The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion There’s nothing progressive about strangling charter schools

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to journalists on Capitol Hill on May 21.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to journalists on Capitol Hill on May 21. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

THE MOST enduring — and unforgivable — civil rights offense in our country today is the consigning of so many poor, often minority children to failing schools. Among the more promising efforts to deal with this urgent issue have been public charter schools, which give poor families the choice in their children’s education that more prosperous parents take for granted. That makes all the more distressing the bid by some Democrats to blame charter schools for all the ills of public education.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a candidate to become the Democratic presidential nominee, launched a broadside against charter schools, calling for a moratorium on federal funding for all charter schools and a ban on for-profit charters (which account for a small proportion of charters). “The proliferation of charter schools has disproportionately affected communities of color,” wrote Mr. Sanders as part of his 10-point education plan this month.

Mr. Sanders is right about the outsize effects on minority communities — but those effects have been positive, not negative. Of the nearly 3.2 million public charter school students, 68 percent are students of color, with 26 percent of them African Americans. Studies indicate that students of color, students from low-income families and English-language learners enrolled in public charter schools make greater academic progress than their peers in traditional schools. Research from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that African American students in charter schools gained an additional 59 days of learning in math and 44 days in reading per year compared with their traditional school counterparts.

Charter schools are not a replacement for traditional schools, and not all charter schools are good. Bad ones should not be tolerated. But blanket calls to curtail charter schools are wrongheaded. There is a reason that parents line up on waiting lists for coveted high-quality charter schools. Like wealthy parents who pay for private schooling or middle-class parents who move to neighborhoods for better schools, poor parents want a good education for their children. Without it, they know there will be diminished hope for upward mobility and a better future.

The politics of charter schools have always been fraught for Democrats because of the influence of teachers unions — which oppose charters for reasons having nothing to do with the welfare of children. We hope candidates keep in mind the polls that consistently show support for charters among black and Hispanic voters. It’s easy to oppose charters if you are well-off and live in a suburb with good schools. We hope we will also hear from candidates who know about the value of charters from their experiences — including as a mayor who used them to begin to turn around a failing district, as a partner in an administration that promoted charters, as a schools superintendent who made a place for charters.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Why does the L.A. teachers union want to limit the options for poor children?

Letters to the Editor: Giving an F to a biased report on charter schools

The Post’s View: A D.C. charter school bill aims to fix a system that isn’t broken

Chioma Oruh and LaJoy Johnson-Law: Parents must know how D.C.’s charter schools spend public money

Lis Kidder: Expanding FOIA to D.C. charter schools would do more harm than good