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Friday, May 22, 2015

A call for charter libraries

Bookstores are closing, every year.
It seems like this is just one example of a much broader phenomenon we are experiencing. There is a mismatch between the types of businesses that can afford high tent, and the types that we need to make quality of life high. There are so many different banks with huge, empty floors in New York City, and meanwhile you have things that are more valuable to the community but not in an immediate monetary way, like bookstores and daycare centers and hospitals, closing.
We have created a mechanism to capture innovative energy and entrepreneurship in schools, namely charter schools. Could we have charter libraries -- bookstores that can make a profit but which must follow certain guidelines to provide public services?
After all, we hugely subsidize public libraries and public schools, and without that there would be many fewer of them, both for-profit versions and nonprofits that would have to scrounge and fundraise all the time.
Of course it gets very hairy very quickly when you start having the government subsidize this business or that business. I think the market is less bad than a corrupt and incompetent committee of politicians making these decisions.
But the charter model, at least in New York, piggybacks on the value of academic reputation (by requiring all charter applications to be approved by a panel from New York's public universities) to make charter decisions feel really out of the reach of mainstream corruption.
(I've followed the process as some colleagues and friends have applied for charters here, been rejected and accepted.)
Part of what makes charters work here might be that there is a very specific, heavily invested section of the public (the parents at that school) that would be furious if money was misused, unlike statewide contracts where we are all victims--but only a tiny bit each.
I bet we would see the same kind of improvement in the competence of the organization that we have been with public schools in New York. I've seen horrible things in New York's public schools. Our libraries are nearly as bad. In Brooklyn, the librarians are seldom even readers!

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