Each of the 35 smiling faces gracing the cover of our (Education Reform Now’s) new report “A Democratic Guide to Public Charter Schools” is a hero. They make progressive Democrats like me who support public school choice and often feel we don’t have a home in our own party feel less alone.
The report profiles political centrists and progressives—including labor and civil rights leaders—who were some of the earliest supporters of transforming the public education system. This includes people like Kenneth Clark, the African-American psychologist whose acclaimed studies on racial bias influenced Brown v. Board of Education and who recognized both the importance a quality education has to living a quality life and the degree of change necessary to realize that dream.
What Clark said in 1970 was absolutely prescient regarding the state of education policy debates today:
Alternatives—realistic, aggressive, and viable competitors—to the present school system must be found. The development of such competitive public school systems will be attacked by the defenders of the present system as attempts to weaken the present system and thereby weaken, if not destroy, public education. This type of expected self-serving argument can be briefly and accurately disposed of by asserting and demonstrating that truly effective competition strengthens rather than weakens that which deserves to survive.
Contemporary Democratic leaders that support public charter schools are not only carrying forth these core Democratic values, but are representing and respecting the voices of today’s Black, Hispanic, and low-income voters and parents. Survey results show that over 70 percent of each of these constituencies supports charter schools. In their communities, where public charter school enrollment is highest in both numbers and percentage of enrollment, elected leaders at the local and national level are overwhelmingly Democratic.
Our report also debunks common charter school myths—such as pointing out accountability and transparency provisions that are in place for charter schools. And, we provide substantial information from respected, unbiased research that charter schools do indeed benefit students, particularly those that have experienced decades of neglect in traditional district schools.
The results aren’t uniformly positive. But success is widespread. Where charter schools are succeeding, we should expand and replicate them. What we’re seeing politically is exactly the opposite.
When center-left officials and institutions (such as the NAACP) support arbitrary caps, they are dismissing the voices of three million current charter school students and their parents, and the one million more who want to enroll their child in a charter school, but due to high demand, were only able to get on a waiting list (this includes: 8,640 parents in Washington, D.C., 44,000 in New York, 34,000 in Massachusetts, and a whopping 158,000 in California).
They are discriminating against the charter schools, school leaders and teachers who have proven that they are delivering on the promise. In urban charter schools, students gain, on average, 40 additional days of learning in math and 28 additional days in reading compared to their district school peers as shown in a 2015 Stanford CREDO study.
We hope our new report will help inform other progressives—both leaders making important policy decisions and the public at large—with a better understanding of who supports public charter schools and why.
We believe we can all agree that access to a high-quality education should not exist only for those who can afford to purchase expensive homes, and that providing parents with choice and equal opportunity are core Democratic values. We ask that public policy be decided by evidence, and that schools be judged by quality, not by type.