Charter school skepticism

The mere fact that self-interested financial interests support an idea is not a reason for voters to reject it, but it is a reason for them to evaluate the idea with skepticism.

Charter schools are the political novelty of the day in Alabama. In this state and others, the charter-school lobby is supported by massive amounts of money from corporations that stand to gain.

Because tax dollars fund privately run charter schools, there is considerable profit potential.

If one looks at the economic condition of the state, it is an odd time for legislators to be pushing charter schools. The recession caused dramatic drops in funding for Alabama schools. Adding a separate charter-school system paid for with the same finite and overwhelmed tax base would reduce the resources of our cash-strapped public schools.

The best argument for charter schools — that they serve as a laboratory for developing new education techniques — makes little sense when tax revenue is barely adequate to teach the basics.

Neither charter schools nor public schools can do well if underfunded. If we provide charter schools with enough money to excel, we have necessarily subtracted that money from public schools and made their failure more likely.

If our public school system were adequately funded, the argument that the public should have other taxpayer-funded options would make more sense.

That’s not where Alabama is, though. We know the major problem with our public schools: a lack of funding. If we solve that problem and people still are dissatisfied with public schools, then the concept of a tax-funded alternative run by corporations becomes more intriguing.

While the state’s economic condition makes it an odd time for a debate about charter schools, the recent influx of money from the charter-school lobby helps explain the timing. With a direct investment in political campaigns, corporations stand to benefit from a taxpayer-funded windfall.

While Alabama legislators have been more discreet, a Democratic candidate for the New York state legislature was open about the charter-school lobby.

“The checks started rolling in,” he said, when he promoted charter schools. “They made my campaign viable.”

Neither the opportunity for financial gain nor the political contributions make charter schools a bad idea.

They do, however, remind us that we need to exercise independent judgment in evaluating the claims of supporters.

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