Prior to COVID-19 upending American education, some state legislatures around the country considered moratoriums or “pauses” on public charter schools; while others, like in California, Illinois, and New Jersey, pushed to stop the growth of these public schools.
But today, American education is in crisis. Students need significant support in the face of mounting learning loss, ongoing social isolation, and possible trauma of losing loved ones to the pandemic. Families, unions and districts find themselves divided on how to and when to open schools. This generation of children is at risk of never recovering from the economic fallout of COVID-19, according to a warning from UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children.
If there is a time to encourage our very best schools—of any type—to serve more students well, it’s now.
But we are already seeing signs of political maneuvering. The Biden Administration is still in its first 100 days and already teachers unions are feeling empowered in new ways. The Washington Post’s George Will last week noted that the Los Angeles teachers union set, among preconditions for returning to in-person teaching, a moratorium on authorizing charter schools, as if pressing pause on charter schools somehow makes schools safer.
Expect to hear more calls for charter school moratoriums, arguing that we must work with the schools we have and spend limited dollars in the same ways. What our students and communities actually need is action to close growing achievement gaps for Black and brown students, students with special needs, and English Learners and ensure this generation of students is not lost to this pandemic and its far-reaching consequences.
There are a number of levers to pull, including a federal stimulus plan for all public schools, focusing on social-emotional wellness, increasing learning time for students, considering new ways of organizing students and learning, and implementing wide-scale tutoring and mentoring. Given the enormity of the challenges schools face, no thoughtful solution should be off the table.
States and communities should also prioritize giving more students more access to our very best public schools. The very best schools—be they traditional public schools or public charter schools—should be encouraged to provide more seats for students. Schools like Ednovate and Equitas Academy in Los Angeles, California, DC Bilingual and Washington Latin in the District of Columbia, and national networks like KIPP.
For charter schools, that means expanding and replicating instead of blunting the growth of these schools.
Our best public charter schools are a critical part of the solution in addressing student learning and wellness. Public charter schools are inherently flexible, creative, and responsive—students and communities need that more than ever. Children who are academically behind and attend high-quality public charter schools can catch up to their peers in as little as one semester or one year, according to research from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.
High-quality schools, simply put, close achievement gaps.
Moratoriums, meanwhile, are a distraction. Our priority ought to be to open any public school that is high-quality and has a proven track record of educating students, especially students furthest from opportunity.
Communities should also remove existing charter school caps. In New York, Massachusetts, Washington, and Maine, communities are close to approaching the existing limit on the number of public charter schools that can operate. We should ask why arbitrary caps are a good idea especially when emerging from a crisis.
Finally, existing schools, of any type, without a strong track record of serving students well and the capacity to grow, need not apply. That means charter school authorizers—those who approve public charter schools—must maintain a high bar of excellence and only replicate or expand our best schools.
Naysayers will still call for a cap on charter schools, the so-called moratorium, because that was the political fight before COVID-19. But these times require all of us to put aside old battles and prioritize student learning and wellness.
That means more students learning in the very best schools, no matter the type of public school.