On Charters, a New Report Shows That White Democrats Are Getting It Wrong. (Listen Up, Bernie/Liz/Joe!)

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Judging by the harsh turn that some politicians have taken against charter schools, voters might well imagine that the data look darker than they did when President Barack Obama championed them. That is simply not the case: studies still affirm that charters provide a substantial academic benefit for low-income students of color, benefit children who remain in traditional public schools, and provide the taxpayer with a far greater return on investment. Whatever is driving the opposition, it isn’t the data—nor is it the voices of parents of color, who are still strong charter school supporters.”

That’s Max Eden, senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, in his new report called “Charter Schools Boost Results for Disadvantaged Students and Everyone Else.” While his focus is indeed on the data, I just can’t help myself: How did the Democratic Party lose its moral compass and start privileging special interests over the needs of low-income children? When did progressives (especially wealthy ones) start refusing “to live by the values they profess to support at the national level,”  as Farhad Manjoo said in the New York Times?

Eden doesn’t go there, besides citing anti-charter rhetoric from Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden, as well as noting that “58% of black voters and 52% of Hispanic voters support charter schools.” So, like him, I’ll strive to stick to the facts. Here are six key findings from Eden’s report:

  • A national study of 41 urban areas estimated that charter schools provide black students in poverty with the equivalent of an additional 59 days of learning in math and 44 days of learning in reading per year.
  • Studies in three states have demonstrated that attending a charter high school boosts college entry and persistence.
  • Studies in two districts have shown that attending charter schools decreases criminal activity among students who attend them.
  • A cost-benefit analysis across eight major urban districts found that charter schools are 36% more cost-effective in boosting reading scores and 40% more cost-effective in math than traditional public schools.
  • Studies in five states have shown that competition from charter schools academically benefits students in traditional public schools.
  • A higher “market share” of charter schools in urban districts is associated with significant achievement gains for black and Hispanic students.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Eden identifies “two buckets” of charter school complaints. The first is that (he quotes Bernie Sanders here) “the proliferation of charter schools has disproportionately affected communities of color.” The second is that charters (quoting Elizabeth Warren) “strain the resources of school districts and leave schools behind.” 

Regarding the first bucket, Eden concurs: Charters have disproportionately affected black and brown students — but positively. Those who assert otherwise are using aggregate performance without regard to school and/or location. “To meaningfully evaluate charter schools, as compared with their traditional public peers,” he writes, “comparisons must be made between comparable students in each context.”  Thus he borrows the “virtual twin” model used by Stanford University’s CREDO to look at potential advantages and disadvantages. Here are the results:

 [A]n economically-disadvantaged male student in a charter is compared with an economically-disadvantaged male student in a traditional school. [CREDO’s] 2013 study, spanning 27 states, found negative effects for white students, null effects for black middle-class students, and positive effects for black and Hispanic students in poverty. CREDO translates its results into “days of learning” lost or gained per year. White students lost 14 days of reading and 50 days of math (losses due, in part, to enrollment in low-performing online charter schools). Black students in poverty gained 36 days of math and 29 days of reading learning from attending charter schools; Hispanic English-language learners gained 43 additional days of reading and 50 days of math learning.

Indeed, as Sanders says, low-income students of color are disproportionately affected by charter schools. That’s because enrollment in charter school disproportionately increases the learning gains for students of color.

(Hey, Bernie, you got a problem with that?)

Next let’s look at the second bucket: Charter schools drain money from traditional school districts. Eden quotes Joe Biden: “The bottom line is that charter expansion siphons off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.” 

Sometimes charters actually help: If the district is overcrowded, charter schools can forestall the necessity of adding classrooms or buildings. On the other hand, Eden acknowledges that, for districts with flat or decreasing enrollment, the outflow of money in the form of charter tuition can be “a difficult task for large bureaucracies governed by onerous work rules and collective bargaining requirements.” But this is not bad for students; a look at research shows that the students remaining in the traditional district actually benefit academically. For example, one descriptive study in New York City found that “being forced to compete to retain students leads to improvements in school management and pedagogy.”

Read the (very readable) report for exposition of the other key findings. But, as a white Democrat, it’s hard to argue with Eden’s conclusion:

Whatever has led white Democrats to abandon their support for charter schools, their conclusions are not shared by researchers or parents of color.

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