Democratic politics and charter schools, brief gloss

Tl;dr version: don’t waste your energy on trying to suss out The Position on National Charter School Politics. But why it doesn’t make much difference is different from the details of charter-school debates.

Bernie Sanders’s education plan has gotten quite a bit of press since its mid-month release. The bulk of attention was taken up by the single section on school choice, which focused on charter schools.1 Thus far, I think the most interesting response has been on Vox’s The Weeds podcast episode at the end of the week. Are charter school policies designed to advance civil rights or destroy public education? And what do we make of the fact that there are many pro-charter Black community activists at the same time that the NAACP has a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter-school expansion?

Very briefly, at the level of politics: if you say that all Black parents have the same view of charter schools, I’m going to laugh at you, because you deserve it. The best evidence currently available is that Black Democratic voters are more likely than white Democratic voters to approve of charter schools (in general, as in polling questions), but that means that only a significant minority disapprove of charter schools in surveys (as opposed to a majority), and disapproval or skepticism or what have you has not grown among Black Democratic voters in the same way as it has among white Democratic voters.

The Weeds episode linked above has a reasonably-accurate summary of the research on charter schools:

  • While there are a few notable exceptions, charter schools as a whole have not created incredibly innovative schools. (Unlike Matt Yglesias, I don’t think we should judge charter school policies just by how well they fulfilled the original utopian justification — because most education policies that are pretty good also rarely fulfill utopian promises.)
  • There is little nationwide evidence of differences between charter schools and local public schools in serving students. I draw this conclusion at the national level, and there is huge variation among schools, networks, cities, and regions.
  • The best evidence for charter schools that make a real difference in their students’ lives comes from charter schools in some cities, and some charter-school networks that generally set up in cities.2
  • If there’s an average effect of roughly zero, and good charter schools in some cities, that means there must be some bad ones elsewhere. Some people overgeneralize the research on Massachusetts, which suggests that charter schools in suburban and rural Massachusetts communities hurt children. I’m not persuaded that just because non-urban charters in Massachusetts are relatively poor, that means that all suburban charter schools are likely to be bad. I’d rather point in a different direction:
  • The best evidence for charter schools that are horrible zombie institutions that suck years from children and millions from taxpayers, come from the bulk of virtual charter schools. If you’re thinking about starting an online charter school, you have a huge uphill climb in terms of serving children well and also in the bad reputation of online charter schools — the latter is well-deserved.

Beyond the question of whether and where charter schools serve students well is the question raised in the past few years about whether a high-growth environment for charter schools can destabilize all of a community’s schools. This is often framed around whether charter schools harm local public school systems, but some of the testimony in the 2017 final report of the NAACP Task Force on Quality Education points to general fragmentation and witnesses’ concerns about fragmentation.3

Bottom line: some cities have good charter sectors, some charter networks are good in general, virtual charter schools are generally bad. No observer should be surprised at all that many Black parents see charter schools as important for themselves and other parents they know, and also that there are significant concerns among Black communities and activists about the proliferation of charter schools in the past decade, especially concentrated proliferation in some districts. Caitlin Emma’s 2018 interview with Derrick Johnson strikes me as a reflection of the debate I’ve observed over the past few years. I am thus entirely unconvinced that any position on charter schools held by a Black parent, community activist, or national civil-rights activist is anything other than honestly held.4

Why have the views of charter schools diverged among Democrats since 2016? I suspect that the views of white Democrats have been more affected than those of Black and Latinx Democrats by Trump’s election and the appointment of Betsy DeVos — and DeVos’s remarkable infamy. In addition, the wave of 2018 teacher walkouts in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arizona may have reached and shaped primarily white Democratic views. That’s only a hunch.

In general I’m skeptical of almost any punditry around major Democratic candidate positions on charter schools. Ned Stanley of 50CAN argued on Twitter that Sanders’ move on charter schools was primarily to pander to teacher unions, even though Sanders’s position mirrors that of the NAACP. Positions on charter schools are far more relevant in state races; I just don’t think positions on charter schools will make much of a difference to candidates in the nomination battle.


  1. No one publicly groaned at “A Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education.” Bernie, really: do not put a pun in position titles. []
  2. This does not mean that all cities have great charter schools, or that KIPP-ish networks are all good. []
  3. The NAACP task force report never mentioned the fiscal effects on local public school districts; their concerns were systematic beyond districts. []
  4. In other words, people disagree. If you want to claim that your policy opponents on charter schools are astroturf, you’re likely dead wrong. []