Thomas Sowell is a truth seeker who grew up in Harlem and is one of the wisest men of our times. In his new book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies — published on June 30, 2020, his 90th birthday — he exposes the hypocrisy of our politicians, teachers’ unions, and public school bureaucrats.
To do so, Sowell compares New York City’s charter schools to its public ones. For example, Success Academy (47 New York City schools) and KIPP Academy (15 NYC schools), both public charter schools, have established the best K-12 schools in Harlem and have demonstrated the ability to successfully educate minority students. These charter schools have conclusively proven that minorities and underprivileged students can be educated to the highest standards. This extraordinary success is based on test data from the state of New York and is achieved despite large class sizes of around 30 and fewer financial resources than traditional public schools.
These charter schools require a high level of discipline from every student and a focus on primary academics, including mathematics, history, science, logic, writing, and thinking skills. Importantly, in these schools there is more time to teach. This means students spend more time on task than those in traditional public schools.
In Harlem, charter schools are often located in the same building as traditional public schools. Sowell compares test data from these schools, which jointly house traditional public school students and charter school students.
In the same building, 7 percent of the public school students pass the math test, while down the hall in the charter school, 100 percent pass the test. Sowell states that peer pressure in Harlem charters is geared toward excellence, while peer pressure in public schools is mostly against academic growth. In these charter schools, with students chosen by lottery, have closed the education gap between minorities and the best schools in the city, based on New York state testing data.
Recently the New York Times reported, “The city and state’s political forces have turned decisively against charter schools over the last few years.”
In spite of very high demand by parents to enter these schools, politicians and public school bureaucrats undermine the ability of new charters to open in Harlem. New York state law requires public schools to allow charters to operate in public school buildings if space is available. Currently over 200 public schools have space available, but they will not allow new charters to open. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who hates charter schools, leads the fight against them.
“The only thing standing in the way of student success [in Harlem] is Mayor de Blasio,” says Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Success Academy. Sowell asks the question, “How can success be so unwelcome?”
The public school system has good reason to oppose new charters, since charters are establishing excellent results. These are embarrassing to traditional public schools and their myriad excuses why minorities cannot be well educated.
Sowell points out that the only purpose of schools is to educate and form students, but our society supports teachers’ unions and politicians in lieu of student outcomes.
New York City has over 160,000 students waiting to gain entry into charter schools. But New York City society, the mayor, and the schools’ bureaucrats are fighting to deny any new charter schools. The evidence is clear: protecting the public school system is more important than educating students.
Sowell also writes, “Racially homogenous schools should not be sought as a goal. But where charter schools are located in predominantly black and/or Hispanic neighborhoods, the reality of educational success should not be sacrificed for the rhetoric of ‘integration’ or ‘diversity.’ ”
Success Academy in Harlem has a higher percentage of its students passing the math and English tests than any school in New York state, including the best schools in New York City. Sowell says poverty is not an obstacle to learning.
Teachers don’t create teachers’ unions, which are established by union organizers whose main objective is growing the unions with more teachers, not educating students.
Sowell points out that for charter schools to succeed, they must please parents by educating students. Charters do not offer tenure to teachers, and therefore leaders and parents can demand high levels of performance from every teacher.
Correct incentives enable charters to succeed, with teachers accountable to the parents and the school. Public schools have perverse incentives because parents often have no choice, regardless of how badly the public schools perform. This is especially true in minority communities in most U.S. inner cities.
Sowell is desperately working to provide fair opportunities for all students. Public education must be redefined, he says. “When it comes to education,” Sowell suggests, “Perhaps the most important of these general principles is that schools exist for the education of children.”
In Charter Schools and Their Enemies, Sowell exposes the fallacies of many traditional public schools and their failure to educate students, especially in the inner cities. His book is a clarion call to give parents educational choices with a total focus on educating the student.