The Democratic case for charter schools

dfer-charter-school-report-coverCivil rights activists and teachers union leaders helped lay the intellectual foundations for charter schools. Since they were first created in the early 1990s, charters have gotten federal backing from both Democrats who held the White House. They’re now supported by strong majorities of key Democratic constituencies, including parents of color. With one notable exception (Miami), the cities with the largest numbers of charter school students are all led by Democratic mayors.

In short, there are deep strands of support for charter schools on the left side of the political aisle that belie recent stances taken by institutional Democratic parties at the state and national levels.

A new report by Education Reform Now (a sister organization of Democrats for Education Reform) documents the many ties between the charter school movement and progressive politics, from historical roots to present-day polling data.

It also makes a case that Democrats have a unique role to play in the charter school debate.

There’s a consistent theme that runs through most of the studies on charter school effectiveness: It varies a lot from one city or state to the next. That, the report contends, should create an opening for politicians who want to expand options for disadvantaged students without resorting to laissez-faire, market-based policies.

What we see here is that autonomy and choice are not in and of themselves sufficient to boost student learning. However, when accountability and quality authorizing accompany charter school autonomy and parental choice, students – particularly low-income students, students of color, and English Language Learners – can achieve at much higher levels than in a traditional school setting. We are already seeing this in states like Arizona and Texas where, while charter schools still underperform as compared to traditional schools, new charter accountability and authorizing policies are showing early signs of improvement.

In other words, the report argues it makes sense for Democrats to embrace charter schools that get results for disadvantaged students — but also to push them to improve, and even to slow their expansion in places where they perform poorly. Sound reasonable?

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