Book: Charter Schools and Their Enemies

Author: Thomas Sowell

Review by: Kevin Conboy, retired partner, Paul Hastings LLP; former president, Irish Chamber of Atlanta

Kevin Conboy

To our second President John Adams is attributed the saying, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”     

In this slim volume (see below), the author makes a fact-intensive case for America’s charter schools and their success.    

Why have you heard so little of this prodigious scholar?

Sowell is a nonagenarian Black conservative/libertarian scholar who has served as a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University for more than 40 years.     

That he is not better known or his work more widely discussed is a shame that should be laid at the feet of “The Academy,” America’s institutions of higher learning, and our media. Steve Forbes has written that it’s also a shame Sowell has not been awarded a Nobel Prize. 

This book is written for the informed, intelligent reader who is able to comprehend some statistical information; no advanced background in math or statistics is required to comprehend Sowell’s text and arguments.

Even before opening the book, readers are greeted with these factual gems (edited for length, bullets in original): 

  • In dozens of places in New York City where a charter school and a traditional public school hold classes in the same building, charter school students in those buildings have achieved ‘proficiency’ on statewide tests several times more often than traditional public school students taking the same tests. 
  • In 2013, a fifth-grade class in a Harlem charter school scored higher on a mathematics test than any other fifth-grade class in the entire state of New York. That included even schools in the whitest and richest suburbs, Scarsdale and Briarcliff Manor. 
  • Nationwide, charter schools have only a fraction of the number of students who attend traditional public schools, but charter schools are growing much faster than traditional public schools, especially in low-income communities. From 2001 to 2016, enrollment in traditional public schools rose 1 percent, while charter school enrollment rose 571 percent. 
  • In cities across the country, with many students on waiting lists to transfer into charter schools, public school officials are blocking charter schools from using school buildings that have been vacant for years.

I mentioned that this is a “slim volume,” a total of 276 pages. But the text is 132 pages; appendices run from pages 133-212, providing the statistical background for his conclusions about the success of charter schools. Notes follow further at pages 213-43, and the book concludes with a detailed index. I read the text in two sittings.

The book begins with a brief chapter, “Comparisons and Comparability,” regarding the assumptions behind his statistics and analysis. The ‘guts’ of the book is in the second chapter on “Charter School Results.” In 44 pages buttressed by charts and graphs, Sowell demonstrates the superior academic results of charter schools over traditional public schools in New York City. This is as much of an “apples to apples” comparison as can be made, and if the reader deems it a failure, it is only because with human populations, there can never be perfect “apples to apples” comparisons.     

These better results are not just statistically significant; they are material. Opponents of charter schools may argue about them, about Sowell’s assumptions and reasoning, and even dispute some facts; but one fact as to which there is no dispute is that parents are demanding charter schools, and this chapter explains why.     

The balance of the book, just 80 pages, explains some of the challenges charter schools have faced, largely from teachers’ unions and big-city politicians.    

In a quotation from author David Osborne that begins the last chapter (“Dangers”), the biggest challenge to charter schools is summarized in this way:  

“Charter schools are like many education reforms: They have broad but shallow support among a majority of the population and intense but narrow opposition from teachers unions and their allies.”  

And the parental support for charter schools exists strongly only for a period of a few years, when the question of a school’s establishment and existence is hugely important to a family, and then goes away, whereas teachers unions are an established and powerful interest group, with powerful connections to the party which very typically dominates the politics of America’s big cities.     

That this party has chosen to align itself with powerful public employee unions, rather than parents who are typically low-income, minority members, is a topic for another day.