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Mike Petrilli: Why Is Republican Support for Charter Schools Declining?

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Mike Petrilli is concerned that Republican support for charter schools has declined sharply. He suspects it is because charter advocates have tried too hard to pretend that charters are all about being progressive.

He thinks it is time to remind Republicans that charters are a conservative idea.

“We found a 12-percentage-point drop in public support for charter schools from the spring of 2016 to the spring of 2017. What’s most surprising is that Republican and Republican-leaning respondents helped to drive this trend, with GOP support down 13 percentage points. Nor is this a one-year blip; roll back the tape to 2012 and Republican support for charter schools is down a whopping 22 points.

“The puzzle is why. This is no idle question, as Republican support has been crucial to the growth and success of the charter movement over the past twenty-five years.

“While the charter movement has historically received proud bipartisan backing in Washington—Presidents Clinton and Obama both strongly supported charter schools, as have Presidents Bush II and Trump—charters are almost entirely a GOP accomplishment at the state level, where charter policy is made. To be sure, some blue and purple states can count a handful of Democratic legislators and the occasional Democratic governor as proponents, but the charter movement has relied on strong Republican support to sustain it. If that support evaporates, the movement could hit a brick wall.

“One would imagine then, that advocates of charter schools would be exquisitely attentive to the political math at the heart of their coalition: They typically need virtually every Republican vote, plus a handful of Democrats. Such attention would inexorably lead to an obsession with shoring up support on the right side of the aisle, correct?

“Well, no. Instead, many leaders of the charter movement have spent the past decade displaying their progressive credentials and chasing after Democratic votes that almost never materialize. Thus, the case for charter schools today is almost always made in social-justice terms—promoting charters’ success in closing achievement gaps, boosting poor kids’ chances of upward mobility, and alleviating systemic inequities. That was certainly the approach taken by President Obama and his social-justice-warrior secretary of education, Arne Duncan….

“A simpler, more direct way to boost conservative support is to remind people what made charter schools conservative in the first place. This means emphasizing personal freedom and parental choice—how charters liberate families from a system in which the government assigns you a public school, take it or leave it. Choice brings free-market dynamics into public education, using the magic of competition to lift all boats. And while some conservatives understandably would prefer private school choice, which allows a family to select a religious school, for example, instead of an independently run public school, charters are much more than a way station to vouchers. They have proven to be scalable and powerful, especially in cities.

“But there’s another aspect of charter schools that gets very little attention these days, especially from the social-justice types: Most are non-union. In fact, in most districts, union representation is the most significant difference between charter schools and traditional public schools. It’s hugely important. It’s why charter schools can and do fire ineffective teachers, why they can turn on a dime when an instructional approach isn’t working, why they can spend their money on the classroom instead of the bureaucracy, and why they can put the needs of students first, every day, all day. Yet most charter supporters almost never talk about any of this.”

Yes, It is time to remind Republicans—and Democrats—that charters are a conservative strategy. They sacrifice community to competition. They get rid of unions. They make teachers at-will employees.

But I disagree with Mike about the reasons for declining support for charters among Republicans and Democrats alike. I think that the public—that is, members of both parties—are hearing quite a lot these days about charter scandals and swindles in their own states. They don’t want to waste their tax dollars on exorbitant charter salaries coupled with frequent reports of graft, misappropriation of funds, and indictments of charter operators. How do people react when they hear about the millions paid to virtual charter operators? What about the convictions of swindlers in Pennsylvania and Michigan? Most Republicans went to public schools, send their own children to public schools and are happy with them. They cheer for the local teams and show up when their neighbors’ kids are in a school play. They don’t want charters in their neighborhood. Many serve on school boards. They are not antagonistic to public schools, not like  DeVos or the people who work at conservative advocacy shops inside the Beltway. In New York, for example, Republicans in the legislature vote for charters but don’t want them in their own backyard. They think charters are fine for black and brown kids, but not their own.

Charters could never have gotten this far without bipartisan support so it was useful for their advocates to play the “social justice” card. Now that Republicans control so many states and DeVos is Secretary of Education, why not tell the truth? Charters are a way to break up public schools and replace them with competition and choice, while getting rid of unions. They are and always have been a conservative ploy to launch school choice. Obama and Duncan fell for it. So have Corey Booker and Andrew Cuomo. They got fooled into attacking their political base. Will Democrats continue to support charters now that they are clearly part of the Trump-DeVos agenda?

Republicans support charters for “those kids,” not for their own kids. If they are losing faith in the charter idea, it is probably because they don’t want them for their suburban and rural communities.

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