The Progressive Roots of Charter Schools

Improving public education has long been a cornerstone of the Democratic platform. Because progressives understand that access to a quality education is the gateway to a better life, our decades-long struggle to promote equal rights and opportunity for all Americans has been deeply tied to our struggle to create an effective public school system.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, progressive thought leaders conceived of a new organizational model for our public schools, a system designed for the Information Age rather than the Industrial Era. In this new system, the state or local school board could grant performance contracts to groups of individuals or organizations that applied to open new public schools. These would be exempt from many of the rules and mandates that constrained district-operated schools. They would be encouraged to innovate, to create new learning models that would appeal to children bored or otherwise dissatisfied traditional public schools. If a school succeeded, its contract would be renewed. If the school failed to educate children effectively, it would be closed. Families could choose between a variety of schools, and because tax dollars would follow children to the public school of their choice, districts would lose their monopoly on taxpayer-funded education. Neighborhood schools could no longer fail students for generations; the competition from new public schools would force them to improve or close.

Today, we know these new public schools as “charter schools,” because their performance contract is called a charter. Over the past two decades, cities that have embraced chartering, such as New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Denver, Newark, and Indianapolis, have experienced profound student growth and school improvement.1 The charter formula–school-level autonomy, accountability for results, diversity of school designs, parental choice, and competition between schools—is far more effective than the centralized, bureaucratic approach that developed more than a century ago.

The charter sector has created opportunity for millions of underserved children. But teachers at charter schools tend not to unionize, so as the charter sector grows, union membership shrinks. As a result, union leaders and their allies have gone to war against charters. They claim that charters are a product of “corporate reformers,” a right-wing effort to “privatize” our public schools. These accusations are nonsense. More accurately, they are lies born of self-interest, designed to protect the jobs of mostly white, middle-class teachers and union officials, at the expense of mostly poor, minority kids.

Democrats should know better than to fall for this anti-charter propaganda. For three decades charter schools have been a progressive initiative, brought to us by reform-minded Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Unfortunately, in the age of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—who also support charters—it’s become far too easy for liberal policymakers, facing pressure from the teachers unions, to cut their historic ties with America’s most successful education reform. As we move into the 2020 election season, Democrats should remember the progressive roots of chartering and think twice before turning their backs on millions of children who have benefited—and could benefit in the future—from charter schools.

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