Nearly everyone in education wonders how the new administration plans to shape the federal role in the sector and how policies will affect charter schools. Joe Biden wants to unify the country, support working families, and invest in the future of our economy. It is unclear how education will factor into that vision, but charter schools will play a critical role.
For starters, charter schools serve underserved communities and children of color well. This is why so many lower income and minority families have flocked to them and is why five million more would send their students to them if they are available. A study by Harvard University finds that eighth graders at charter schools showed learning gains that were three months ahead of district students from 2005 to 2017. Black students were also an additional six months ahead. But the data only tells half the story.
Biden and his team should hear from the parents, students, and alumni of charter schools talk about their success and a sense of agency that comes with the opportunity to select an education. Moreover, charter schools are about local control. In order for them to exist, they must attract families to enroll. Charter schools must show their connections to the community or how they plan to attract families to enroll in order to be approved. Charter schools that do not attract students cannot stay open indefinitely. This is a difference between these innovative schools and district schools.
Most charter schools are not governed by districts because the districts simply do not authorize many charter schools. Before districts can have the final say on whether charter schools should exist, Biden and his team can bring in the best superintendents to encourage districts to be more engaged in the process to authorize charter schools or incentivize them to do the work properly. If local control becomes about district control, then this conversation must happen with realistic leaders who have the best interest of students and their families at heart in the system.
Over 65 percent of charter schools are run by community leaders. Public attention tends to focus on charter networks like the Knowledge is Power Program. However, the majority of charter schools are run by community leaders and former teachers who want to avoid bureaucratic constraints that districts often place on schools. They want the autonomy to manage school days and school years, select different curriculums, hire teachers who are valuable but not always certified with traditional means, and pay teachers more in order to provide the best education to students.
Biden and his team should visit some charter schools and include them in discussions about innovation and the future of education. His own state of Delaware is home to some two dozen charter schools, and they serve over 16,000 students from Seaford to Wilmington. This is why the members of Congress from Delaware are such avid backers of charter schools.
As hard as the coronavirus has been on parents, students, and teachers, it has shown the imbalance that exists in our system. This is a chance for the new administration to have serious discussions over the needs of families and the case for more resources. The coronavirus has made parents of all backgrounds more aware of what their children learn and fostered a great appreciation for the role of teachers. It is for this reason that more parents across all racial and income groups do not want to go back to the schools they once had, according to a survey by the National Parents Union.
If the next president wants to unify the country, support working families, and invest in the future of our economy, he must set the needs of children and their families first, inform districts with how to better leverage charter schools to revitalize the education system, reward those leaders who have opened public charter schools to serve their communities, and incentivize collective action which attracts more of these leaders to follow suit.
Nina Rees is president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.