In 2000, Andrei Cherny—a senior speechwriter for Al Gore and principal author of the 2000 Democratic Party's national platform—wrote a fascinating but somewhat neglected book entitled The Next Deal. In his book, Cherny sketches a program of free trade, competition, decentralization, deregulation, and "trust in the people to make their own decisions" designed to appeal to members of the Internet generation.
To reform public education, Cherny proposes making every public school a charter school, empowering parents to choose which public charter school their child would attend, and letting these charter schools be managed by a variety of providers, including religious groups and private companies. (Charter schools are public schools that operate on their own and are relieved of most government regulations, except those pertaining to health, safety, and racial discrimination.)
"This would strap the money to the backs of children," Cherny writes, "instead of giving it to the schools, forcing public schools to compete against one another for students and the funds they bring with them. This force of competition would compel all schools to get better."
Why is making every public school a charter school attractive? For liberals and Democrats who acknowledge that big-city schools have failed, universal charters do not take money away from existing public schools but rather reorganize those schools in a less bureaucratic way. Also, charters have long been endorsed in principle, though often treated skeptically in practice, by both labor unions and leading Democratic figures. Labor unions might like universal charters because existing schools, where unions are already established, could be turned into charter schools and the unions would thus be more influential than they are when charter schools are started from scratch. Labor unions would also prefer universal charters to universal vouchers, which would be redeemable in both public and private schools.
Universal charters are perhaps more attractive to New Democrats than to conservatives and libertarians. But some conservatives would like the increased opportunities for children and choices for parents, whereas some libertarians would like the fact that universal charters do not entangle existing private schools in government money and regulations.
Obviously, many details need to be worked out: Who would decide when to build new charter schools and when to make capital improvements? Would state, county, and local boards of education act as chartering agencies? What kind of accountability would there be for this multitude of charter schools? Through what procedure would a failing charter school be shut down?
In 2002, Cherny ran for the Democratic nomination for a California State Assembly seat. He lost his primary race by eleven percentage points in a campaign in which special interest groups opposed him, in part because of his innovative ideas on school reform. Cherny's own political career may have suffered a setback, but the need for school improvement has not gone away. Something drastic has to be done to help children trapped in failing big-city schools.