The COVID-19 global pandemic has exposed significant fault lines in America’s educational system, testing moral and philosophical commitments among parents, teachers, school administrators, and politicians alike. Punctuated by media battles between teachers’ unions, governors, and the president, one thing has become increasingly clear: America’s public education system is far too vulnerable to the whims of partisanship and far too insulated from the promises of reform.
Among individual families, however, the pandemic may be driving a cultural awakening about the value of educational freedom. With significant numbers of public schools keeping classes entirely online, many of whom based their decisions on politics rather than case rates, swaths of families have begun migrating elsewhere, whether to homeschooling, private schools, or other hybrid arrangements.
For families unable to make such a move, the need for cultural, structural, and institutional change has became all too clear. Virtual learning has proved disastrous for most children – even more so for low-income and minority students. For families who have felt trapped and marginalized, whether due to economic needs or circumstance, a freer system would have provided more diverse, accessible, and affordable remedies.
Unfortunately, while the need has become obvious, entrenched interests have responded by working to solidify the status quo further, casting even the smallest reforms as the pet projects of corporate big wigs and right-wing ideologues.
Mourning this reality, Jonathan Chait argues that the fight for educational freedom ought not be confined to one particular party or political movement. Focusing specifically on the charter school movement, which once boasted tangible support from Democrats like Barack Obama and Cory Booker, Chait highlights how the Left’s growing antagonism represents a significant reversal.
“The political standing of the idea [of charter schools] has moved in the opposite direction of the data,” Chait writes, “as two powerful forces – unions and progressive activists – have come to regard charter schools as a plutocratic assault on public education and an ideological betrayal. The shift has made charter schools anathema to the left.”
Indeed, the deeper one gets into the growing scientific support for the model, the more one realizes how political resistance requires more than a bit of moral apathy. “The evidence for [charter school] success has become overwhelming, with apolitical education researchers pronouncing themselves shocked at the size of the gains,” Chait continues. “What was ten years ago merely an experiment has become a proven means to develop the potential of children whose minds had been neglected for generations.”
Chait points to a variety of studies, but the most striking results have come from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. Ten years ago, CREDO’s findings were mixed, indicating that charter schools led to relatively equal, if not marginally worse, outcomes when compared to traditional schools. In subsequent years, however, the forces of innovation, creativity, and cooperation have led to significant improvements across the board:
In 2015, a survey focused on charters in urban districts, where education reformers have concentrated their energies (and where gains have outpaced suburban and rural areas). It found urban charters on average gave their students the equivalent of 40 additional school days of learning in math and 28 additional days of learning in reading every year. CREDO’s studies confirm the conclusion that the lottery studies have found: In most cases, urban charters now provide the same group of students much better instruction.
The positive trend is ongoing. “Now, when we do state studies,” [CREDO Director Margaret] Raymond said, “it appears as though charter schools are getting even better.” This is the director, remember, of the studies that used to be the favorite evidence for charter critics.
In turn, these gains are helping to close the achievement gap between students in mostly white suburban districts and those in mostly minority urban districts:
“In some cases,” an overview of the research by education professor Sarah Cohodes concluded in 2018, “these charter schools have quite large effects, such that attending one for three years produces test-score gains that are equivalent to the size of the U.S. Black-white achievement gap.” The ability of urban charters all over the country to get nonselective groups of poor, Black students to learn at the same level as students in affluent, middle-class schools is one of the great domestic-policy achievements in American history.
The solution is far from perfect. These schools are still categorized as “public schools,” and acceptance is still “luck of the draw” by lottery for many suffering families. Charters are still required to meet a number of conformity-driven state requirements. They are still prohibited from offering a certain amount of educational diversity in areas like religion and philosophy, which could surely add to the students’ educational enrichment. They also usually have less funding and are forced to rely on external generosity to stay open.
Even still, the slightest bit of freedom and flexibility has gone a long way for the causes of innovation and empowerment. As Chait goes on to explain, charters have spent the last decade refining their priorities and learning how best to navigate difficult trade-offs:
Charters tend to have less money than traditional public schools, and so they focus their resources on longer learning time – extending both the school day and the school calendar. They invest in intensive tutoring, and they don’t spend as much as traditional schools on administrative staff or gyms, cafeterias, and other amenities. They instill schoolwide cultures of respect for learning and orderly environments, so that one or two disruptive students can’t bring classes to a standstill.
The best charters tend to focus on high expectations for students, driving home the expectation that every student will attend college. Schools in the Knowledge Is Power program network name each classroom after the teacher’s alma mater, name every class after its expected year of college enrollment, and conduct visits to university campuses – among other methods that might seem hokey if you grew up the child of college graduates.
The final element of charters’ formula is inescapably controversial. They prioritize the welfare of their students over those of their employees, which means paying teachers based on effectiveness rather than how long they’ve been on the job – and being able to fire the worst ones.
That last bit is particularly sticky, as teachers’ unions have resisted even the most modest proposals when it comes to adjusting tenure, teacher pay, and performance.
With these credible excuses exhausted, the progressive narrative has adapted accordingly, relying on a populist critique of charter schools being an “industry” funded by “wealthy philanthropists” and “scheming billionaires.” As New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio recently said, “I hate the privatizers, and I want them to stop them. … No one should ask for your support or be the Democratic nominee unless they’re able to stand up to Wall Street and the rich people behind the charter school movement once and for all.”
“Imagine the progressive stance on education as a series of expanding concentric circles with the peripheral actors only barely aware of the core dispute,” Chait explains. “At the core, a tiny number of bad teachers, protectively surrounded by a much larger circle of union members, surrounded in turn by an even larger number of Democrats who have only a vague understanding of the issue as one pitting heroes (unions) against villains (rich privatizers).”
The irony abounds. Even if one believes the most inaccurate, caricatured portraits of charter schools’ alleged corporatist villainy, they still seem preferable to the entrenched, moneyed interests of the mainstream educational machine. At the very least, they seem to be doing a better job of serving families and producing results in the hardest districts.
Yet their success remains imperiled. Over the past decade, educational freedom has seen significant advancements, from Obama’s embrace of charter schools to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ support for a number of school-choice bills and initiatives. But the increasing hostility among progressives, paired with the impending arrival of a Democratic congreessional majority, poses a serious threat. And as for President-elect Joe Biden, his tone has not been friendly.
Time will tell whether the incoming leadership recognizes the promise of school choice for actual children or continues to ignore the data in favor of placating educational power centers. “The choice before [Biden] on education is either to open more pathways for Black and brown urban children to enter the middle class or to close them down,” Chait concludes, wondering if his fellow progressives will open their eyes to the real matter at hand.
“The old excuse, that we don’t know if these schools help these children, is no longer plausible,” he writes. “The question is whether we care.”