IF TEACHERS unions in Massachusetts spent as much time trying to improve the large number of public schools they control as they do trying to hurt the minuscule number of charter schools they don't control, public education in the Bay State would be the pride of the Western world. Alas, quality of education has never been the highest priority of the unions and the many school-district bureaucrats who do their bidding. Like other monopolists, they are less interested in improving their product than in trying to stomp out competition - especially when it comes from a tiny but popular upstart.
In terms of numbers, charter schools are barely a blip on the Massachusetts radar screen. Of the nearly 1,900 public schools in the state, only 50 are charters. Of the 980,000 children enrolled in public education, only 19,000 - fewer than 2 percent - attend charter schools. The tiny shadow cast by these schools is actually mandated by state law: They are barred from enrolling more than 4 percent of Massachusetts students or from spending more than 9 percent of the education budget in any given school district. And just to make sure they never grow fruitful and multiply, there is a firm ceiling on the number of charter schools permitted statewide - 72 and no more.
But if Massachusetts charter schools are few and small, they are also in great demand. Each one has a waiting list. Some 14,700 students in regular public schools are hoping a spot opens up at a local charter school. Unless Beacon Hill eliminates the caps that keep the number of charter schools so low, the majority of those kids will never see the inside of a charter-school classroom.
Unfortunately, the Legislature - an almost wholly owned subsidiary of the Massachusetts Democratic Party - has no wish to anger the teachers unions by eliminating the caps. On the contrary: It has voted to impose a so-called ''moratorium'' that would block any new charter from being issued before the end of next year. Worse, it would prevent the opening of five new schools whose charters have already been approved. Three of those schools - in North Adams, Lynn, and Salem - are scheduled to open this fall. The lives of hundreds of students, parents, teachers, and administrators will be thrown into turmoil if the rug is yanked out from under them at this late hour.
Governor Mitt Romney has promised to veto the moratorium, but a veto isn't enough. He needs to make the case for charters and school choice even more loudly and clearly than he has so far. He needs to use his bully pulpit to trumpet the message of charter schools' success - and to emphasize that the war to emasculate them will not stop with a one-year moratorium. Above all he needs to firmly rebut the phony funding argument and to remind Massachusetts voters that competition works best when there are real incentives at stake.
Charter schools have been in existence for only a few years, but already their promise is evident. Compared with their peers in district schools, a higher percentage of charter school students tested at the ''proficient'' or ''advanced'' levels in every subject at every grade level on last year's statewide MCAS exams. The Boston Globe reported last month that more than 60 percent of the state's urban charter schools outperformed district schools, ''and several ranked among the state's highest performers among schools that primarily serve poor and minority children.''
Charter schools are living up to their mission of providing some educational choice, especially for parents who live in substandard school disricts. Which helps explain why the teachers unions so resent them. Those substandard schools, after all, are staffed by union members and follow union rules. What does it say about the union's effect on education if charter schools - which are union-free - tend to do so well?
Long before the commonwealth's first charter schools opened their doors, the state's largest teachers union was firmly against them. As far back as 1991, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association denounced charter schools as ''one of the most dangerous things'' being proposed as part of an education reform package. Two years later, an MTA spokesman declared: ''We really resent the intrusion of privateers into the debate we're having in this state over adequately funding private education.''
Today the enemies of school choice don't huff and puff about ''privateers''; they fume instead that charter schools siphon money from public school systems.
But charter schools do nothing of the sort. For one thing, charter schools are public schools, so every dollar they receive is a dollar spent on public education. For another, charter schools receive funds only for the students they teach - the money follows the children, which is just what it should do.
Most important, the dollars flowing to charter schools have come from an enormously expanded funding pool. In fiscal year 1993, education spending in Massachusetts totaled $4.3 billion. A decade later, the education budget had grown to $8.2 billion - an increase of nearly 100 percent. The appearance of a few dozen charter schools didn't plunge the school districts into penury. On the contrary, those districts saw their budgets soar.
The moratorium passed by the Legislature is a cynical and shameful ploy. It would consolidate power in the hands of those who already have too much, and eliminate choices from those who already have too few. The governor's veto cannot come soon enough.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.