With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education there is now much discussion of charter schools and school choice. I have no interest in debating the merits or demerits of Betsy DeVos in this venue, and I will not offer a final stance or recommendation on charter schools. But I will offer an observation on the wider context:
The most substantial criticism I've seen against charter schools is that they get better results by being selective about their student bodies, filtering out students with weak preparation or behavioral problems. To the extent that the question is whether the performance of charter schools is truly superior in an apples-to-apples comparison, whether "is" statements regarding their alleged merits are based on scientifically valid comparisons, I think it's an entirely fair point to raise. I haven't reviewed the data closely enough to know whether it's an empirically valid point, but if we take the claim at face value it is certainly valid.
On the other hand, if the question is whether excellence (by whatever yardstick) can be cultivated when one abandons democratic mandates, I think that the performance of charter schools is telling us something very, very important. I'm not convinced that the public schools are irredeemable if we speak of the schools as buildings with trained people inside them, people who could accomplish tasks if given resources and leeway. I am convinced that the demands we make on public schools are impossible to satisfy, and that no amount of Special Programs and bureaucratic infrastructure ladled atop a school can bring about True Democracy in education.
The people invested in the system itself--and its democratic legitimacy--cannot admit this. Even a person who is of right-wing leanings has to believe that with proper accountability we can somehow get schools to serve all students equally, at least if that person buys into the cross-partisan democratic narratives that Americans have long bought into. To reject these democratic assumptions you need to either have a dark, naked embrace of inequality, an idea of better and lesser people, or you need to be individualistic and believe that there is no one-size-fits-all and a system can really only serve those who choose to be served. Either way, you have to reject the charter that the public schools labor under.
My favorite teacher in high school said that America could have the best public schools on earth if we struck one word from the laws governing them: "Compulsory." The success of charter schools proves that.