There are various views about public school choice coming out of the 2016 election. Some choice advocates view the Trump administration as more committed to school choice in all its forms than the Obama administration’s “pro-charter, anti-voucher” posture.
A less sunny view is based on elections results in “blue” Massachusetts and “red” Georgia, where voters in both states soundly rejected pro-school choice ballot initiatives. National surveys showing strong support for choice may be masking ambivalence or outright hostility at the state or local level.
As always, the trends are mixed. Pro-school choice candidates did well in the New Orleans, Oakland and Indianapolis school board races, but not so well in Minneapolis and, earlier this year, in Nashville. But, three pro-school choice Democrats were just elected to Congress and several pro-charter Democrats won legislative races in California.
In addition, amidst much hostile posturing about expanding choice in Los Angeles, the local school board just renewed nine public charter schools without a lot of drama or debate. Chicago, on the other hand, approved a new labor contract limiting charter growth.
‘Charter Schools at the Crossroads’
Either way, the choice movement is at a crossroads, which is the title of a new book by choice advocates Checker Finn and Brandon Wright of the Fordham Institute and Bruno Manno of the Walton Family Foundation. The book highlights successes and struggles of the charter movement after 25 years, backs it up with mountains of data, and offers a number of policy recommendations going forward.
It’s required reading for those in the field, but for those with less time or appetite for policy-heavy books, National Affairs published the short version (5000 words). For people who take their education policy in very small bites, the essential message of the book can be summed up in two words: quality counts.
The charter sector’s shortcomings, which the authors openly acknowledge, are more than outweighed by the extraordinary results of the best-performing charters and we simply need more of the good ones and less of the bad ones. We also need to do a better job communicating the benefits of choice in an increasingly contentious political climate.
A War on Charters
That begins by recognizing there is a war on charters underway, driven by a system under threat of losing jobs. Setting aside New Orleans, where more than 90 percent of the students attend public charter schools, charters now serve between 10 and 50 percent of the students in dozens of big-city districts across America. What began as a collaborative experiment supported by unions and reformers is now an existential threat to the status quo as public dollars follow children from traditional public schools to public charters.
In response, anti-charter advocates have been hammering home a set of negative messages about charters—over-disciplining, test-obsessed, creaming, push-outs, mismanagement, and low performance. Unfortunately, the sector provides just enough evidence to justify some of these criticisms, even if they are wildly exaggerated. The charter sector’s strategy of letting a thousand flowers bloom is leading to the death of a thousand cuts.
Because the charter sector is decentralized, the response is often uncoordinated and tepid at best. The better charter organizations simply keep their heads down while the worst ones put their heads in the sand and hope the spotlight will shine elsewhere.
How the Charter Sector Can Change the Narrative
Ultimately, charter schools will succeed where they are both wanted and needed. Parent demand for better options must be the driving force and quality must be the standard. With that in mind, the charter sector can strengthen its narrative in a number of ways.
- Charters should start by clearing up misinformation about charters and reintroducing them to under-served communities through paid media featuring credible charter teachers, parents and students.
- Charters should highlight diverse leadership. Parents of color are a majority in charters and need to see more educators of color. The charter sector can show how underserved communities are taking control of their children’s education through expanded choice.
- The charter sector also has a good story of holding itself accountable, closing some 200 schools per year or about 3 percent of the nation’s charter schools. A good national goal would be to quickly get the percentage of good or great charters from about 30 percent, according to a 2013 analysis, to 50 percent by closing the worst and replicating the best.
- Lastly, charter schools must respond to their critics more rapidly and robustly. Every criticism must be promptly challenged if it is not true and addressed if it is. Denial is the surest way to keep bad news alive.
It’s also worth pointing out that many criticisms of charter schools are equally if not more true in traditional public schools. Magnet schools cream the best students. Zero-tolerance discipline was established by teachers demanding more authority to manage classrooms. Over-testing is prevalent in many traditional public schools. And “alternative” schools exist to house students that traditional schools have pushed out.
One of the silliest critiques of charter schools is that they promote segregation, which is absurd since charters intentionally serve segregated communities. The real driver of segregation in American education is the neighborhood school attendance boundary, which is tied to segregated housing patterns. In fact, charters allow for more economic and racial integration precisely because they don’t have school boundaries.
School Choice Isn’t Going Away
Today, nearly 10 million parents have opted out of traditional public schools for private schools and charter schools or homeschooling. Millions more “choose” schools by choosing where they live. Finding the school that best meets your child’s unique educational needs is a natural right of every parent and for poor, urban parents, that right is provided by public charter schools.
Charter advocates should remember that parents don’t care much about issues like governance or whether a school employs union teachers. Parents care about safety and stability and about a learning environment that is well-rounded, warm and welcoming for them and their children.
And they care about one other thing: results.