This article appeared in the March 09, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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Why both left and right are knocking charter schools

Should school choice focus on opportunities for disadvantaged students, access to private and religious schools – or both? We look at how a movement is getting caught in a clash of civic values.

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While charter schools have been a centerpiece of education reform in the United States for nearly 30 years, their supporters have suddenly found themselves buffeted by forces from both the left and right.

Many in the public charter school movement were stunned last month to see the Trump administration’s most recent budget proposal, which eliminated the 26-year-old federal Charter Schools Program that helped jump-start such schools. While not opposing charters per se, the administration has outlined scaled-back block grants that allow states to use federal education dollars as they see fit. A portion of the block grants would go toward the proposed Education Freedom Scholarships program, designed to give families access to private and religious schools.

At the same time, charter schools have come under attack from some Democrats. The resurgent liberal wing of the Democratic Party has become skeptical of the competitive and market-driven models behind the charter school movement. And lawmakers in states including New York and Michigan, as well as a number of cities, have begun to scale back commitments to innovative charter ideas.

As Matthew Ladner of the Arizona Charter Schools Association puts it, “The fact of the matter is that charter schools are under assault.”

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Why both left and right are knocking charter schools

Throughout his career as an expert in education policy and public charter schools, Matthew Ladner has championed the core idea that families should have a wider range of choices as they seek to find the best schools for their children.

But the Arizona-based reformer admits he’s probably in the minority of charter school advocates who also champion another side of school choice policy, the effort to expand state-funded vouchers and tax credits for families who want to send their children to private and religious schools.

Many of Mr. Ladner’s peers are wary of the politically charged voucher movement, long a priority of religious conservatives, and argue they should keep their distance, focusing more on expanding choice within public education. As he sees it, though, “charters have 99 problems, but private choice is not one of them.”

“The fact of the matter is that charter schools are under assault,” says Mr. Ladner, director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity at the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “We are starting to have too few friends, not too many. In a big-tent movement there’s always going to be tensions, and there’s going to be spats, but at the end of the day, the private-choice people are not an enemy at all.”

Not too long ago, policy experts often called charter schools the last remaining bipartisan issue, noting how Democrats and Republicans, including the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and especially Barack Obama, made expanding charter schools a significant part of their education policies.

Yet while charter schools have been a centerpiece of education reform in the United States for nearly 30 years, their supporters have found themselves buffeted by forces from both the left and right, observers say.

The Trump administration’s proposal

Last month, many in the public charter school movement were stunned to see the Trump administration’s most recent budget proposal, which eliminated the 26-year-old federal Charter Schools Program that helped jump-start such schools. While not opposing charters per se, the administration – including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime school choice advocate – has proposed scaled-back block grants that allow states to use their federal education dollars as they see fit.

“The Trump administration has consistently said that school choice is a priority, but this budget doesn’t demonstrate that,” says Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “Instead, there’s this move to these Education Freedom Scholarships, giving tax credits which would essentially help families access private and religious schools.”

Few expect Congress to pass this budget proposal, but it represents a dramatic shift in the administration’s priorities, observers say. Instead of charters, a portion of its proposed $19.4 billion in block grants is specifically allocated to this $5 billion scholarship program.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos smiles as she is applauded by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey during a roundtable discussion on school choice Dec. 5, 2019, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Ms. DeVos is a longtime school choice advocate.

The Trump administration says the elimination of the Charter Schools Program does not mean it opposes such schools, only that it prefers to let the states decide how they spend their federal funds.

“There is a mountain of evidence that charter schools help students succeed and very high parental demand for spots in charter schools,” says Angela Morabito, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, in an email. “We believe states know this, and we fully expect that innovative states would continue sending federal dollars to public charter schools. States may even choose to send more federal dollars to them.”

The shift in Republican priorities comes at a time when charter schools have come under attack from liberal Democrats who have also sought to curtail, if not eliminate, the long-standing federal program supporting charter schools.

The resurgent liberal wing of the Democratic Party has become skeptical of the competitive and market-driven models behind the charter school movement. Lawmakers in states such as California, New York, and Michigan, as well as a number of cities that have been leaders in crafting a range of innovative charter schools, have begun to scale back their commitments to such ideas.

“Charters have evolved from their original concept as small incubators of innovation,” says Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, in an email. “We now find that too frequently charters are operated expressly for profit, or are nominally non-profit but managed or operated by for-profit entities.”

In many ways, charter schools have become ensnared in a growing clash of civic values, observers say, as many on the left start to emphasize egalitarian and secular ideals to combat the inequities in American education. Many on the right, on the other hand, have emphasized a choice-based pluralism that has begun to focus more on religious liberty and support for families choosing private options in education.

“I just think that the more choices parents have the better, whether they’re in the form of private choice or public choice or both,” says Erica Smith, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that has been at the center of a legal battle to expand vouchers and tax credits for private schools. “We just think competition makes this all better.”

Over two dozen states offer some form of voucher or tax-credit programs for private school choice, and most are directed to low-income and minority communities. But some states forbid these from being used for religious schools, and at least 37 states have so-called Blaine amendments on their books, which prevent any kind of government funding for religious purposes.

Supreme Court case

But that could change this year. Ms. Smith is co-counsel in a Montana case before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the legal barriers that thwart the kinds of tax credit programs that can support private and religious schools – programs similar to the Education Freedom Scholarships being proposed by the Trump administration.

Both supporters and critics agree that this case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, could create a “virtual earthquake” in the nation’s public education landscape.

“What’s at stake in Espinoza is, if we win this case, tens of thousands of children, perhaps hundreds of thousands, will finally have access to educational choice programs,” Ms. Smith says.

The debate over vouchers and tax credits has become an epic constitutional battle over the meaning of the First Amendment’s establishment clause and the separation of church and state, many experts say. But liberal educators also see the broader effects of the school choice movement as a threat to the ideals of equal opportunity and universal public education.

“Simply put, vouchers do not ensure that all of our students have access to the opportunities and resources they need and deserve,” says Ms. Eskelsen García. “These voucher [and tax credit] proposals divert already scarce funding away from neighborhood public schools – where 90 percent of children go – and give it away to private schools, which are not accountable to taxpayers.”

There are some 7,000 charter schools across the 43 states with programs, as well as the District of Columbia, and they serve about 3.2 million students – about 6% of K-12 public schools, researchers say. About 5.8 million K-12 students attend private schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

When it comes to successful outcomes, researchers see a lot of variability, especially on the charter side of the school choice movement.

“We know there’s a lot of variation,” says Mark Berends, director of the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity at the University of Notre Dame, who is conducting a school-choice research project in Indiana. “We know there’s some charter schools that are doing really excellent things in terms of developing students, and then there’s some charter schools that probably should be shut down.”

Families supporting charters

Mr. Lee, who heads the charter school association in New Jersey, points out that communities of color are often far more supportive of school choice than white liberals, who have become warier of the charter school movement. 

“Poll after poll demonstrates that African American families, Latino families support additional public charter school options, while wealthy white families don’t,” he says.

Indeed, about half of black people and Latinos express support for charter schools, according to Education Next, a Harvard University-based journal. Support from white Democrats, however, fell from 43% to 27% between 2016 and 2018.

“It’s interesting because no one ever complains about the old-fashioned kinds of school choice,” says Mr. Ladner of the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “We always have had and always will have school choice for the wealthy.”

“So the real question is not, ‘Will we have school choice?’ but rather, ‘Who will get to exercise choice?’” he says. “What mechanisms like charter schools and private choice programs do is to allow a much broader segment of society to exercise that choice.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a statement from Ms. Morabito of the U.S. Department of Education.

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( Illustration by Karen Norris. )

This article appeared in the March 09, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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