One of America’s most promising educational experiments is under attack in the country’s largest school districts. In New York and Los Angeles, opponents of charter schools are engaging in tactical strikes designed to halt and ultimately reverse the movement’s progress.
Last month, the Los Angeles Unified School Board voted to close two of its highest-performing charter schools. Meanwhile, in New York this week, elected officials filed suit to block 36 charter schools from locating in buildings used by traditional public schools.
The details differ, but the backdrop is the same: The coalition that has stayed together for the cause of charter schools since the 1990s is fraying, while a growing populism within the Democratic Party is giving teachers’ unions new influence. In urban areas especially, the most powerful unions are invariably the teachers’ unions, and the teachers’ unions are invariably hostile to charter schools — most of which are nonunion.
That’s not the only reason teachers’ unions don’t like charters. But let’s not kid ourselves — it’s the main reason. And it’s this freedom from union rules that helps make the best charters so successful: Charters often feature longer school days, principals have greater autonomy to lead the schools and their teachers often earn higher salaries.
It’s also true not all charter schools succeed. But in states that adopt strong laws that keep charter schools accountable, the results can be extraordinary. A charter school in the South Bronx outperforms every school in the state outside New York City. A 2013 Stanford University study found black, Hispanic and poor students especially benefit from charter schools, in part because they spend more time in class.
Nevertheless, the campaign against charter schools is likely to expand. The teachers’ union in New York wants charters to pay rent for using public school buildings even though charters are public schools, and even though charters receive far less in per-pupil funding than district schools. Paying rent would exacerbate those inequities and doom many charters.
Some argue charters are a Trojan horse for wealthy conservatives who want to privatize education — a curious charge given many donors are liberal Democrats. Moreover, many noncharter schools raise private funds and some have multimillion-dollar endowments.
There is no shortage of Democrats who remain committed to charter schools, but they need to speak out more. If the Democratic Party’s charter coalition is to remain together, its members must join the battle before small victories turn the tide against them — and against the children who benefit the most from charter schools.
— Bloomberg View