As the presidential primaries head toward states with more diverse populations, the battles between Democratic progressives and moderates obscure a point of unlikely agreement. The candidates have staked out a range of positions on education funding, testing and school accountability. But most have criticized charter schools, seeking to burnish their progressive bona fides.
Here’s why progressives ought to reexamine that stance.
Properly implemented, charter schools can provide a valuable challenge to the injustice of neighborhood-based school enrollment. As privileged — usually white — parents across the country combat efforts to racially and socioeconomically integrate their neighborhood schools, the fight for educational equity has become a class struggle.
Charters, which polls have shown are more likely to be supported by voters of color, generally enroll students through open, neighborhood-blind lotteries. No matter how much a wealthy family wants access to a particular charter, it can’t purchase a home that guarantees attendance. This is critical given the scale and scope of privileged resistance toward efforts to loosen the power of private housing markets in public education. That began with “Massive Resistance” to 20th-century desegregation mandates, lawsuits opposing desegregation busing plans, the construction of elite (“public”) magnet schools and includes the selfishness of not-in-my-backyard parents. Privileged families have fought tooth and nail to prevent less-wealthy families — frequently families of color — from accessing their neighborhoods and schools.
In response, progressives frequently inveigh against housing policies, particularly in high-density urban areas, that advance gentrification and displace low-income residents. Better housing policies, the argument goes, would foster healthier, more diverse communities. And when neighborhoods are more equitably accessible to diverse families, the local schools will be, too.
Unfortunately, few U.S. communities have housing policies that lead to stable, socioeconomically and racially diverse neighborhoods. From sea to shining sea, privileged families nearly always resist the building of public housing, affordable housing or even new housing anywhere near their neighborhoods and schools.
In other words, even if better housing policies would help make neighborhood schools more equitable, local politics put those policies out of reach. Meanwhile, charters are permitted in 43 states and the District — no huge new political wins required.
That political advantage is significant. More than half of U.S. schoolchildren qualified for free or reduced-price lunches from the federal government in the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years. Large numbers of these students trudge off to neighborhood schools where children in low-income families are a majority of the student body. Their families usually can’t afford access to better neighborhood schools through the real estate market — nor can they afford to wait for policymakers to design and advance housing policy agendas with uncertain political prospects.
By contrast, charters offer the possibility of unlinking housing and school access now.
This isn’t to minimize progressive suspicions toward charter schools. Some accuse charters of leaving traditional public schools with the most difficult-to-serve students. The data for this claim isn’t clear, and they vary by state. But this is arbitrary outrage. Folks angered by this should also fume at other sorting of student groups such as selective magnet schools and gifted-and-talented programs that remove motivated, high-performing students from general-education classrooms. They should decry wealthy, segregated, suburban school districts as part of a neoliberal, (real estate) market-based education reform plot.
Instead, progressives commonly accept these types of school choice as fair ways of allocating access to public education.
More substantively, critics charge that charters face limited public accountability. They also warn that charters seek to convert public education funding into private profits for education companies.
Fortunately, the data on these matters are encouraging. Charter students’ academic performance varies considerably by state, but it tends to be highest in progressive communities where these schools face meaningful accountability, such as in Boston, Newark and the District. Charters in these communities generally are run by nonprofit organizations, not by for-profit or online education companies. Simply put, charters shouldn’t fear being held accountable for student performance, and policymakers shouldn’t be shy about requiring that.
Many critics also warn that charter schools undermine teachers unions. While most charters are not unionized, that’s hardly inevitable. In New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere, charter leaders and teachers unions have found that their priorities can be compatible.
A strong push to advance progressive ends through charters could improve students’ academic performance, school integration and the quality of the charter movement. None of this means that housing policy fights should be dropped or that charters’ open-enrollment policies can unwind the racial and socioeconomic inequities in U.S. education. But progressive activists and policymakers should consider how long children in low-income families must wait. Unless activists have a plan to derail the housing dynamics behind systemic inequities, progressive efforts are more usefully focused on building a more equitable enrollment system outside the neighborhood and district walls privileged parents are so keen to protect.
Conor P. Williams is a fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.