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Thomas Sowell publishes new book: “Charter Schools and Their Enemies”

Thomas Sowell, a renowned economist, theorist and writer, published his latest book Charter Schools and Their Enemies on June 30, his 90th birthday. The book defends charter schools against those who have worked tirelessly to dismantle the schools’ success—teachers’ unions, politicians, and liberal educators.

Peter Robinson with the Hoover Institution interviewed Mr. Sowell the day after his birthday to discuss the book and its importance. Below are excerpts from the interview.

Peter Robinson: All right, the argument of Charter Schools and Their Enemies, I’m quoting from the book Tom. “Charter schools, and especially some particular networks of charter schools, located in low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods have achieved educational results, not only far above the levels achieved by most public schools in those neighborhoods…” We’re talking about New York City neighborhoods. “…but sometimes even higher educational results than those in schools located in affluent white neighborhoods. No one expected that.” Put kids in good schools, and they’ll learn and in black and Hispanic neighborhoods that comes as a surprise. Why should it come as a surprise to so many?

Thomas Sowell: Because all they’ve heard is 1,000 excuses as to why they can’t teach some of these neighborhoods that the kids are poor, that- All sorts of things are wrong, except that nothing is ever thought to be wrong with the public schools themselves. It’s always somebody else who is responsible. The society should have solved integration problems.

Robinson and Sowell continue by dismantling the arguments against charter schools—such as charter schools “steal” the best, smartest and motivated students, leaving public schools with the worst students;  charter schools “steal” resources (money) from public schools; and charter schools are too strict on discipline.

They next touch on the enemies of charter schools, beginning with teachers’ unions.

Thomas Sowell: Well, first, our teachers unions are not created by teachers. There are people who create unions. And in fact, the interest of the teachers unions can be opposite those of a teacher. For example, if there’s a large increase of money into the school system, and they’re always saying it’s time to fund it, no matter how many billions of dollars go down a bottomless pit. When money is out there and available, you could use that money to raise teacher salaries. That would be good for the teachers, it would be bad for the teachers union. The teachers unions, again, get more dues, if instead of raising the teacher salaries, you create more jobs, more teachers, aides, more counselors, more nurses, more this more that, more bureaucrats in the system. Because all those people will be paying union dues. Whereas you simply have higher-paid teachers, you don’t get any increases in the union dues.

When it comes to accountability, charter schools are more accountable than public schools, Sowell argues.

Thomas Sowell: The charter schools do in fact, keep track of how each teacher, how the students and each teacher turn out when they test them. And if you have a teacher whose kids keep flunking the test, that teacher is not likely to survive very long in a charter school. That teacher can survive for half a century in the traditional public school. And moreover, the people in the traditional public schools and those who are defending them, are absolutely opposed to having these annual test that they have. And they have good reason to be opposed to it. Because those tests show just how badly the kids are being educated in their school. …

Peter Robinson: Got it. What you focus on, it’s incentives. The schools are accountable to the parents. And the teachers are accountable to the principals because the schools are accountable to the parents. It’s accountability.

Thomas Sowell: Yeah. And they’re accountable for results. …

And students of color are benefitting.

Peter Robinson: Once again, I want to repeat that central finding. “Charter schools located in low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods have achieved educational results not only far above the levels achieved by most public schools in those neighborhoods but sometimes even higher educational results than those in most schools located in affluent white neighborhoods.” Tom, at a moment when the country is tearing itself apart over questions of race and inequality, over all of it, Tom Sowell steps forward and says, “Wait a moment. There’s a way out. And it’s not a particularly surprising way out. Good schools, give black kids and Hispanic kids, good schools. They’ll be fine and we know they’ll be fine because that’s what the data shows. It is as if we were all in a burning house. And Tom Sowell said, “Everybody, everybody, there’s an open door. Let’s just walk through.” … It’s as if I was an open door in a burning house and Bill de Blasio is trying to keep it shut.

Thomas Sowell: Yes, I’m not always this kind. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have spent the time that I have invested more in this book than any other book that I’ve written. Because I realized just how big the stakes are. That there are kids for whom education is there one big opportunity for a much better life. And there are people out there stopping them from getting it…

And there are people who are organized to try to make sure that these kids do not escape the traditional public schools and cost them money, the union dues…

Access to a good education can change the entire trajectory of a young person’s life. As Sowell’s closing paragraph in his book states, “No narrow vested interests of adults, whether financial, political, or ideological, should be allowed to block that.”