July 29, 2022

Thomas Courtney: Charter Schools and Their Enemies, A Fictional Novel by Intellectual Thomas Sowell

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Thomas Courtney has decided to work through some of the books produced by the pro-privatizing crowd. He’s starting with Sowell.

With my annual unpaid leave, I’ve decided to embark on a sort of summer reading schedule. This year, I read quite a few well-researched texts like Noliwe Rooks’ Cutting School and Diane Ravitch’s Slaying Goliath. In both, I read about the disruption that so-called reformers are having on cities around the nation, just like they’ve been doing where I’ve been a teacher for the last two decades. 

I found reams of non-fiction that clearly show the strength and assault upon our  public schools. At some point however, I wondered: Aren’t there a few folks, defending charters, instead of just trying to persuade us to pay for them and their scandals

Don’t these school “reformers” write well-researched books too?

 With that question in mind, I’ve begun a journey into just what recent books are driving the notion  that charter schools are an improvement-of any kind. I want to know just what has been written in recent years in support of these charters which have been rocked by scandal, have made people rich, and have lowered achievement across the board.

I didn’t find much in the way of quality nonfiction.

Instead, what I found were reams and reams of fantastical arguments which border on fiction. And it didn’t take me long to find the first of these fantasies, and discover the worst of their arguments.  

Let’s begin with a true classic of fantasy fiction: Thomas Sowell’s Charter Schools and Their Enemies


I have no doubt that Mr. Sowell could sell someone a book. Despite being in a position to turn down several presidential appointments in his career (including Secretary of Education during the Reagan administration), he has written extensively against affirmative action, believes racism is a hypothesis which cannot be supported, and has defended Trump against racism despite calling him a person of no “ethics whatsoever” prior to his election.  Despite being a self-described libertarian, Mr. Sowell has clearly learned how to lean a subject towards the conservative mindset in order to make a buck.  

In “Charter Schools and Their Enemies” however,  Mr. Sowell leans even harder into the curve. What has he put for us between two covers? A massive effort of 120 pages of prose, followed by 200 pages of supposed supporting test score data. It’s all in an effort to sell the idea that a few charter schools in New York reveal everything you need to know about charter schools across the country. As he explains in place of an introduction, he believes that only charter schools which are housed in the exact same building as their public school co-operators in one area of New York, can reveal the truth of what is really going on in these so-called hotbeds of educational reform nationwide. And you’d have to do that, in order to deny the decades long consensus of national data revealing that charter schools are failing en masse and hurting public schools in the process. Mr. Sowell has no problem ignoring real data of an aggregate nature, nor would it help him much anyway since he isn’t making a scientific argument of any kind.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sowell forgot quickly that he is writing a fiction, one which came up short in both content and pages. Thus, he stuck some printed data tailored to his exact purposes at the end so that you’d purchase his book. Sadly, even the data is not worth much time to review, unless you like a very small sample size picked just to show what an author believes. 

After all, I can convince you that there are no bald men in America, if we only interview a few guys who have all their hair. But Mr. Sowell, does us one better. He’d have us believe that charter schools, which a decade of research proves are not doing as well as their public school counterparts, are outperforming them instead, because he handpicked a couple of them himself. But don’t worry, he spends his first chapter explaining why it’s okay for him to do this,  without offering any scientific study to the matter, or any statistical method to verify his analysis. Again, this is the man who claims racism is propaganda on the order of Joseph Goebbels. 

That part is not fiction.

It is of course possible that Mr. Sowell did far more research than simply stating his opinions, complaining common-sensically over a few of his detractors quotes taken out of context, and printing off some data sheets. But after spending 2 hours and forty five minutes reading his prose, all he had for me, I doubt there was more to say. 

Instead of data, Thomas Sowell calls Diane Ravitch  names and simply dismisses her factual analysis (which fills several bestselling books and is complete with nationwide data to support her claims). It’s a tall order to make a point with such material but he keeps at it, going so far as to use his sixth chapter to explain how charter schools can save Blacks and hispanics from…themselves-a point he has made often before. 

Little seems to stop Mr. Sowell’s agenda, but without much more than a few conservative one-liners in print these days, it becomes easy and exasperating to continue to read his YA length ramblings. The book has a slick cover though.

Is it enough to try and sell another book, with nothing more than rhetoric and glue holding its few pages together? I say no. Unless you enjoy fantasy.

My advice on future educational efforts would be for Mr. Sowell to straighten out his steering wheel so that he can use data to make a point and not the other way around. I’d also recommend he offer his appendices as an optional purchase for those who found no merit whatsoever in his prose, and move on to his next conversative subject, while claiming to be a libertarian. Perhaps he can detail the truth about the January 6th insurrection by talking to only one man carrying a lectern. 

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