking in Boston, where a herd of politicians have been stamping their hooves and snorting their disapproval of eight new charter schools that will be managed by — gasp! — private companies.
First out of the stable was Marc Pacheco, a state senator from Taunton, who denounced the charter schools as "$46 million diverted from public schools in Massachusetts when we don't have the type of curriculum investment we need."
This is nonsense. Charter schools are public schools, bound by the same laws and mandates as every other public school. What distinguishes them — what Pacheco and the others so resent — is that they aren't union schools. By design they are autonomous and different, staffed by those who share a common vision, free of the stultifying, nitpicking union contracts that have ground so many schools into mediocrity.
The claim that charter schools cause "investment" to be "diverted" from regular schools is so deceitful that only a jackass or a politician would make it. Annual state aid for local schools has shot up by $1 billion over the past five years; it is climbing at six times the rate of inflation. In the name of "education reform," huge vats of cash are being poured into the union-run schools. The tiny number of charter schools aside (they serve less than 1 percent of Massachusetts students), the Massachusetts Teachers Association is more entrenched and domineering than ever. Yet as each new set of test results proves, the schools it controls continue to fail.
But to a certain breed of Democrat, it is better to let public education flounder than to let private companies show how it can succeed. Pacheco & Co. affect great outrage that the new charter schools designated by the Board of Education last week will be run by for-profit firms. They don't ask (and they don't care) whether these firms will do a good job. All that matters to them is that the charters are a challenge to the MTA's monopoly.
"Charter schools are supposed to be laboratories of learning," snaps Patricia McGovern, a gubernatorial candidate, "not avenues for the politically connected to cash in on our children's education." When she was chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, McGovern would never have said anything so offensive. Now that she is chasing the Democratic nomination for governor, she will apparently say anything to win union support. That may bring her votes; it will not bring respect.
It is a pity and a scandal that so many Democrats care more for the well-being of a rich union than for the well-being of needy students. Their hostility to educational competition, their blind support for a rotted public school system, makes a mockery of every principle of social justice they claim to uphold. What Jonathan Rauch has written about liberal opposition to school choice vouchers applies equally to charter schools:
"Why should the poor be denied more control over their most important means of social advancement, when soccer moms and latte drinkers take for granted that they can buy their way out of a school (or a school district) that abuses or annoys them?" Rauch is no right-winger; he is an editor at the liberal New Republic, and he laments that his fellow liberals' resistance to school choice "reflects more poorly on liberalism than any other fact I know."
Such words are wasted on the likes of Pacheco. In denouncing the new charter start-ups, he singled out Advantage Schools Inc., a Boston company that will be running new schools in Worcester and Melrose. He even accused the Board of Education of an improper conflict of interest, disclosing the shocking news that three board members are friendly with the people running Advantage. Friendship?! Omigod, what next?
Advantage is headed by Steven Wilson, a keen entrepreneur whose passion for education and excellence is communicated to everyone who knows him. His company is less than two years old, yet it has already received charters to start schools in Chicago; Jersey City, N.J.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Phoenix; Rocky Mount, N.C.; and Washington, D.C. Early reports are thrilling: In the Rocky Mount and Phoenix schools, every kindergartner is reading after one semester.
Before taking up charter schools, Wilson did a turn in the State House. He was the Weld administration's point man on education reform and on governmental downsizing. He also spearheaded the fight against the disastrous anticompetition bill, the bill written to preserve the monopoly power of state employee unions, the bill that has cost Massachusetts taxpayers dozens of millions of dollars, the bill that was written by — Senator Pacheco. The Pacheco bill was dishonest to its core; Wilson's campaign against it was withering. No doubt the senator still blushes at the memory and nurses an animus against Wilson. Odd that he didn't mention that conflict of interest.
What Pacheco says about education can be dismissed; it is propaganda from a union lackey. What Wilson says deserves great deference: He faces bankruptcy if he is wrong. He is accountable; the MTA isn't. Which is why his schools, like most charters, are a good bet to succeed, while the MTA's will keep declining.
Why do the jackasses kick so hard? Not for fear the charter schools might fail. For fear they will succeed.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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