Author Archives: Juliet Squire and Phillip Burgoyne-Allen

Democratic Candidates are Missing a Chance to Lead on Charter Schools

When asked about charter schools at last week’s Democratic debate in South Carolina, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hedged, saying he was “not sure they’re appropriate every place.” Other primary candidates dodged the question altogether, pivoting quickly to talking points on teacher pay, school funding, and quality child care. Why are Democratic candidates so reticent to engage on the question of charter schooling? Charter schools are a contentious issue within the Democratic Party to be sure, but by avoiding the issue, candidates are missing an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of leadership the Democratic Party needs. 

Looking at polling data, it’s clear that candidates who stake out positions flatly in favor of or against charter schools are bound to alienate a core Democratic constituency. Democratic candidates don’t want to upset teachers or their unions, which are powerful Democratic interest groups that often oppose charter schools. Polling among teachers supports candidates’ concerns: EdChoice’s 2019 Schooling in America Survey poll found that a majority (55%) of public school teachers support charter schools; however, their margin of support was lower than any other subgroup detailed in the poll results. The 2019 Education Next Poll found that 42% of teachers supported charter schools overall, but only 28% of union-member public school teachers, compared to 50% of non-union public school teachers. And in “Voices from the Classroom 2020,” Educators for Excellence found only 35% support for charter schools among public school teachers. In turn, multiple candidates have endorsed policies that would seriously restrict the growth of the charter sector, including eliminating the federal Charter School Program, banning for-profit charter schools, and supporting proposals to make school districts the only entities that can authorize charter schools.

No candidate has gone so far as to oppose charter schools altogether, however, likely because charter school support is particularly strong within African American and Hispanic/Latinx communities, which are disproportionately served by poorly performing schools, often in segregated neighborhoods, making school choice a powerful issue. Both the EdChoice and Education Next polls found majority support for charter schools among these groups. In fact, just days before the South Carolina primary, where black voters make up the majority of Democratic primary voters, both Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden met with the Powerful Parent Network, a group that supports school choice and garnered attention last November for confronting Warren at a campaign event in Atlanta.

How Democrats navigate the issue also depends on constituencies in various states. Today, Super Tuesday, candidates must court votes from states where public opinion on charter schools varies widely. Across the thirteen states with primaries taking place tonight, we found relevant 2019-20 polling data on charter schools in four of them. Support ranges from just 44% in Tennessee to as high as 76% in North Carolina.

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Cory Booker’s Move on Charter Schools is Both Political — and Good

A prodigal son of the charter school sector returned home on Monday, when Senator Cory Booker voiced support for charter schools in the New York Times, a notable shift from his criticism of charter schools back in May.

It was a bold move in some ways, especially given the precariousness of his presidential bid and the inevitable price he will pay with the teachers unions. It was also a strategic move to the middle as centrist Michael Bloomberg joins the race and underdog Pete Buttigieg builds steam.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Federation of Labor Convention hosted by the AFL-CIO at the Prairie Meadows Hotel in Altoona, Iowa. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker, photo by Gage Skidmore

It’s not hard to see the politics at play, but Booker deserves credit for calling out the Democratic party for being unresponsive to many constituents who support charter schooling. Booker takes fellow Democrats to task for not listening to the families who face “impossible choices” in favor of the more “privileged voices” in the party, a veiled reference to the omnipotent teachers unions, whose favor Senator Elizabeth Warren courted with her anti-charter education plan a few weeks ago.

Recent survey data on charter schools illustrates the misalignment between Democratic Party leadership and many of its key constituent groups, with higher levels of charter school support from African American and Hispanic subgroups than from Democrats and teachers.

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Four Possible Reasons Universal Vouchers Have More Public Support than Charter Schools

Universal vouchers, which provide government funding to families to offset the cost of private school tuition, are generally favored by market-oriented school-choice proponents. So you’d expect charter schools, which tend to enjoy more bipartisan support, to be more widely popular.

According to the latest Education Next poll, in 2019, 55% of the public indicated that they support universal vouchers, an increase of 12 percentage points since 2013. Meanwhile, charter schools only got the support of 48% of the public, a slight decline of 3 percentage points since 2013. 

Source: Education Next, “Trends in the EdNext Survey: Question wording and data over time,” 2019, https://educationnext.org/files/ednext-poll-question-wording-over-time-through-2019.pdf

Here are four key lessons from the Education Next poll that might explain why universal vouchers are tracking ahead of charter schools:

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How Four Rural Schools Reminded Me of the Fundamentals of Quality Education

Over the past year, Kelly Robson, Brandon Lewis, and I visited charter schools in four rural communities across the country. As we drove into town to speak with school and community leaders, we expected to uncover challenges that rural charter schools face which are distinct from those in urban areas — and we did. Our findings are included in a new website and highlight some of the constraints specific to operating a charter school in a rural setting. 

But we also found many commonalities between what make these schools tick and the characteristics of successful schools in more urbanized settings. These commonalities were a useful reminder of some fundamental elements of a high-quality school that too often get lost in the shuffle. 

First, these schools were exemplars of consistent, local leadership.
Those we spoke to made it clear that their school’s success was enabled by local champions with sustained relationships to the community. The school staff had the community’s trust and confidence. Moreover, in three out of the four schools we visited, the school leader had been in their role for ten or more years, a startling contrast to the national average tenure of just over four years. Schools’ local leadership, and the stability of that leadership, helped the schools grow local roots and sustain their missions and visions. 

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Media: “Private Schools Are Ready to Serve Low- and Middle-Income Students” in ExcelinEd

I have a post up on the ExcelinEd blog today (co-authored with Victoria Bell), applying the takeaways from the report Bellwether released last week, “Working Toward Equitable Access and Affordability: How Private Schools and Microschools Seek to Serve Middle- and Low-Income Students.” The post explores how Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program improves access to private school education and how financial aid from private schools helps fill the gap between average scholarship amounts and average tuition. Here’s an excerpt: 

As highlighted in the Bellwether report, participation in private school choice programs is one strategy to improve private school affordability. Florida’s choice programs make the state a strong example of how the private schooling sector can serve students from low- and middle-income families. 

[…] Relatively low rates of tuition, combined with the support of private school choice programs, increase the likelihood that middle- and low-income families in Florida can afford a private school education if that is what they choose for their child. The average scholarship amount of $6,300 covers 84 percent of tuition at half of the private schools in Florida.

Read more at ExcelinEd here, and read our posts connected to the new report here.