An Economist Looks at 90: Tom Sowell on Charter Schools and Their Enemies

interview with Thomas Sowell
Monday, July 6, 2020

To watch the video, click here.

TRANSCRIPT ONLY

Peter Robinson: When he was growing up in Harlem, three quarters of a century ago, the schools were good. In recent years, Harlem has once again produce some very good schools, charter schools, and he found that intriguing. Today, one day after his 90th birthday, Thomas Sowell on his new book, "Charter Schools and Their Enemies", Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to another Special Plague Time Edition of Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson. Thomas Sowell has taught economics intellectual history and social policy at institutions that include Cornell, UCLA and Amherst. Now senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Dr. Sowell has published many books, including his newest volume, just published "Charter Schools and Their Enemies" and yesterday, Tomas Sowell turned 90. Tom Happy birthday.

Thomas Sowell: Thank you.

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 1000 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.

Peter Robinson: Alright, let's define terms. Charter schools differ from private schools because charter schools remain publicly funded. But how do charter schools differ from other public schools?

Thomas Sowell:  They differ from the fact that, the biggest difference, is that children are assigned to go to particular public schools. Known donor are assigned to go to charter schools. People who apply for charter schools are then selected by lottery. And so the charter schools themselves- Well, let me put it differently. Traditional public schools are radically different from almost any other institution in society. Whether it's a hospitals, it's a sports arenas, it's aautomobile dealerships, churches or whatever, and that any institution, in order to survive as an institution has to have some clientele that it must please enough for the clientele to come to them. Traditional public schools are radically different in that compulsory attendance laws, provide them with a clientele. The clientele has no choice in the matter. And there is no competition among different traditional public schools because each one has a monopoly and its own district. Charter schools are more like other institutions. It survives as an institution only to the extent that they can attract people there voluntarily.

Peter Robinson: What about teachers in charter schools? Unionized, not unionized, a mix, how does that work?

Thomas Sowell: In then most charter schools, the teachers are not unionized. In traditional public schools, the teachers are unionized. And of course, the teachers unions are well aware of this distinction, which has some huge financial implications for then.

Peter Robinson: Right. Back to the book. You mentioned charter schools in a number of places across the country. But you focus and you focus very intently on charter schools in New York City, you go through the data in great detail, let me quote you, "New York City has a substantial sample of ethnically and socioeconomically comparable students whose educational outcomes can be compared." Can you explain that just to the extent of a sentence or two?

Thomas Sowell: Yes. Many of the people who are defending the traditional public schools or attacking the charter school say, "The charter school don't get any better results as a whole than public or public schools at all." It's one of the many statements that is technically true and gross misleading at the same time. White students and Hispanic students constitute a majority of all the students in traditional public schools. Black students, and Hispanic students are majority in the charter school. Did I say why White and Asian students?

Peter Robinson: Yeah. You said White and Asian...in public schools white and Asian.

Thomas Sowell: Charter schools black and Hispanic. For generations white and Asian students have been scoring higher on tests than black and Hispanic students. So to say that they're only equal now is to say that this gap that people have been agonizing over for years has now been closed. Is this statement, what is relevant? Both statements are true. One is true and misleading. The other is true and has some effect to it.

Peter Robinson: I'm going to quote you just mentioned it but I'm going to quote this summary of your central finding in "Charter Schools and Their Enemies". "New York city charter schools that have had no capacity to end poverty, or racial concentrations of minority students..." That is, they're in the neighborhoods that they're in. They take the students who are selected by lottery, they can't affect the poverty of the background of those students. They can't affect the racial makeup of those students. "...nevertheless, these charter schools have closed the racial gap in education." Now, the first time you present this finding, it's in a section where you're being relatively analytical and frankly, a little bit dry. But that goes off like a cannon shot, doesn't it? You don't mean to tell me we have discovered how to close this educational gap. That has been a wound in the nation for decades.

Thomas Sowell: Yes. And the people who do it are being attacked after they've done it.

Peter Robinson: All right. That's the finding. Let's just go through this is "Charter Schools and Their Enemies". And we'll come to the enemies in a moment. But a lot of people of goodwill have in their minds various arguments against charter schools that they've picked up during, while here in California during ballot initiative contests and so forth. Let's just go through these.

Thomas Sowell: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Charter schools creme away the best students, the smartest kids, the motivated kids, and that leaves public schools with the worst students. In other words, the kids do better in charter schools because they're better students in the first place. Tom.

Thomas Sowell: It sounds very plausible. In reality, the children who get into the charter schools are chosen by lottery. And as in other lotteries, a very small number of people win and a very large number lose. And so when I say 17,000 applicants for 3000 places in the Success Academy Charter School. Success Academy takes 3000, the other 14,000 are gonna end up back in the traditional public school. So the charter schools take a fraction of the applicants. The applicants may well be better motivated than the average student. But the fact is that the great majority of those motivated students remain in the public school, and they don't do anything within comparable to those that got school in the charter.

Peter Robinson: Meaning that as you mentioned in the book, there are a number of studies including by our Hoover colleague Caroline Hawks P., that track the kids who lose the lottery and get some back to the public school and if they were special kids, especially motivated, you might hope to see that they outperform, and they don't. They fall behind the kids who make it into the charter school. Is that correct?

Thomas Sowell: Absolute And moreover, the girls who go into the charter schools become pregnant at a much lower rate than the girls that go back into the traditional public schools and the boys going into the charter schools do not get incarcerated at the same rate, as higher rate as the boys who are left behind in the public schools. And the second point, I think, is important because they're always saying they're in the charter school because they have stronger discipline problems. That this is the beginning of the pipeline from school to prison. In point of fact, the hard evidence shows that kids who are in charter schools with stricter discipline are less likely to end up being incarcerated.

Peter Robinson: Alright, Here's another argument against charter schools. It's just am plucking these arguments from the air. They're what we've all heard over and over. Charter schools deprive ordinary public schools of the vital resource. And that of course, is money. Every kid who lives leaves the public school, ordinary public school for a charter school takes tuition dollars with him. And that's unfair. Because the traditional public schools have such high fixed costs. They have buildings to maintain, they have teachers contracts to honor and on and on and on. And so the charter schools whatever they may be doing in the in their schools, they're weakening the public school system by bleeding it of funds. Tom. You find my you find these aguments amusing. I have to laugh because otherwise I would cry. That's so bad. When a child leaves any kind of school to go another school, nobody says that the money to educate that child or to remain behind in the school that he left rather than move with him to the school he's going to. So by the means kids are moving from one public school to another from public to private, whatever. And nobody has ever advanced the ridiculous idea that the money should stay behind when the kid goes, but what is also not known widely is that the taxpayers money that goes to the charter schools is less than what they have paid per pupil in the public school. There I've seen two studies probably at different times, one of which says it's 19% less, the other says something like 26% less, but so the money per pupil goes up when the kid leaves with a charter school because he doesn't take as much money with him to the charter school as we're being spent on when he was in the public school.

Thomas Sowell: It's the opposite of what people suppose. All right. Charter School teachers, the charter schools can do more with less money partly because they hire cheaper teachers. They're younger. They're less credentialed. They don't belong to unions, so they don't have union dues to pay. Charter schools are just working with a cheaper labor force. Tom.

Peter Robinson: Well, I would love to see the numbers on that. But the but the fact of the matter is, when when you look at the result, that these supposedly less qualified teachers are turning out kids who know their math, and the supposedly well qualified ones who are in the traditional public schools are turning out kids who can't do math. I cited this number that the charter school kids in the same building with a traditional public school kids pass the math test nearly seven times as often. That's an average. At the extremes it's almost unbelievable. I mean, one classic example is a school where 7% of kids in the traditional public school in that building, pass the math test. In the charter school 100% pass the math test.

Thomas Sowell: Hold on, wait a minute, I want to repeat that. They're in the same building.

Peter Robinson: They're in the same building. They're have the same ethnic background. They have the same socioeconomic background.

Thomas Sowell: And the kids who are subjected to a participating in the traditional public school regime, 7% pass the math test.

Peter Robinson: But one exam and then down the hall. Same kids same building. The difference is the system. They're in a different system and they pass it the rate of 100%.

Thomas Sowell: More than that, as I put on the book, there're four levels. And level three is proficient. Among the kids in the charter school, 98% are in level four, which is the level above proficient, and only 2% are in as low as proficient. And the other only 7% are as high as proficient.

Peter Robinson: And again, I want to repeat this. These aren't taking place in the same building. They're using renting disused rooms in public school buildings. And that's not that all charter schools do that. But those are the charter schools you studied because they are so directly comparable.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: All right. One more argument against charter schools. You've touched on it already, I want to take it on directly. And that's this question of discipline. Charter schools imposed the results that they... they achieve the results that they achieved because they are imposing discipline at such strict levels that it verges over into the inhumane. They're scaring the kids. They're turning them into robots. Here's an incident you're laughing. Here's an incident that you touch on in your book. Charter school in New York that turned a little kindergartner away, "Go home. You can't come in today." Because the kindergartner was wearing the wrong socks. Now, Tom, that's taking things too far. Don't you agree?

Thomas Sowell: It was the first day of school. And the first thing they want the child to understand that rules are there for a reason. And then if you don't follow the rules, you don't belong in there. And that is enormously important. The socks themselves don't matter. I don't think it matters in these words. But what you must establish to the child's mind that rules are there and we disobey them, there are consequences. And so for what he misses one day of kindergarten, and the next time he comes in you have his uniform properly on him, and they'll let him in. But if you're not gonna do that, if you gonna have rules without consequences. You don't have rules. You just have suggestions.

Peter Robinson: All right. Now we come to "Charter Schools and Their Enemies". Tom, two quotations. This is from an article in The New York Times. This is just months ago. "The City..." New York City. "The city and states political forces have turned decisively against charter schools over the last few years." Here's the second quotation. This is Tom Sowell, in "Charter Schools and Their Enemies". "How can success be so unwelcome?" Charter schools producing results among the very disadvantaged kids, in the very neighborhoods, that New York's liberal establishment claims to most want to help. And it is that very liberal establishment that has a reigned itself against those same schools. What is going on?

Thomas Sowell: Well, they understand that there are 50,000 kids on waiting list to get into charter school by able to do so. And the per-pupil allotment of money is 20,000, not more than $20,000 per student. That means that the traditional public school will lose more than a billion dollars a year. And the public schools are in no mood to lose that kind of money. And teachers unions are by no means the most to lose that many teachers job. And then the union dues that those teachers pay is bigger than not even. There is a whole way of life is come about in the traditional public school. There's no way that they can compete with charter schools without changing that profoundly. For example, the ironclad job protection that teachers have. So the teachers who have done all kinds of terrible things remain on the payroll because it is just too expensive to get rid of them. Oh my gosh, they are- One class of teachers who did no teach at all. And we just report to some bacon room and sit there during the day and they will collect full pay and collect CARE and various benefits as ovure. Because the cost of firing them is prohibitive. Is prohibitive in financial terms and in time, if you want and money terms of study have shown that to fire a teacher for incompetence takes an average of 830 days, which is more than two years, and costs an average of $380,000. And that by no means guarantees that you'll be able to do it. And it doesn't even take into account that there's a whole labyrinthine procedure that you have to go through and not to the press where you will have to use a huge amount of his time going through all jumping through all these hoops in the hopes of being good at getting rid of such a teacher. And so they're kept in the in the school, they are not tested, they're not judged by how well the students learn. They can pass on to the next grade kids who are two levels below the proficiency level, and that they just keep them moving or keep alive moving. But you can't do that if you have to compete with for results. With the results that the charter schools are able to get.

Peter Robinson: So you are telling me, we're used to human nature, we're used to politics, we're used to the idea that there are vested interests. But you're telling me that this is just...what's going on in New York City is just a naked, naked grab for power? The results that you're describing. In the charter schools are known. It is known that there are 50,000 kids on the waiting list to get into those charter schools. And I suppose we could even say, "Well, maybe it's not surprising that teachers unions, the officials in the teachers unions, they're set up to get as much money and as much stability and job security for their teachers as they can." Maybe we can say, all right, we'd expect them to behave the way they're behaving. The mayor of the city of New York, Bill de Blasio, has been all his life, a progressive on the farther left in within New York City, he's on the not the leftmost... in New York City is almost impossible to find the where the left end of the spectrum ends, but he's over there. And that means that all his life he has been arguing for help, for the poor, the disadvantaged, blacks and Hispanics. He knows what's going on. He has to. He sees that there's something that can help these kids. And he's siding with the unions all the same. Is that correct?

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: All right. What would he say in his own defense? Is there anything we're missing here? Are you being slightly unfair to this man?

Thomas Sowell: The teachers union, helped put this man, in the office he holds. He appeals to them. And when he was giving a talk at the National Education Association, which is the country's largest union, he mentioned that he hates the people who set up charter school. There should be no federal funding for charter school. He should get rid of the charter school. And that will of course, get him the support of the National Education Association.

Peter Robinson: All right. Again, "Charter Schools and Their Enemies" the study where you go into that you present charts, tables, the facts, the figures, the argument is the results are just unassailable. But that's in New York City because that's where the data was available that allows you to compare. But again, you do talk about other places, including California, "Charter Schools and Their Enemies", and again, we're on the enemies here. "New laws passed in California in 2019 empower local education officials..." That is the officials running the traditional or regular public school system. "...empower local education officials to deny applications for establishing charter schools if the charter school in question..." Now you're quoting the new laws. "...is demonstrably unlikely to serve the interests of the entire community." Or if again, "...the school district is not positioned to absorb the fiscal impact of the proposed charter school." Well, that's a lot of words. And here's what it means. Again, I'm quoting you, "In short, incumbents..." Those already in power. "...incumbents are empowered to determine if the community really needs their competitors, or if the competition of newcomers would inconvenience the existing institutions." You're not being unfair or too harsh there? You don't wanna take back any Of what you wrote there?

Thomas Sowell: What either I do on the book is point out this whole approach has a long history in other fields of endeavor. It's been embedded in the radio industry, in the television industry, Frank and Frank carry, in the airline industry. And once you set up a law that says, "In order to be authorized to operate in this industry, you must show that there is a public necessity or convenience that you're gonna provide." And this will, of course, be judged by people. By looking at your impact on the existing people in the industry. And that for decades as more and more people are taking up the airlines, they never could seem to find a need for any more airlines that come into the industry. Because they realize that you had competition, some of the existing airlines would go bankrupt. And when they finally I was doing a call administration, one of the few things have done right. They got rid of this legislation. Immediately, other airlines were created, airline prices fell, far more cities had an airline service. So this idea that they're doing this to protect the public is absolute nonsense. They are doing it to protect the incumbents. Just to give one other example, when FM radio came along, and FM radio has a better sound, which is why most music stations are on FM radio rather than AM. It was technologically available decades before it became widespread. Because they were saying this will have a bad effect on the am stations if we allow FM stations. And so they delayed it for as long as they possibly could. It's absurd when you think about it, but they put up these wonderful sounding words that you don't think about it.

Peter Robinson: Tom, well, "Charter Schools and Their Enemies". Again, we're on the enemy's. "Teachers unions...." I'm quoting you. "Teachers unions are the politically strongest of the organizations opposed to charter schools. They possess millions of members and make millions of dollars in political campaign contributions." Now, here's something I'm sure you've heard this. And I've heard it over and over again, wait a minute. All right. Advocate for charter schools if you want to, but don't bash the good people who are trying to make the public school system work.

Thomas Sowell: The good people who are trying to make the public school system work, are doing it by putting roadblocks in the ability of students to transfer out of traditional public schools. One of those roadblocks is simply laws that given an arbitrary number as a limit to the number of charter schools that can be authorized. This number has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the charter schools are good, bad, or indifferent. There is nothing to do with whether the existing traditional public schools are good, better. And there's an arbitrary number, which means that in New York, the Success Academy Network, for example, has received over $9 million in federal money last year, but is unable to expand because they're up against this magic number. And therefore, no matter how well, they try to train the students, how barely the other schools are trading them. They simply cannot expand. And cities across the country, there are places where vacant buildings, buildings that have been vacant for years school build, and they block the charter schools from getting into those school buildings. Because if they get into those buildings, they will have classrooms to take the kids who are on the waiting list. And some places they have actually demolished school buildings, making sure the charters move can't move into them. So these are the good people that you speak of, who are really trying to protect the traditional fellow schools?

Peter Robinson: I'm going to take, one more salad. Look, I know I take my life in my hands when I try again against you, Tom, but how all of us can picture teachers in the public, well, those of us who went through public school system in the old days. Ordinary teachers, in my experience, tend to be very good people. I guess what I'm asking is what happens? I think we can poss it that most teachers go into the profession, hoping to do good with the kids. They retain some idealism. The job for most of them, they take it seriously. It's hard and they want the best for the kids. And then the teachers unions behave just as you say they behave. What happens when individually good teachers come together to try to reflect collective action? Is there some distinction? Is there some explanation? Some systemic explanation for why good people can end up supporting a bad system?

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 than 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 a higher-paid teachers, you don't get any increasing in the union dues.

Peter Robinson: All right. We've been talking about the Success Charter Schools have been teaching the kids. Let's take a moment to talk about what charter schools can teach the rest of us. There's some lessons in the book as I read it, for the rest of us. What charter schools teach us about money. You just touched on this. You quote, in Charter Schools and Their Enemies, you quote your friend Walter Williams, of George Mason University. And he conducted a study on schools in Baltimore, George Mason's in Virginia. Baltimore is Just up 91, I think is the route. Anyway 95. Here's Walter Williams. "In 2016, in 13 of Baltimore's 39 high schools, not a single student scored proficient on the state's mathematics exam. City wide, only 15% of Baltimore students pass the state's English test. Money is not the problem. Of the nation's 100 largest school systems, Baltimore schools ranked third in spending per pupil." You said a moment ago, you described it as a bottomless pit.

Thomas Sowell: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: You spend the third-highest amount per pupil of 100 big systems and you end up with 13 high schools in which not a single kid, not one, can pass the mathematics exam at a profit level. All right, so what does that teach us? If money isn't central? What is it that the charter schools are getting right? Aside from money, What does matter?

Thomas Sowell: Well, the institutions I mentioned earlier, have different cities and different constraints. And the charter school they have to please the parents in order to have the parents send their kids there. Because no kids are required by compulsory attendance laws to go to a charter school. They're an all volunteer institution. And if you have poor education, you have a bedroom in the schools, dangerous students who are allowed to run amok, those parents are not going to send their kids to a charter school. So the incentives are entirely different. Also, the People you attract. 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. When the first cheap, that was one of The Net Charter School Network, the first cheap school was put into a traditional public school building in the southwest, years ago, they were allowed in only when they agreed to the precondition that there would be nothing inside or outside that building, to indicate that there was a second school in there. When the tests were given, and they had initially instead of allowing them to publish their test scores, separately, they lumped together all the test scores for all the kids in the building. Someone who tried to do a study in those early years was unable to find anything. Of course, now that we have the New York State Education Department publicized this on their website, then we find out what's happening. We can understand why they didn't want those separate test results to go out because they would have shown that the charter school kids were doing fine and the ones in the same building within the regular public schools, were failing terribly.

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. So one of the arguments against charter schools is that they're not accountable. And what they mean is, they don't have all these enormous numbers of rules that you have in a public officially. You're accountable for following those rules. You are not accountable for the end results educationally for the students.

Peter Robinson: Right, right. What charter schools teach us about, I don't even know how to put this, culture. Ordinary neighborhood culture I guess is the way to put it. I'm quoting you again, Tom, "Charter Schools and Their Enemies". "An empirical study of more than 90,000 black, white and Hispanic students in grades seven through 12 found that, among black and Hispanic students whose grade-point averages are about some level, 2.5 among Hispanics and 3.5 among blacks, they have fewer friends of their own ethnicity." That is, black and Hispanic kids who are good students seem to start losing friends among their own ethnicity. And then you quote Roland Fryer, Professor Roland Fryer of Harvard, concluded that this pattern, "...is most prevalent in racially integrated public schools' and is less of a problem in the private sector and in predominantly black public schools." Untangle that. What's going on there?

Thomas Sowell: The people who have been saying that the way to get black kids who've had a better education result is to put them in a school with white kids. And what it sounds plausible, but the problem is they don't follow up by factually verifying that, and in fact, we create an almost impossible situation. If the black kids have had very poor education before they go into the white school, they're gonna be concentrated in the lower levels of each grade. And Bella's particular black students who follow the same kinds of regimen that the white students follow, tend to get the same results to the white kids get. They go on to the AP classes and so forth. And the other black kids are then a resent that because they seem to be repudiating their own people and enjoying the life. And these are kids after all, these are adults. And so so these these kind of ideas, leave them to be very hostile. There was a black elite school in Washington DC many years ago called Dunbar High School. And they got they got all kinds of outstanding results. When one figure 1953, 81% of Dunbar graduates went on to college, which was higher than for any white public high school in Washington DC. Alright. Dunbar High School was enormously controversial within the black community.

Peter Robinson: Oh, really?

Thomas Sowell: Yes, yes. And it lasted. When there was debate when they got a new building. It was even said that, the old building isn't strong even enough so forth. And that the bitterness that was brought out, produced a legal case and went all the way up to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeal. And when the Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the building to be torn down, there were members of the Washington DC City Council who said, "Dunbar represents a model of leaders among blacks, they should never arise again. And so people who have been successful in education Escalante, for example, Jaime Escalante, who had-

Peter Robinson: In LA or Southern California as I got used to it.

Thomas Sowell: Hispanics and somebody high percentage of all these blacks in the country who passed the AP Calculus test, came out of his class. Whereas the rest of the school couldn't do it. He was disliked in his school. He was so shabbily that he left.

Peter Robinson: The resentment is that Dunbar High School in Washington was teaching black kids to be white. It was somehow being unfaithful to the black community.

Thomas Sowell: Yes, yes.

Peter Robinson: I see. I see.

Thomas Sowell: Yes. 

Peter Robinson: And so in schools, in these charter schools in New York that you were studying, that effect does not seem to be strong.

Thomas Sowell: Because all the kids who are there, most of the kids who were there, are there precisely because they want to get an education or their parents want them to. And so when you do better, in that said situation, you're fine. But you have a 4.0 average and you're Hispanic, in a predominantly white school, you lose your Hispanic friends.

Peter Robinson: So, Tom, you know why this is very hard to accept, for me at least. Because you're saying that one of the signal moments in American history, 1954, the Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of Education in which Chief Justice Earl Warren said separate schools, this was ruling segregated schools unconstitutional. Separate is inherently unequal.

Thomas Sowell: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Are saying in certain circumstances, separate may be better for the minority kids themselves?

Thomas Sowell: Well, I wouldn't go that far, but I would say that- That his proposition does not stand up on under the record. And I use an example in the book of the time before blacks were allowed in the major leagues. In those days, there was a separate black league for black players. Jackie Robinson and others came out of that. Once the color barrier was taken down in the major leagues, there was seven consecutive years when no white player won the National League's Most Valuable Player Award separate was not unequal.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Thomas Sowell: What happens very often is there's a wrong idea, namely that it's okay to segregate the black kids. You go against that, but very often you go too far in the opposite direction. You'd say, "It's all black, then it's inherently unequal." And that has reached too far as I said.

Peter Robinson: All right. Tell me if this is a fair summary statement. I found this again in the book "Charter Schools and Their Enemies" "Racially homogenous schools should not be sought as a goal." That segregation. That was a stupid pernicious idea. We're far much better without it. No segregation. Jim Crow should stay in its grave. "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.''

Thomas Sowell: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: All right. All right. One last question here about what charter schools teach us. What they teach us about root causes. This is another argument that we hear all the time. You mentioned it at the very top of the show. It may be most associated with the education expert Professor Diane Ravitch. She argues that in assessing underperforming urban schools, the poor performance of the students should be blamed on the schools. It should be blamed on the root causes such as the student's socioeconomic background. The kids are poor. They come from ethnic groups that have suffered in the case of African Americans, decade after decade after decade of prejudice and bias. That's the problem. And you can't ask schools to fix that Tom Sowell. You have to take the root causes into account. Tom.

Thomas Sowell: I love Diane Ravitch because if she will say those magic words, see no reason to look at anything so mundane is facts. It's so happens that the Success Academy Charter School Network has a higher percentage of its students, passing the math and English tests on the given annually than any traditional public school district anywhere in the state of New York. That includes places where the average family income is in excess of a quarter of a million dollars a year. The average family income of kids in the Success Academy school is $50,000 a year. And yet they do better on those tests than people whose families have five times as much income. So the idea that poverty prevents them from learning. Apparently people who say these things will not bother to check back.

Peter Robinson: Alright. Tom, I wanna return to "Charter Schools and Their Enemies" in a moment. But you just turned 90 yesterday. I have a few of my favorite Tom Sowell quotations. I wanna read a little bit of you to yourself.

Thomas Sowell: While I'm sitting down.

Peter Robinson: All right, you're sitting down. And, just because there are so many of us, to whom you have met so much over the years. This is from "The Vision of the Anointed", which is a brilliant book, to those who are aware of it. They think of it as a classic. And I wish more people were aware of it. It is a classic. "The vision of the anointed..." You're talking about elites in society. "...is one in which ills such as poverty, irresponsible sex and crime derive primarily from 'society,' rather than from individual choices and behavior. To believe in personal responsibility would be to destroy the whole special role of the anointed, whose vision cast them in the role of rescuers of people treated unfairly by 'society.'" All right. How did it come to be that in your lifetime, actually, substantially even in my lifetime, the anointed ended up running so much off the show? Major universities, the mainstream media, even now we see in the way corporations are responding to the politics of the moment, even corporations after corporation after corporation. Ben & Jerry's makes ice cream. Ben & Jerry's sold that company to Unilever, which is a gigantic corporation. And yet a couple of weeks ago, Ben & Jerry's took it upon itself to release a statement about systematic racism in America dating from 1619. How making rocky road entitles them to... makes them feel as though they're entitled to make such a statement. I do not know. But maybe you do. How did this happen? How did the anointed end up on top in so many places?

Thomas Sowell: I think they were in strategic places to begin with, namely the educational system. And when you have...and one of the other differences between the charters and the others, is that the charter schools are very strong on the basics. The public schools have all kinds of indoctrination courses on which they waste these children's time. But then what they say is correct or incorrect in one way or another really does not justify the enormous waste of time of kids who desperately need to master mathematics, the English language and a couple of other basics, with which they can go out into the world and compete with anybody. But still their time is frittered away on the self indulgences.

Peter Robinson: Tom Sowell on diversity. "If there is any place in the Guinness Book of World Records, for words repeated the most often, over the most years, without one speck of evidence, 'diversity' should be a prime candidate. Is diversity our strength? Or anybody's strength, anywhere in the world...? It has not been our diversity, but our ability to overcome the problems inherent in diversity, and to act together as Americans, that has been our strength." Again, how does diversity come to be this kind of Totem in society to which we must all-

Thomas Sowell: Oh, this is applying the propaganda principles of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who said that, "People will believe any lie if it's big enough and total enough and loud enough." If you look at, see diversity is really another name of what used to be called balkanization. And they had to get rid of that because if you looked at the Balkans, you would see that the horror that have gone on there about script, anything ever happened in the United States. Back in the 1970s, when I was running a research project in Washington, a Yugoslav scholar came by to visit me and he said, "You think blacks and whites in America have a problem? The problems of blacks and whites in America is nothing compared to the problem of service that provides the Yugoslavia and if you read or heard that have occurred there, I'll just mention one, throwing at the people the babies in the air and catching them on bayonets and forcing the parents to watch it while it happens. We have not reached that point yet, even though we are headed in that direction." Diversity is not our strength. The ability to deal with the problems of diversity, that is our strength

Peter Robinson: Tom Sowell on government assistance, "Do people who advocate special government programs for blacks realize that the federal government has had special programs for American Indians, including affirmative action, since the early 19th century, and that American Indians remain one of the few groups worse off than blacks?" So, the point there is, do not look for government action or to politics to solve anybody's problem.

Thomas Sowell: If you think that the government actions is the answer, at least look at the facts and test your belief against facts, rather than just keep repeating words that are popular.

Peter Robinson: All right. By the way, the California legislature, I don't know whether- I can't sort out whether it's actual legislation or it was a resolution, nonbinding resolution, in any event, something moved in the California Legislature calling for formal reparations to Africa Americans. How do you respond to that?

Thomas Sowell: One, I know and they know it's not gonna happen. So what we're looking at is someone who wants votes or followers, and this will get them votes or get them followers and financing. But all they will do is simply to tear the country apart.

Peter Robinson: All right. Back to "Charter Schools and Their Enemies". 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 walkthrough. Let's just walk through." I don't know if I look at this and I think to myself, Tom is able to remain calm about this, but it is beyond infuriating, it's a kind of madness. 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 because it would interfere with the prerequisites over the adults system.

Peter Robinson: Last question, I'd like to close if I may, in a moment by asking you to read the closing passage from the book but two things happened yesterday. One was that you turned 90. And the other was the "Charter Schools and Their Enemies" was published. By the way, it's not as if you just awoke after a long retirement slumber. I've added it up. You've written a new book or re-edited, produced a new edition of a book about every 18 months since turning 80. And, Tom, I have news for you. You haven't had anything to prove to anybody in a quarter of a century at least. What keeps Tom's Sowell, 90 plus one day old going? You're not just going, you're fighting. Let's face it. This book is a polemic you want action to follow from this book.

Thomas Sowell: I'm hoping. I have always desperately needed. And there are people who are organized to try to make sure that these kids do not escape the traditional public school and cost them money, the union dues and teaches jobs in a traditional school. If the charter schools get going, and all these kids get off the waiting list, they're gonna have to change the entire way of life in the traditional public schools, and it will not be pretty. 

Peter Robinson: It won't pretty, it'll be pretty for the kids!

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Yeah. Tom, would you read the closing passage from "Charter Schools and Their Enemies".

Thomas Sowell: This is especially important when considering children from a cultural background, lacking the advantages that are common among children born into more fortunate circumstances. Children who have not received at home the educational behavioral and other things foundation for making the most of their natural ability must get those things in school. These are the plain and harsh realities of circumstances. The stakes are huge, not only for children whose education can be the one clear ticket for a better life but also for a whole society that needs more productive members, fulfilling themselves while contributing their talents to the progress of the community at large. Children who emerge from their education with a mastery of mathematics, the English language, and other fundamentals are ready to be those kinds of people, regardless of what color or class they come from. No narrow vested interests of adults, whether financial, political, or ideological, should be allowed to block that.

Peter Robinson: Dr. Thomas Sowell, author of "Charter Schools and Their Enemies." Thomas Sowell, age 90 and still swinging. Thank you.

Thomas Sowell: Thank you, Peter.

Peter Robinson: And Happy Birthday again. And Tom, Will you do me a favor?

Thomas Sowell: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Take the afternoon off, will you please?

Thomas Sowell: I wish I could.

Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.