Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) should ask parents like Nikia about another proposed education reform — the senator’s move to limit charter school growth. I lack the space to discuss the many issues in Warren’s new education plan, but I think its charter school provisions overlook the needs of low-income parents.
Warren wants to ban the few for-profit charters out there. That’s fine. The best charter teachers I know want to work for kids, not investors. I also have no problem with Warren’s view that charters should meet reasonable standards for accountability, transparency, fiscal impact and oversight. What troubles me is that Warren wants to give veto power over new charters to local public school boards.
Most school boards I have encountered seem to think charters — particularly the best ones — are their rivals. They don’t want to compete for resources with the privately run public schools that use tax dollars. Under Warren’s proposal, school boards would be able to define the standards on which they judge charters. If the best charters raise student achievement significantly, board members fear the traditional public schools in their districts will look bad, and so will they.
This contrary notion that successful charter schools can be bad for school districts exists even in our most affluent and best-educated environs. The school boards for Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., have blocked charter proposals submitted by some of the most talented teachers in their systems. Boards may also be influenced by this: Teacher unions with whom they negotiate contracts usually oppose charters, which tend to be nonunion.
District and union officials often say charters drain money and staff needed to raise achievement in traditional public schools. I don’t get that. I covered schools in urban districts in the 1970s and 1980s. They weren’t very good then, when charter schools did not exist. Why would limiting charters now make those districts better?
Warren has many recommendations for improvements. She wants to spend an additional $450 billion in the next 10 years on children from low-income families, an additional $20 billion a year on grants for children with disabilities and an additional $100 billion over the next 10 years for excellence grants. Unfortunately, it is likely to take many years, if ever, for Congress to provide such record sums.
Children of parents such as Nikia need good schools now. The best charter organizations appear to be supplying some of those schools. Why should their growth be curtailed? Most charters are no better, and are sometimes worse, than traditional schools. But a significant number have much to offer. According to a Stanford University study released in 2017, 41 percent of charters that are part of nonprofit networks or charter management organizations do better than nearby traditional public schools in math, and 37 percent do better in reading.
Charter groups such as KIPP, IDEA, Uncommon Schools, Success Academy and Achievement First have produced impressive results. They have demonstrated the power of longer school days, better selection and training of principals and teachers, lively classes, emphasis on character and more time for arts and music. I have interviewed low-income parents who love them. Yet, Warren wants school boards to have the power to tell such charters that they cannot add schools, thus reducing good choices for parents. Less conflicted charter authorizers would be better, such as universities, state school boards or city charter boards such as the excellent one in the District.
Warren is a thoughtful politician who seems to understand how government works. As a presidential candidate, she has been talking to many ordinary people during her selfie tour of the United States. She should ask them what they would do if they needed a good school right now for their kids.
If they ask her why the charter system their neighbors like shouldn’t expand — so there’s room for their children — she should publish her answer. It would be a useful addition to her detailed plan for how we can make our schools better.