Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City, Tennessee, watched the two candidates for Governor of Tennessee debate and focus on education as key to the state’s future.

The Republican, Bill Lee, swore his allegiance to the party line and endorsed charters and vouchers. He goes full Betsy DeVos.

The Democrat, Karl Dean, pledged his devotion to “public education” and his love for charter schools, which have failed in Tennessee. Dean goes partial Betsy DeVos.

Surely both men know that the Tennessee Achievement School District spent $100 million of Race to the Top money to turn low-scoring schools over to charters, and the ASD was a colossal failure. $100 million wasted.

Why do they want more of the same?

Dr. Smith writes with more wisdom than either candidate:

It’s no secret that non-profit charter schools often divert money intended for children’s instruction to other priorities. For example, many charters compensate their “CEOs” two to three times the salaries of principals who perform the same functions in regular public schools. Vision Academy in Nashville pays its two top executives (a married couple) a combined $562,000, while reportedly charging students for textbooks. (Imagine the outcry if a local public school engaged in such financial behavior.)

The Oct. 9 debate between Lee and Dean was — like the rest of their campaign — noteworthy for its civility. They both seem to be good, decent men, and they exhibit many of the leadership qualities we should all want in our governor. Moreover, when you listen to them talk about educational reforms, their arguments seem very compelling — until you carefully consider the facts.

Lee is either delusional or disingenuous to assert that he would do nothing to diminish public education but is fully in favor of vouchers and charters. The point of offering these choices is to diminish public education, and the evidence indicates that it is working.

Further, when he says we should give students educational alternatives, identify the “best practices” to emerge from these settings, and then implement these model approaches in public schools, he is describing the central promise of the charter school movement when it first emerged in the 1990s. In the beginning, the plan was that charter schools would be relieved of regulatory oversight so that they could explore creative practices and then export their best ideas to public education. Unfortunately, that never happened.

This failure raises a fundamental question that Lee, Dean and other charter advocates do not address (in my opinion, because they can’t). If charter schools are as wonderful as they claim, why won’t they tell us what makes these schools so effective? If you knew the cure to a dreadful disease, would you keep it to yourself?

The charter folks remind me of the old snake oil salesmen who appeared unexpectedly one morning, sold their mysterious elixirs, and slipped out of town at dusk. They made incredible claims about the benefits found in those opaque bottles, but they never told anyone what the ingredients were. “Trust me,” they said. “It’ll cure whatever ails you.”

Let’s be clear. Advocates of charters and vouchers can’t tell us why these educational alternatives are better because they simply aren’t. Moreover, most of the people pushing for choice don’t want to improve public education. They want to undermine it so that they can profit from educational privatization. The only reason they want relaxed regulatory oversight is so that they can funnel as much of our tax dollars as possible into their own pockets without us noticing.

I believe that Dean is sincere about his support for public education, and I will vote for him for that reason. To his credit, he opposes all forms of choice except for non-profit charters, and I hope that he will realize one day that they too have failed to live up to expectations. He is kidding himself when he denounces the undermining effects of vouchers on public education while simultaneously advocating for charters (even in a limited capacity) and not seeing that they too draw resources away from public schools.

Democrats who still think there’s a place for charter schools need to reconsider that position. If there was ever a useful role for charters in our educational system, it has long since been high-jacked and corrupted beyond redemption. Charters are simply one more weapon for market fundamentalists to employ in their effort to privatize public education.