In the dozen years since Barack Obama undertook the most dramatic education reform in half a century — prodding local governments to measure how they serve their poorest students and to create alternatives, especially charter schools, for those who lack decent neighborhood options — two unexpected things have happened. The first is that charter schools have produced dramatic learning gains for low-income minority students. In city after city, from New York to New Orleans, charters have found ways to reach the children who have been most consistently failed by traditional schools. The evidence for their success has become overwhelming, with apolitical education researchers pronouncing themselves shocked at the size of the gains. 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.
And yet the second outcome of the charter-school breakthrough has been a bitter backlash within the Democratic Party. The political standing of the idea has moved in the opposite direction of the data, 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. “I am not a charter-school fan because it takes away the options available and money for public schools,” Biden told a crowd in South Carolina during the Democratic primary, as the field competed to prove its hostility toward education reform in general and charters in particular. Now, as Biden turns from campaigning to governing, whether he will follow through on his threats to rein them in — or heed the data and permit charter schools to flourish — is perhaps the most unsettled policy mystery of his emerging administration.
To head the Department of Education, Biden floated the names of fierce critics of charter schools, including the ex-president of the country’s largest teacher union and the former dean of the Howard University School of Education, who has called urban charters “schemes” that are really all about controlling urban land. Then, in a surprise move, Biden formally tapped Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s education chief — a nonideological pick who offends neither the party’s opponents of reform nor its remaining defenders. For policy experts and parents alike, it is baffling that Biden’s finalists ran the full gamut from charter hatred to moderation — a bit like if the job of national security adviser were down to a bake-off between John Kerry and Attila the Hun. It’s a clue that whatever Biden’s formulations on the campaign trail, he may yet refrain from dismantling the education legacy of the president he once served.
The achievement gap between poor Black and Latino students in cities and rich white students in suburbs represents a sickening waste of human ability and is a rebuke to the American credo of equal opportunity. Its stubborn persistence has tormented generations of educators and social reformers. The rapid progress in producing dramatic learning gains for poor children, and the discovery of models that have proved reliable in their ability to reproduce them, is one of the most exciting breakthroughs in American social policy. For many education specialists, the left’s near abandonment of charter schools has been a bleak spectacle of unlearning — the equivalent of Lincoln promising to rip out municipal water systems or Eisenhower pledging to ban the polio vaccine. Just as the dream is becoming real, the party that helped bring it to life is on the verge of snuffing it out.