A decade ago, the charter-school movement was moving from strength to strength. As student enrollment surged and new schools opened in cities across the country, America’s first black president provided much-needed political cover from teachers’ union attacks. Yet today, with public support fading and enrollment stalling nationwide — and with Democratic politicians from Elizabeth Warren to Joe Biden disregarding, downplaying, or publicly disavowing the charter movement — the situation for America’s charter schools has become virtually unrecognizable.
This is a strange state of affairs, given the ever-growing and almost universally positive research base on urban charter schools. On average, students in these schools — and black and Latino students in particular — learn more than their peers in traditional public schools and go on to have greater success in college and beyond. Moreover, these gains have not come at the expense of traditional public schools or their students. In fact, as charter schools have replicated and expanded, surrounding school systems have usually improved as well.
To be sure, the research is not as positive for charter schools operating outside of the nation’s urban centers. Furthermore, multiple studies suggest that internet-based schools, along with programs serving mostly middle-class students, perform worse than their district counterparts, at least on traditional test-score-based measures. But like the technologies behind renewable energy (which work poorly in places where the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine), charter schools needn’t work everywhere to be of service to society. And, contrary to much of the public rhetoric, the evidence makes a compelling case for expanding charter schools in urban areas — especially in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Atlanta, and San Francisco, where their market share is still relatively modest. Indeed, encouraging such an expansion may be the single most important step we can take to improve the lives of low-income and minority children in America’s most underserved urban communities.
It is a particularly cruel irony that many within the Democratic Party — with its historic legacy of standing up for needy urban families — have turned against a policy that could so dramatically improve the lives of their constituents. But despite some Democrats’ about-face on charter schools, it is imperative that America’s dispirited education reformers — who have experienced more than their fair share of disappointment — not throw in the towel just yet. Although the political climate may now entail a serious fight over charter schools in the coming years, the benefits of such schools make them well worth the effort.