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Follow the science: Charter school expansion is a rising tide that lifts all boats

Image: Kids raise their hands in a classroom

It’s almost a cliché to point out that progressives like to “follow the science” — except when doing so conflicts with positions of left-wing interest groups. There’s no better example than the current controversy over reopening schools. Studies clearly support bringing back students for in-person learning — especially the youngest children, and particularly if masking and other COVID-mitigation efforts are in place. Yet in recent months, powerful teachers’ unions long-resisted reopening schools, demanding that the small risks to their members’ safety be placed ahead of the large societal risks associated with keeping kids home for over a year. And so, many schools remained shuttered for upwards of a full year.

Another good example is the debate over charter schools. Not so long ago, many prominent progressives — and even the Democratic Party platform — supported the expansion of charters and saw that sector as a valuable, vibrant part of public education. But the 2020 platform took a much more cynical view, declaring “the need for more stringent guardrails to ensure charter schools are good stewards of federal education funds,” and calling for “measures to increase accountability for charter schools,” even though charter schools are already held accountable to the same standards as traditional public schools.

At the state and local levels, a growing number of Democratic politicians, with the encouragement of the unions, have gone even further, essentially declaring war on charter schooling. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed taking more than $200 million currently due to charters and transferring it to school districts. Special education services for charter students would be particularly impacted. In Los Angeles, the school board recently instituted a de facto moratorium on new charters, thereby satisfying one of the Los Angeles Teachers Union’s most outrageous conditions for a return to in-person instruction. And in Rhode Island, the state senate passed a bill to enact its own moratorium on new charters.

The number-one argument used against charter schools in fights like these is the claim that their expansion hurts traditional public schools. Take Gov. Wolf, who argued last month that charters’ only innovations involve “finding new ways to take money out of the pockets of property taxpayers.” This line of attack polls well, and it’s not hard to understand why: Support for public education is widespread in America, one of the few issues that brings people together across our political and ideological divides.

But the science is increasingly clear: The claim that charter expansion hurts traditional public schools is simply false. Indeed, multiple studies, including a 2019 analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the think tank I lead, have found that charter expansion improves student outcomes at nearby district schools — or, at worst, does no harm. Competition from charter schools is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

How about charters’ impact on districts’ finances — the argument that their expansion “drains” scarce funds from public school coffers? According to a brand-new Fordham study, that claim is wrong, too.

In a nutshell, the study uses enrollment and fiscal data reported by traditional school districts from 2001-2018 in 21 states to analyze the relationship between the local market share of independent charter schools and the finances of “host” school districts. It finds that districts’ total revenues per pupil increased as the percentage of local students who enrolled in charter schools rose.

For example, In Pennsylvania, a 10 percentage point increase in the number of students attending charter schools was associated with a 7 percent increase in host districts’ spending per pupil. Instructional spending in charter-heavy districts was higher as well.

Importantly, these increases (nationally and in any given state) weren’t caused by changes in the types of students that host districts enrolled. For example, they weren’t due to increases in the share of district students who were low income, eligible for Special Education, or classified as English language learners (all designations that lead to additional per pupil funding under state and federal law).

All of this is good news for families, kids, and communities.

As high-quality charter schools grow and replicate, parents gain access to schools that better meet the needs of their children; students in those schools tend to perform at higher levels, and the students who remain in traditional public schools enjoy additional financial resources, too. The only ones who lose are the teachers unions, their political allies, and other foes of charter schools, who are going to need to find a new explanation for their opposition. That is, if they want to be able to claim to follow the science.

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Tags Charter school Democratic Party Education School choice Science teachers' unions Tom Wolf

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