Lost in last week’s frenetic news about Trump’s revenge tour and an unpredictable international virus, a big story got overlooked: what might be the beginning of the end to the conservative/liberal alliance to offer better school options — high performing public charter schools — to low-income parents.
Those caught in the middle, and the clear losers here, are tens of thousands of black and Hispanic parents who can’t afford to move to the suburbs and desperately seek out charter schools they believe, and evidence shows, offer their children brighter futures.
Explaining why this is happening requires a bit of background: For years Republicans both at the national and local level worked with reform-minded Democrats to open up charter school options to low-income parents who can’t afford to move to better school districts. That hit a high point under President Obama who dedicated funds to replicate the best of these schools, and the results are striking in two ways.
First, the students in those charters, mostly black and Hispanic, are out-learning their counterparts in traditional schools — by a lot, according to research from Stanford’s CREDO evaluation center. Researchers there found that urban charter schools in more than twenty cities outperform other public schools by an average of the equivalent of 28 extra days of learning in reading 40 days in math. In some cities, urban charters outperformed by substantially more.
Second, compared to their counterparts the students graduating from those charters are far more likely to succeed in college: two to four times more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. The irony: that remarkable achievement, which became known only in the last two years, now coincides with the unraveling of the political support that made that all possible.
Why are these gains now at risk?
It all started three years ago when President TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE pushed the entire country into warring camps. Democrats, especially so-called progressives, eagerly threw down against anything Trump favored, including charter schools, or so it appeared at the time.
That is best seen in the current crop of top-tier Democratic presidential candidates, who are being asked: Do you now or have you ever supported charter schools? With the exception of Mike Bloomberg who oversaw a successful charter sector as mayor of New York City, most eagerly denounce charter schools or stay quiet.
Now it turns out Trump is not actually all that pro-charter, either. In the State of the Union address, he dramatically attempted to rescue a Philadelphia elementary school girl in a “failing government school” by offering her a scholarship to a private school. When it was revealed that the girl, Janiyah Davis, was actually enrolled in a high performing and highly sought-after charter school, insiders laughed it off as another example of sloppy Trump White House staff work.
A week later, when the budget was released, we learned the President actually meant it. That’s when it was revealed that he wants to eliminate the federal Charter School Program – the program that allows the highest-performing charters to expand (the same charter networks posting outstanding college success rates for their alumni) — and fold it into state block grants. Entrusting it to state legislatures, where charter-hostile teacher unions hold considerable power, is beyond risky.
Taking its place? Tax credit funded scholarships for private schools, of course. In an instant, that revealed an uncomfortable truth: Trump Republicans prefer tax credits and vouchers -- private school options that might win them votes. Precious few votes for them among the minority parents in charters.
The immediate reaction among education insiders was to interpret this as more infighting between voucher-loving Republicans and charter-favoring Democrats. But this is far more significant. This is important signaling, an acknowledgment that it’s ok to stop pretending that it’s necessary to help minorities, that it’s ok to appeal directly to your base with private school options.
True, some in the Trump administration firmly believe private school options can help poor kids. But that’s not where Trump is taking his newly won-over Republican Party. Why else would he dub a high performing charter school a “failed government school” and then yank funding for expanding the best charters?
And why should the Trump Republicans hold back and pretend to care? Progressive Democrats seeking approval from the teacher's unions already disavowed charters. Do you really expect Trump Republicans to hold out on principle when the progressives already caved?
So for now, the thousands of minority parents relying on charter schools are on thin political ice, with indifference coming from the Republicans and hostility coming from the now-dominant wing of the Democratic Party. Not a good place to be.
Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a national non-profit organization. Education author Richard Whitmire’s latest book is The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America.