Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Will Democrats Ever Embrace Charter Schools Again?

They should. Charters schools aren’t magic, and plenty of them are worse than the average public school. But on average, charters are superior.

Students at Los Angeles’ Accelerated Charter Elementary School stretch during a yoga session.
Students at Los Angeles’ Accelerated Charter Elementary School stretch during a yoga session. A policy passed by a narrow L.A. school board majority will limit operation of charters on district-owned campuses. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Los Angeles last week made it dramatically harder to launch new charter schools in the city, the latest sign of an anti-charter backlash that’s taken the Democratic Party by storm even as the evidence in favor of charters has gotten stronger.

Charter schools are, by design, operated outside the framework of public school districts. But they differ from private-school voucher programs in crucial respects. With a voucher program, the government subsidizes the cost of private-school tuition, but schools are allowed to charge fees above the value of the subsidy. Charters receive public funding based on a formula, and cannot charge anything above that.

Even more important, charters cannot select their students. The central flaw of unrestricted school choice is that it allows schools to generate high student-achievement numbers through selection rather than instruction, and parents place a lot of value on getting their kids in schools alongside other strong students. Charters, at least in principle, need to accept all comers on an equal basis, just like traditional public schools.

Crucially to the politics, meanwhile, teachers at charter schools typically are not unionized, and they operate outside the main collective bargaining agreements that govern public schools.

That’s a perfectly rational reason for teachers unions to oppose them. But it is not a good reason for elected officials to oppose charters. Which is why reform mayors in most large U.S. cities embraced the growth of a charter sector though the 1990s and aughts, as did former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The ascendant left wing of the Democratic Party doesn’t agree with this. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson is a former organizer for the local teachers union and is highly skeptical of charters. L.A. is trying to block their expansion.

And President Joe Biden’s administration has flirted with L.A.-style limits to growth (though it backtracked under pressure) and has reduced charter funding in real terms. Unlike Obama or Clinton, Biden offers no rhetorical support to charters in their political battles in various cities across the country, nor does he champion education reform as part of his vision for improving the country.

That’s unfortunate — not only from a political standpoint, but also because it’s becoming increasingly clear that charters work.

The evidence comes from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which takes advantage of the fact that when a charter school has more applicants than it has seats, it must choose who gets in via lottery. This allows for an ideal research design, comparing outcomes for students who win the lottery to those who don’t.

Earlier research showed that charters were highly variable in quality — with some performing much better than the average traditional public school, and others much worse. Opponents of charters said this proved the whole experiment was a waste. Proponents argued that the point of the charter model was that the top-performing schools could expand while the worst-performing ones would close.

The latest data settles it: Charters schools aren’t magic, and plenty of them are worse than the average public school. But on average, charters are superior, with their students gaining the equivalent of 16 more learning days per year in reading and six in math.

The reason charters work is that schools affiliated with so-called charter management organizations — essentially chains of charter schools that operate multiple campuses, often in multiple cities — are especially good, generating 27 extra days of learning in reading and 23 in math. Many of these organizations have figured out better ways to run schools, and they are expanding over time, giving the charter sector as a whole a growing edge.

This makes cities’ moves to restrict the growth of charter management organizations particularly perverse, Biden’s reluctance to champion them sad. If progressives want to take a harder look at underperforming charter schools — of which there are many — and insist on shutting them down, that would be welcome. But it is also important to encourage top charters to expand and to call out self-interested actors who oppose their expansion.

It’s hard to argue that this is a major issue for most voters in 2024. But it is emblematic of the growing Democratic reluctance to engage on issues that could alienate what they see as their core constituency.

For Clinton and Obama, charters were not just a good way to help a lot of schoolkids. The debate over charters was an opportunity for both presidents to show voters they could think beyond raw interest-group politics. It’s the difference between supporting unions because you believe they are mostly worth supporting and supporting unions even when doing so is contrary to the public interest.

There are also a host of education-related questions that affect families even in tony suburbs where charter schools aren’t really an issue. Both the pandemic and the post-2020 wave of DEI programs in educational settings have raised the question of to what extent Democrats still believe in high-quality public services.

Republicans, of course, don’t believe in them. But they will at least offer voters low taxes so that wealthier families can buy the services they need on the private market. Democrats are in danger of becoming the party that no longer believes in the importance of education yet still supports high taxes to pay for it.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Bloomberg L.P. editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
From Our Partners