Charters have 99 problems, but private choice is not one of them

Matthew Ladner

Recently, the Trump administration proposed consolidating several federal education programs into a single block grant to states, including federal charter school funding. The same budget proposal calls for the creation a federal private school tax credit program.

In other circumstances, both ideas would be worth a tussle on the merits. But the House hasn’t passed much of anything in the way of a budget in a long time. Our Senate Olympians, meanwhile, busy themselves by admiring their own reflections and asking, “How are you today, Mr./Madame President?” leaving little time to consider serious proposals from the House in the unlikely event something of the sort were to occur.

Trench warfare over K-12 policy is all too real, but it’s taking place in state capitols rather than Gucci Gulch. Yet Conor P. Williams, a fellow at The Century Foundation, took this budget proposal seriously enough to suggest that the charter movement divert energy from the fight against an ongoing onslaught to launch an attack against … the private choice movement.

Williams starts his piece in The 74 with a highly questionable thesis: The charter movement’s problem is that it has too many friends rather than too few. He then misrepresents polling results before moving on to a slanted review of the research on education choice literature.

After the Question 2 debacle in Massachusetts, some charter advocates in that state attempted to curry favor with Sen. Elizabeth Warren by reciting a litany similar to that presented in Williams’ article. Warren was so deeply impressed with this effort that she called for the elimination of federal charter funding entirely in her run for president. (It was the unions, their camp followers and a whole lot of left-leaning voters who crushed Question 2 by the way, not anyone from the private choice movement.)

Last year, California lawmakers passed legislation that will grind charter growth to a halt. Did an association with private choice efforts cause this to happen, or was it the relentless efforts of the California Teachers Association? Imagine if Golden State charter advocates had recited a triangulation litany against tax credits. Would hundreds of thousands of children waiting on California charter school wait lists have a shot at new schools?

Color me skeptical.

In Arizona, charter opponents want to force charter management organizations to issue a request for proposal to manage new schools. Charter management organizations, in other words, would raise millions of dollars needed to build facilities but would then turn management of those schools over to outsiders.

Arizona districts would of course never build a new school again if required to abide by such a practice. The sheer lunacy of such proposals does not engender confidence that even the most ostentatious anti-private choice virtual signaling would soothe the savage anti-charter beast.

Every so often, people need to be reminded of things. On a Fordham Foundation panel back in 2011, Step Up For Students founder and chairman John Kirtley noted there were six charter schools in Jacksonville, Fla., and 90 private schools serving low-income students through tax credits. Kirtley further noted that not all of the charter schools primarily served low-income children. He asked his debate opponents how much longer single mothers with children in the schools should wait for school options.

I don’t recall much in the way of a coherent response. Some nine years later, there are more charter schools in Jacksonville, but you would have a difficult time indeed arguing there are enough.

Doomed efforts at Jedi mind tricks are no substitute for the actual practice of coalition politics. Charter advocates have plenty of enemies and too few allies. There is no room for unwarranted technocratic vanity in the expansion of educational opportunity. After all, students have only one shot at a quality education.

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