On Education, Should Urbanites Give the GOP Another Look?

The fact that urban voters are in the pocket of the Democratic Party has become a cliché. In City Journal, Edward L. Glaeser attempts to understand why that is so considering that a number of economic policies championed by the GOP have made life a lot easier for urbanites, yet they continue to throw their support behind Democratic candidates with devotion that defies analysis.

Especially surprising is the fact that this devotion persists even in cases where it is clearly counterproductive — like on the issue of education. Republicans have pioneered and remain the strongest supporters of education reform, while Democrats largely continue to pay homage to teachers unions – the organizations that Glaeser blames for many of the ills that have befallen urban public schools.

The Right is on the side of greater accountability from all levels of education hierarchy, says Glaeser, and has proposed and adopted policies promoting school choice which puts more decisions about education directly into the hands of the parents. While New Yorkers reap the rewards of the free market system in most every other area of their lives, they seem downright reluctant to accept that bringing the same principles to education will improve it.

Charter schools—public schools that operate free from union contracts and other bureaucratic restrictions—can change that equation by breaking up the regular public schools’ near-monopoly on education. They’re essentially a variation on free-market economist Milton Friedman’s idea of school vouchers. Because of the efforts of Republicans (and of some urban Democrats who’ve broken with the teachers’ unions), charters have begun to make inroads in cities. But they remain limited in number by law and lack the classroom space to meet the growing demand for their services.

Continuing with the food metaphors, Glaeser admits that just as the vast majority of restaurants in New York fail within the first year, so will a large number of charters. But those that will succeed can do the seemingly impossible, and they can do it for the children who are historically underserved by the public schools – the poor and minorities.

At least one charter academy examined by Roland Fryer of Harvard University achieved standardized tests results that “went a long way” towards closing the race-based achievement gap which is haunting urban schools in New York and elsewhere.

The reasons for charters’ success aren’t mysterious. According to Fryer’s work, what correlates most closely with their impressive achievements in New York City is their longer class hours. So hard work and discipline — long-standing Republican watchwords — are providing urban students with a path out of poverty.