A Philosopher's Blog

Charter Schools I: Preliminaries & Monopolies

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on January 6, 2017

In November of 2016, president elect Trump selected Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education. While this appointment seems to have changed her mind about Common Core, DeVos has remained committed to expanding charter schools. Charter schools operate outside of the public-school system but are funded with public money. They can be privately owned and run as for-profit business. As might be suspected, they tend to be rather controversial.

Before discussing charter schools, I need to present the biasing factors in my background. Like most Americans, I attended public schools. Unlike some Americans, I got a very good public education that laid the foundation for my undergraduate and graduate education. Both of my parents were educators; my father taught math and computer science and my mother had a long career as a guidance counsellor. I ended up going to a private college and then to a public graduate school. This led to my current career as a philosophy professor at a state university. I belong to the United Faculty of Florida, the NEA and the AFT. As such, I am a union member. As might be suspected, my background inclines me to be suspicious of charter schools. As such, I will take special care to consider the matter fairly and objectively.

As with most politically charged debates, the battle over charter schools tends to be long on rhetoric and short on reasoned arguments. Devoted proponents of charter schools lament the ruin of public education, crusade for choice, and praise the profit motive as panacea for the woes of the academies. Energized enemies of charter schools regard them as plots against public good and profiteering at the expense of the children.

While there is some merit behind these rhetorical stances, charter schools should neither be accepted nor rejected based on mere rhetoric or ideological stances. As liberals and conservatives have both noted, there are serious problems in the American education system. Charter schools have been advanced as a serious proposal to address some of these problems and are worthy of objective consideration. I will begin with what can be called the monopoly argument in favor of charter schools.

Proponents of charter schools often assert that the state holds a monopoly on education and employ arguments by analogy to show why this is a bad thing. For example, the state monopoly on education might be compared to living in an area with only one internet service provider. This provider offers poor service, but residents are forced by law to pay for it and competition is forbidden. While this is probably better than not having any internet access at all, it is certainly a bad situation that could be improved by competition. If the analogy holds, then poor quality education could be improved by legalizing competition.

This analogy can also be used, obviously enough, to argue that people who do have children in school should not be forced to pay into the education system. This would be, to stick with the analogy, like making people who have no computers (including tablets and phones) pay for internet access they do not use. This is, however, another issue and I will return to the matter of charter schools.

While the analogy does have some appeal, the state does not have a monopoly on education. There are, obviously enough, private schools that operate without public money. These provide competition to public schools, thus showing that there is not a monopoly. By going through the appropriate procedures, anyone with the resources can create a private school. And anyone with the resources to afford a private school can attend. As such, there is already a competitive education industry in place that provides an alternative to public education. There is also the option of home schooling, which also breaks the alleged monopoly.

Supporters of charter schools can counter that there is a monopoly without charter schools. To be specific, without charter schools, public schools have a monopoly on public money. Charter schools, by definition, break this monopoly by allowing public funds to go to schools outside the state education system.

This can allow privately owned charter schools to enjoy what amounts to state subsidies, thus making it easier to start a privately-owned charter school than a privately funded private school. Those who are concerned about state subsidies might find this sort of thing problematic, perhaps because it seems to confer an unfair advantage over privately funded schools and funnels public money into private hands.

Supporters can counter these criticisms by turning them into virtues. Public money spent on charter schools is good exactly because it makes it easier to fund competing schools. Private schools without public funding need to operate in a free market—they must compete for customer money without the benefit of the state picking winners and losers. As such, there will not be very many privately funded schools.  Charter schools benefit from the largesse of the state, although they do need to attract enough students. But this is made easier by the fact that charter school education is subsidized by public money.

As such, charter schools would break the public-school system’s monopoly on public money, although there is not a monopoly on education (since privately funded schools exist). The question remains as to whether or not breaking the funding monopoly is a good thing or not, which leads to the subject of the next essay in this series, that of choice.


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  1. TJB said, on January 6, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    The very best schools are private. The only issue is whether we, as a society, will allow children from poor families to attend those schools.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 7, 2017 at 8:42 pm

      I’m not sure about that; there are some exceptional public schools. I do agree that top private schools provide social status, but I am not certain the education is the best.

      But, suppose that private schools are the very best. Will charter money allow all the children to attend these best schools? Will they stay the best once they replace the public schools and have to use the limited public funding money per poor student? And have vast numbers of students? Put another way, if we just transfer masses of students into these private schools will they still be able to stay the best? To use an analogy, if public universities were transplanted into an elite private university like Harvard, would it remain an elite school?

      • TJB said, on January 8, 2017 at 12:17 am

        My wife is from Belgium and she says parents can send their kids to any school they want. I know for a fact that she received a fantastic high school education. The U.S. Has a better university system, however.

        For “Stupid in America,” a special report ABC will air Friday, we gave identical tests to high school students in New Jersey and in Belgium. The Belgian kids cleaned the American kids’ clocks. The Belgian kids called the American students “stupid.”

        We didn’t pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey’s kids have test scores that are above average for America.

        The American boy who got the highest score told me: “I’m shocked, ’cause it just shows how advanced they are compared to us.”

        The Belgians did better because their schools are better. At age ten, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age fifteen, when students from forty countries are tested, the Americans place twenty-fifth. The longer kids stay in American schools, the worse they do in international competition. They do worse than kids from countries that spend much less money on education.

        This should come as no surprise once you remember that public education in the USA is a government monopoly. Don’t like your public school? Tough. The school is terrible? Tough. Your taxes fund that school regardless of whether it’s good or bad. That’s why government monopolies routinely fail their customers. Union-dominated monopolies are even worse.


        • DH said, on January 8, 2017 at 12:28 am

          Very enlightening article. Healthy competition is an important part of the equation to achieve excellence

  2. DH said, on January 7, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    I guess there are three issues here – one is public money, which is a fair point. I agree that public money should not be used to fund private enterprise, but neither should it be used to exact the will of the government onto those who disagree and have no real choice. Private schools are certainly available – but they are expensive and out of reach for most people. Home schooling is also a legal possibility and viable for some, but not really economically viable for most; and not many people have the skills, knowledge or patience to home school in a meaningful way.

    The problem becomes one of curriculum and measure of success. Common Core is a great example of this – the government has decreed that this is what will be taught and that’s that. Here are two more –

    When my daughter was in third grade (1996), she was a prolific writer. I took a look at several of her school essays and stories, and while I was impressed at the imagination and story development, I was appalled at the spelling errors. I brought this up to the teacher, and she said, “Oh, yes – I totally agree, and it’s very frustrating to me to let things like that pass, but we are not allowed to correct spelling in writing assignments. It’s called “inventive spelling”. The theory is that by correcting spelling mistakes in a writing assignment, we will damage a student’s self-esteem and inhibit their imagination. I completely agree with you, but my hands are tied”. The result, of course, that my daughter has struggled with spelling her entire life.

    Another example is in public STEM education. I worked for a while with a science publishing company that made hands-on kits for students to experience science with experimentation. These kits filled multiple niches in many disciplines, allowed for group work, results recording, observation, experimentation and more. I was consulting with them to help incorporate digital media wherever possible into the student experience.

    I spoke with a number of junior-high and high-school science teachers about their experiences with these kits, and while not a comprehensive study, the general consensus was, “Oh, yeah – our school has a bunch of these. I really like them – but I have no time to use them in my class. We have to stay so focused on the test at the end of the year that if it’s not right on the test, we just don’t do it. We may have a small window in Junior High, but by the time these kids get to high school they’re zombies – they are so indoctrinated into testing that if it’s not going to be on the test, they shut down”.


    So, like you, I had a very good experience in public school, but that was in the 1960’s. Every day we said a prayer, and one kid got a chance to pick a psalm and read it aloud in front of the class before we got to work. But my school experience was only partly due to the quality of the school (and probably not at all due to the prayer – I only bring that up to say that it did me no harm and caused me no offense, despite the fact that our family was Jewish). I think I did well because my mother was on the Board of Education, my father was a physician, and my grandmother (who lived with us) was a retired teacher. My family was involved in my education, and I was taught from an early age to respect the importance of learning, of knowledge, and of doing the best that I can do. No doubt your educator-parents instilled you with the same ideas.

    My sister tried to follow in my mother’s footsteps. When her kids entered grade school (in the same town), she ran for and was elected to the board of ed. Their entire concern revolved around the teacher’s union, teacher contracts and budget. Any ideas any of them had about curriculum were shut down because they had no power in that area. Teachers were allowed to speak to parents and voice their side, but the board members were legally barred from direct communication. My sister was cursed and even spat upon at soccer games by parents who had a slanted view of what the board was trying to accomplish.

    In so many areas, the difference between “private” and “public” does become a matter of choice. If the government were to fund public schools but leave it at that, and leave curricular decisions to parents and boards of education made up of concerned citizens of all stripe, they would probably be better than they are. As it is, Americans are forced to pay for schools that are in turn forced to follow curricula that has been handed down by politicians. One solution is to try to create additional choices in the form of charter schools or creative funding for private schools to make them more accessible, and another is to get the federal government out of curricular decisions and leave it to the parents, the school board, and the other stakeholders in local education. My mom and her colleagues did a fine job. Today, boards of education are worried about teacher’s unions and testing, and following the rules.

    Today, I am involved in another project, similar to the first, wherein we are creating interactive STEM content for mobile devices related to community college curricula. We made the decision to target community colleges for two main reasons –

    One is that to target public schools is an impossible, politically charged arena with too many bureaucrats worried about topics other than real education to make any kind of innovative approach viable. Community colleges have far more flexibility.

    But the second is the most important. Well over half of the college students in this country attend community colleges. We have researched STEM subjects in high school, in two-year and in four-year colleges, and the sad fact is that those just ENTERING have to be placed in remedial classes. In a survey of all subjects, studies indicate that over 50% of students entering two-year colleges and nearly 20% of those entering four year universities are placed in remedial classes. “Frustrated about their placement into remediation, thousands who were accepted into college never show up for classes”.

    In an October, 2016 article in the Huffington Post, Tom Snyder, the president of Ivy Tech Community College, supports this last point, indicating that “…30 percent of students who complete their remedial courses don’t even attempt their gateway courses within two years. They become discouraged with higher education.”

    Is the problem really about remediation? Billions of dollars are going into post-secondary remedial education, but the problem really lies in K-12 preparation. Without viable alternatives, our children are pawns in a bureaucratic game focused on politics, funding, union contracts, and power – with very little being applied to education. What attention IS being given to education is focused on averages – making sure the pass-rate is within tolerances and ignoring acceleration, innovation, and merit.

    Public schools offer no real alternative. If the government is going to turn “public schools” into “government schools”, parents need to have some choices and some involvement in their children’s education. If it doesn’t come in the form of charter schools, it needs to come in the form of more empowerment for local stakeholders.

    Both would be better.


  3. TJB said, on January 7, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    This one’s for you, Mike 🙂

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 7, 2017 at 8:45 pm

      It is a beautiful short film; my hope is that on some distant day I shall go for a run and never come back. I’m sure others hope that, too. But for other reasons. 🙂

  4. DH said, on January 7, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    That brought tears to my eyes.

    • TJB said, on January 7, 2017 at 3:25 pm

      Story of the ad:

      When Filmakademie student Eugen Merher created his Adidas spec ad “Break Free,” he knew he had something special on his hands. Unfortunately, Adidas’ communications department never got back to him; now they get to watch his beautifully-crafted ad take off without them.

      Truth be told, Adidas isn’t missing out on publicity for passing up on Eugen’s creation—they might even be getting rewarded for their silence. It’s just incredible that a young German film student was able to beat Adidas’ ad execs at their own game. He created something more moving, powerful, and personal than any highly-stylized, celeb-studded, CGI-enhanced sports ad we’ve seen in recent memory.

      Merher created the ad on spec, hoping Adidas would pick it up and maybe even hire him. But Adidas’ ambivalence (or ignorance of) this commercial flies in the face of the Internet’s reaction. In just over half a month, Break Free has earned over 3 million on YouTube.

      Watch the video up top to see a beautiful piece of visual storytelling. Hopefully it’ll inspire you to get out there and create something special.


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