Charter school advocates will have to ditch bipartisanship for success

Charter school advocates will have to ditch bipartisanship for success
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Democratic politicians frequently style themselves as “evidence based” policymakers prioritizing the best interests of historically marginalized persons of color. But the 2020 primary has demonstrated that when it comes to charter schools now, nothing could be further from the truth.

A decade ago, there was broad bipartisan consensus in favor of charter school expansion, spearheaded on the national level by the Education Department under President Obama. But today, with the exception of Michael BloombergMichael BloombergFormer Bloomberg staffer seeks class-action lawsuit over layoffs Bloomberg spent over 0M on presidential campaign The Hill's Campaign Report: Officials in spotlight over coronavirus response MORE, the Democratic candidates are so overwhelmingly hostile to charters. When moderate Joe BidenJoe BidenFighting a virus with the wrong tools Trump bucks business on Defense Production Act Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — US coronavirus cases hit 100,000 | Trump signs T stimulus package | Trump employs defense powers to force GM to make ventilators | New concerns over virus testing MORE was asked about school choice during a teachers union forum last month, he declared that the “whole notion” of charter schools would be gone if he were president.

This is not what parents of color want to hear. One national poll found a key majority of black Democratic primary voters and hispanic Democratic primary voters view charters favorably. The evidence suggests they view charters favorably for good reason. A study of major urban areas found a pattern of strong academic gains for charter students compared to peers in traditional public schools. Black students in poverty gained 59 days of math and 44 days of reading for each school year, and hispanic students gained 71 days of math and 79 days of reading during each school year.


A comprehensive literature review found that of 15 “gold standard” lottery studies of charter effectiveness, 12 found positive academic effects from charter schools and three found no effects. My colleague Marcus Winters has published a new report on student performance in charter schools in New Jersey, which found dramatic gains for students who attended “no excuses” charters. Other studies suggest that charters boost more than just test scores. Studies in Chicago, Georgia, and Florida have shown that enrollment in charter high schools can even increase college attendance, persistence, and later life income. Studies in New York and Charlotte have shown that charter school enrollment can also decrease criminal activity.

Faced with these studies, charter school opponents argue that charters siphon off funds from traditional public schools and harm students who are left behind. There is certainly something to the first objection, since public funds follow students from traditional public schools to charters, which can cause a financial strain on districts. But despite that financial strain, studies in Texas, Florida, Arizona, Michigan, New York, and North Carolina have demontrated that students in traditional public schools receive small but statistically significant benefits from charter schools.

Democratic opposition to charter schools is not driven by the evidence, nor by the aspirations of constituents of color. Rather, it is a product of political interest and partisan ideology. Teachers unions have long been one of the most powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party, and they understand that charter schools, precisely because of the greater results they produce in urban communities, threaten their hegemony.

Moreover, whereas a decade ago charter schools were promoted as a social justice necessity, they have recently fallen on the wrong side of woke ideology. It is this shift in political ideology, more than any other factor, that explains the wide racial divide in the Democratic Party on charter schools. Even as charters are viewed favorably by majorities of blacks and hispanics, they are in fact opposed by a majority of whites.

Barring a successful bid from Bloomberg or a redirection of ideological currents among progressive opinion makers, Democrats will likely remain reflexively hostile to charter schools. So this provides President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE a great opportunity and presents charter school advocates with a fateful choice. Trump can credibly accuse Democrats of taking communities of color for granted and of sacrificing their dreams for their children at the altar of progressive ideology and political interests. It is an issue almost tailor made for his combative style of campaigning, and even a small increase in black and hispanic votes could be decisive for reelection.

For their part, charter school advocates must determine how to adapt to the new political reality. For years, the movement aimed to operate in a bipartisan manner, broadly taking Republican support for granted while bending over backwards to court a handful of Democratic votes. But in the wake of 2020, they should take off their rose tinted glasses and make a cold calculation about who wants to see them succeed and who wants to see them destroyed. Bipartisanship is rarely a winning strategy for an issue that cannot command bipartisan support. In many cases, if charter advocates want the movement to grow and better serve more students, then they would be wise to consider taking a more partisan approach.

Max Eden is a senior fellow in education policy at the Manhattan Institute.