Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York has a lot of dubious policies. He is blocking some developers from building homes until they build the kind of homes he prefers. He wants to raise taxes to pay for programs that the state would otherwise fund. But by far the worst of de Blasio’s policies is his declared war on charter schools, which is actually a defense of an ancien regime of unearned privilege.
During the mayoral campaign, de Blasio promised to halt the growth of charter schools and require those that were already in place to pay rent to the city But why should one form of public schools be singled out for paying rent, when the city provides the buildings for all other kinds of public schools gratis, particularly when charter schools do not pay out the kind of defined benefit pensions that burden the taxpayer? De Blasio made his declaration in the form of personal attack on a leader of New York charter school movement, saying ““There is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, O.K.?.” True to his word, de Blasio last week used his power to deny Success Academy Charter Schools which Moskowitz runs the right to city facilities that Mayor Bloomberg had granted. Even more alarmingly, de Blasio also cut $210 million from the city budget that over 5 years would have built facilities for many new charter schools.
Through competition, charter schools are likely to improve education for children in poor and minority families—the very groups that Mr. De Blasio says government should help. First, there is evidence that such schools are getting over initial startup difficulties and improving student performance. But even beyond these short term enhancements, they likely to have even stronger long term benefits. By decentralizing education, charter schools empower teachers to try new things, like “flipping the classroom” — where students listen to world-class lecturers at home and during the school day attend problem-solving workshops led by teachers. The best ideas can then be adopted more broadly, meaning that best charter schools can improve outcomes even for students they do not teach. The benefits of experimentation are even more pronounced in our age of rapid technological change. As Clayton Christensen observes in The Innovator’s Dilemma, even established for-profit corporations, let alone bureaucracies, can have trouble adapting. Breakthroughs in education are much more likely to emerge from charter schools than from central administration. .
A former labor organizer, de Blasio appears to be in thrall to the teachers’ unions that endorsed his candidacy. These unions rightly see charter schools, many of which are nonunion, as a mortal threat to their many perquisites. Teachers’ unions are now widely understood to serve their members and not the students they teach. Their primary objective, as with all public unions, is in getting their members job security with high pay. Even old time progressives, like FDR, who favored private sector unions, balked at those in the public sector, because they feared they would interfere with delivering quality public services at a reasonable price.
Sadly, in serving the unions’ interests, de Blasio is no different from other leaders who have tried to protect interests entrenched by government power from the forces of beneficial change. For instance, the original ancien regime tried to protect the power of the nobles and the clergy. Nineteenth century Tory government enforced the corn laws– tariff restrictions that protected the earnings of land owners even as the poor starved.
Fortunately, in the long run de Blasio is even less likely to be successful than his dismal role models. The school reform movement is sweeping other jurisdictions and its successes will be well publicized. Decentralization and free expression help support constructive political change. But in the meantime, opportunities for knowledge—for children and educators—will be needlessly lost