Economist Thomas Sowell’s take on charters - How can success be so unwelcome?

Buddy Moorehouse
Aug 19, 2020 3:18:55 PM

For more than a half-century, Thomas Sowell has been one of the leading economists in American society, a brilliant writer and thinker who has tackled the economic impact of everything from politics to race relations.

He recently turned 90, and he’s not slowing down. In his latest book, Charter Schools and Their Critics, he offers a blunt and no-holds-barred explanation of who opposes charter schools and why.

Sowell, an economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. bases his analysis primarily on what’s happening in New York City. He writes, “The black-white educational achievement gap – so much discussed for so many years – has already been closed by black students attending New York City's charter schools. This might be expected to be welcome news. But it has been very unwelcome news in traditional public schools whose students are transferring to charter schools. A backlash against charter schools has been led by teachers unions, politicians and others – not only in New York but across the country. If those attacks succeed, the biggest losers will be minority youngsters for whom a quality education is their biggest chance for a better life.”

Sowell details one example after another of how charter school enemies try to derail these successful schools. In many cases, New York City would rather bulldoze a school building than hand it over to a successful charter school operator. He also details the case of Detroit Prep, a successful charter school that was blocked by the Detroit Public Schools Community District from buying an unused building in the city. It took action by the Michigan legislature to finally allow Detroit Prep to move in.

“It is not surprising that the traditional public school officials in Detroit feared the competition,” Sowell writes. “In this case, it took a combination of litigation, media exposure, public outcry and legislation to enable Detroit Prep to acquire that building.”

For many who have read the book, it’s a reminder to continue taking pride in the work we do as charter school stakeholders, despite ongoing criticism and negative attention politically and in the media. Writing in the Education Next blog, reviewer Robert Pondiscio offers this assessment: “Charter school leaders need their spines stiffened these days; their overreaching critics have earned a metaphorical punch in the nose. Sowell delivers both in a book he dedicates, as a reminder of what’s at stake, “to those children whose futures hang in the balance.”

We saw last Spring with the school shutdown that charter schools in Michigan and across the country stepped up in big ways - and for that we should be proud. As we head into a school year marred with unknowns, challenges and doubts, we must remember the many hurdles we’ve overcome as a movement - and that it’s up to us to continue pushing boundaries in these uneasy times. 

Sowell summed it all up in one brilliant and pithy observation: “How can success be so unwelcome?”

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