Yearning for More Robust Choice Than Charters Can Provide

Published September 11, 2017

Charter schools are not going to disappear overnight from the menu of education-reform options. However, the precipitous decline in popular support for these semi-autonomous public schools, as shown by a 2017 EdNext Poll, is stunning and certainly a cause for serious reflection by the movement’s boosters and sympathizers.

A drop of 12 percentage points from 2016 to 2017—from 51 percent support down to 39 percent—is particularly noteworthy given that it comes in a survey overseen by highly respected, fair-minded scholars at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the Harvard Kennedy School. The dip in charter support was the largest change the pollsters found in opinion on a broad range of education issues. Support for charters declined in similar proportions among Republicans and Democrats.

It’s also significant that the latest EdNext Poll showed private choice, which offers families a far more robust array of options than charters, gaining in public esteem. Opposition to universal vouchers—publicly-funded scholarships available to all—shrank from 44 percent to 37 percent, while opposition to tax-credit-funded scholarships dipped to just 24 percent (from 29 percent in 2016). The scholarship tax credits were the most popular form of school choice, with nearly seven of every 10 respondents supporting that option.

In the 2016 poll, universal vouchers –an idea originally championed by free-market economist Milton Friedman – were more popular among Democrats than Republicans— and by an 8-percentage-point margin. Who knew? Perhaps a partial explanation lies in the high level of support for all-out choice among African-Americans, who vote heavily Democratic despite that party’s catering to the anti-parental-choice teachers’ unions.

This partisan divide shifted in the 2017 poll, with universal-voucher support increasing among Republicans by 13 percentage points (to 54 percent) but declining by nine points among Democrats (to 40 percent). Gung-ho verbal championing of choice by President Donald Trump could help explain that.

What should we make of this data? Well, for starters, more choice is preferable to less choice, and choice extending into the private sector beats being limited to choice within the governmental system.

The strong suit of charter schools is that, in the 26 years since the first one came into being in Minnesota, they have offered at least a modicum of choice to families stuck in their neighborhood government school, often in inner cities and without a lifeline to independent schools.

Statistically, charters have had a decent run. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the percentage of charter schools within the public school orb increased from four percent to seven percent from school years 2004–05 to 2014–15, with the total number of charter schools growing from 3,400 to 6,750. During that period, charter school enrollment increased by 1.8 million pupils while enrollment in conventional public schools dropped by 0.4 million.

Yet the EdNext poll confirmed what many other surveys have found: At least a quarter of adult Americans still don’t understand what a charter school is. That may be partly a result of advocates’ failure to communicate the charter mission, but, increasingly, the problem is a blurring of differences between conventional and chartered public schools.

At the outset, the idea was that these would be innovative schools driven by an entrepreneurial spirit. Organizations or groups of parents and teachers with a shared vision could apply for a contract (or charter) with the local school district or a statewide chartering authority. In exchange for delivering a curriculum and specified results, the founders would receive an exemption from certain innovation-crushing rules, such as teachers having to be certified. Upon periodic review, the chartering authority could revoke the charter for failure to perform to agreed-upon standards.

However, charters gradually have lost their grassroots aura. NCES data show charters with fewer than 300 students are declining in numbers while those with at least 500 are growing. It used to be a badge of honor that grassroots charters operated on about one-third of the cost of traditional public schools, on average, compared to conventional public schools, but now, major charter organizations lobby for equalized funding.

More ominously, proponents of centralized education have co-opted the charter movement to push their own agendas, and, incredibly, have invited increased oversight and regulation of charters by public officials, who often are hostile to their very existence. Noting that, Tillie Elvrum, president of – a nationwide parents’ alliance, charged in a statementthat the charter movement’s leaders “have walked away from the fundamental principle of trusting and empowering parents with their children’s education decisions.”

It is an open question whether, if these trends continue, charter schools will remain even a decent fallback option for families that cannot select a private or parochial school for their children.

[Originally Published at RealClearEducation]