PUBLIC EDUCATION in Massachusetts is a racket controlled by a two-headed monopoly. Schools in this state are wholly owned subsidiaries of (1) the teachers unions and (2) the school committees they dominate and manipulate. That education bureaucracy -- the Blob, as former US Secretary of Education William Bennett once dubbed it -- spends the dollars, hires the teachers, writes the contracts, operates the buildings, sets the curriculums and teaches the students.
Like most monopolies, the Blob delivers an inferior product. According to the state Department of Education, three-fourths of Massachusetts public school kids cannot pass statewide tests of basic competency.
Like most monopolies, the Blob wastes money. In the Boston system, 40 percent of the budget never gets to the classroom; it is absorbed by the School Department bureaucracy.
Like most monopolies, the Blob cares very little whether its customers are unhappy or dissatisfied. In the worst urban districts, students drop out in shocking numbers -- or parents transfer them, often at great sacrifice, to the suburbs or the parochial schools.
Like most monopolies, the Blob resists change and innovation. Like most monopolies, it spends huge sums to lobby government officials. Above all, like most monopolies, it hates competition.
Which is why the education bureaucracy is going to fight charter schools with every weapon in its arsenal.
Charter schools are the pinprick of competition that the Education Reform Act of 1993 opened up in the Blob's Berlin Wall of public school conformity. They are the only real educational reform in the law. Beginning a year from September, a handful of independent, start-up public schools will be given the chance to show what education can look like when a school is more than just one small cog in a vast bureaucratic machine, governed by a stack of 300-page contracts and smothered in layers of administration.
Under the new law, educational entrepreneurs -- a group of parents, a university, a corporation -- will be allowed to create autonomous schools from scratch, each built around its own unique mission, each infused with the motivation and spirit of those eager to succeed where the status quo has failed. The funding method is straightforward: New schools will receive the same per-student allocation as any other public school in the district.
No more than 25 such schools will be permitted; the law restricts their enrollment to less than 1 percent of the commonwealth's students. But to the Blob, that's too many. One charter school would be too many. Like Soviet dissidents in the Brezhnev era, every charter school threatens the establishment's claim to total power, and so must be stifled.
Seventeen months before the first charter schools even open their doors, bills have been introduced to kill or emasculate them. At an Education Committee hearing on April 5, Blob representatives -- the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, the Education Association of Worcester, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees -- urged the Legislature to strangle charter schools in their crib. They offered a host of arguments, all of which boiled down to this: Charter schools are a Trojan horse that will plunder the public schools and cheat the students.
That is what entrenched failures can be expected to say about upstarts with a shot at success. There isn't much mystery about who has plundered the public schools and who has cheated the students. It is the establishment, with its monopoly power, that created the catastrophe of modern public schooling in Massachusetts:
Tenure protections so strict it is all but impossible to fire a failed teacher . . . "bumping" rules that base layoffs on seniority instead of merit . . . principals denied any flexibility in shaping their faculty . . . schools with no authority over how to spend their own budgets . . . certification standards that keep talented people out of classrooms: This is the Schoolhouse the Blob Built.
A threat to public education? Charter schools are public education. They are chartered by the state. They will be subject to the same antidiscrimination laws as any other public school. They will have to comply with every statute governing special-needs students and bilingual education. Indeed, of the first 15 charter schools to win accreditation, the majority are specifically designed for at-risk and troubled students.
This is public education in its finest sense, and the public knows it. That State House hearing this month was jammed with charter school supporters. Dozens of them signed up to testify. They know that this is it, that the clock has run out, that if the schools aren't saved now, they never will be.
For if the Blob wins this fight, the last, best hope of education reform in Massachusetts will have been crushed.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)