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On the Blog: If it’s Competition for the Goose, Why Not Competition for the Gander?

By / 10.31.2019

Many advocates of school choice have slammed Senator Elizabeth Warren for her new education plan, released last week. We have joined them, on Twitter. But few have pointed out the inconsistency between Warren’s embrace of competition in the rest of her plan—and in many of her economic plans—and her embrace of district monopolies in public education. We thought it would be worth adding this note to what has been a full-throated and well-deserved chorus of derision for her abject capitulation to the teachers unions.

A Response to Elizabeth Warren’s Education Plan

On July 16, 2018, progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren reassured the New England Council, “I am capitalist to my bones.” Capitalism.org defines capitalism as “an economic process where men do not compete to forcibly put down others, but to raise themselves up by creating values which are potentially unlimited.” The education plan Warren released last week, “A Great Public School Education for Every Student,” dangles huge federal grants to encourage values-driven competition. Unfortunately, she does not extend this rational to public charter schools, where such leverage could be enormously constructive for low income families—the constituency she repeatedly claims she is running to represent. 

In positioning herself as the most aggressive anti-charter Democrat, Warren has declared outright war with her pledge to eliminate the federal Charter School Program (CSP), created by President Clinton, then greatly expanded by President Obama. Because most public education policy is determined at the state and local level, completely eliminating this federal program is the most drastic anti-charter statement she could make. Warren claims it necessary to stop the expansion of charters because states do not ensure that they “are subject to the same transparency requirements and safeguards as traditional public schools,” amongst other complaints. She could’ve avoided harming poor families of color—the greatest beneficiaries of charter schools—and alienating that key constituency if she had only applied the competitive methods she suggested throughout other parts of her plan. 

For example, Warren proposes awarding $100 billion in competitive “Excellence Grants” to individual schools to restore arts programs and school-based mentoring. This would create competition between schools and reward those making the best efforts. She promises to award states generous additional Title I fundinga windfall few states could resist if they implement fairer allocation formulas at the local level and more progressive funding policies at the state level. Again, competition designed to “raise up.” She also seeks to address school segregation with a $10 billion competitive grant for states that eliminate restrictive zoning laws that lead to residential segregation—which, of course, drives school segregation.  

So, why not—unless pandering to the anti-charter teachers unions—take the same approach with the federal CSP? Why not use it to strengthen charter schooling, which fills a desperate need for low income and minority families who otherwise do not have access to quality public education? Of the nearly 3.2 million public charter school students, 68 percent are minorities, 26 percent African Americans. More than a million children are on waiting lists nationwide. In many cases, low-income parents say charter schools are their only hope to break their children out of intergenerational poverty and the high crime, high unemployment, blighted neighborhoods in which they would otherwise be trapped. When they enroll in charters, those children learn far more than if they had stayed in district schools.

Of course, not all charter schools are great schools, and those that are not can be and should be closed. On average 3.7 percent of all charter schools have been shut down each year for the past 10 years, compared to just 0.2 percent of all traditional Title I (low-income) district schools during the entire nine years that the No Child Left Behind legislation was in effect. 

The charter school model is now too woven into the fabric of the American public education system, and the demand is for seats in them is too great, for them to be eliminated, regardless of any political promises Elizabeth Warren makes. More important, as the Washington Post editorialized, “There’s nothing progressive about strangling charter schools.” So why not use competition to find solutions to the ills of which Warren complains? Create conditions for awarding federal charter school dollars. Require transparency. Tighten up the charter authorization process, so if authorizes are not closing failing schools, no school they might authorize is eligible for federal grants. Don’t handing the approval process solely to school boards, as Warren suggests; districts are among the worst authorizers, because they are too busy operating schools to oversee charters carefully. (They are also too beholden to teachers unions, who help elect their boards, to make objective decisions about opening or closing charters.) 

According to the American Center for Progress, in a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, Congress has approved increased funds for the CSP as requested by each presidential administration since 1994, topping out at $440 million in fiscal year 2019. Senator Warren, use those capitalist bones to improve the system, not kill it while it is laying golden eggs of opportunity where none existed before. You seem to recognize the value of competition. Well-regulated charter schools create competition by their very existence.