Happy Birthday and a Terrific New Book by Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell has a new book. It is terrific and timely. It is called Charter Schools and Their Enemies, officially published today, June 30, 2020, which happens to be his 90th birthday. Happy Birthday, Tom, and thank you writing such a beautiful book.

The book and his recent Wall Street Journal article “Charter Schools’ Enemies Block Black Success” about the book, focus on the enormous success of charter schools in delivering better education, especially to the predominantly black and Hispanic students in low income neighborhoods. One example, discussed especially in the Wall Street Journal article, is the Success Academy in New York City. The Success Academy started back in 2006, and it has grown from 1 to 47 schools. And it is a success.  All involved—those with the idea, the teachers, the students—should be applauded.  In 2013, as Tom Sowell points out, the fifth graders in one of the Success Academy schools in Harlem scored better on the mathematics test than fifth graders in any other school in the whole public-school system in NYC. At a recent count, there were 50,000 students on the waiting list.

A big question addressed in the book is why such a clear success should have enemies. And charter schools do have some enemies—in the public schools, in the unions, and in the government of New York City itself. Tom Sowell considers and shoots down many criticisms of charter schools, including the criticism that charter schools only admit top students, when, in fact, those who get in are chosen by lottery.  The explanation that the critics are simply protecting their own operations is the most plausible.

Tom Sowell has written many good books, and like those, this one is carefully researched, well-written, entertaining, and readable. Five years ago, he wrote a book about income inequality, which in my view was one of the two best books of 2015. The book, Wealth, Poverty, and Politics, offered a refreshing and stimulating view of income distribution. He shows that the spread of prosperity is far more effective in eliminating poverty than a focus on reducing income gaps, which often turns into a counterproductive blame game, breeding resentment, hatred and ethnic conflict.

The income distribution problem is of course related to the education problem. The existing school system restricts educational opportunities for those who are disadvantaged. An explanation for the widening inequality is this restriction.  Remember the students from the movie Waiting for “Superman”: Bianca, Emily, Anthony, Daisy, and Francisco. They had a very small chance of winning the lottery to get into a better school.  Not removing the restrictions is only one example of how deviations from freedom can adversely affect the distribution of income. Tom Sowell has written often about theses issues, whether regulatory capture by large firms, crony capitalism, and deviations from the rule of law. And for this we are very grateful.

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