Students in class
Susan Pendergrass

Yesterday I wrote about the latest delaying tactic proposed by opponents of charter schools in Missouri: a bill to create a task force to study various questions regarding charter schools—questions that could be answered by spending an hour on the internet researching what we already know about charters.

That was my initial reaction to this political attempt to deny Missouri parents public school choice, but there is so much more to be said.

Charter schools are no longer a new thing. They’ve been established for decades in many different forms in many different states. Initially, they may have been experiments that policymakers either chose to, or were forced to, accept in their public school districts. Today, they are an established sector of public schooling that continues to build on what early pioneers accomplished. Millions of U.S. public school students have spent their entire K-12 educational experience in charter schools, and more than 1.5 million public school students have received their high school diplomas from charter schools. A wealth of research, experience, and anecdotal evidence has shown that charters are a good option for many families and a vital option for families who live in failing school districts and don’t have the ability to move.

I’ve stood beside parents when they were fighting, with limited means but great determination, for their kids to have a chance for a decent life. Because that’s what this issue means for them—quite literally. Charter schools, without question, have made great strides in educating students who had been dismissed for decades as too difficult to educate. For low-income students of color in our worst-failing urban districts, charter schools are a lifeline.

Too many kids grow up, often without fathers, in tough neighborhoods that have abandoned properties and high crime rates. But if they can go to a good school, with principals who are allowed to keep order and teachers who have freedom and incentives to tailor the curriculum to the needs of their students, they have a chance. Cynthia Brown, a parent of a student at North Side Community School in St. Louis—a charter school that was opened in one of the highest-need neighborhoods in the city—put it this way, “It’s setting a stage for a change. When you have children who are being brought up right, being educated right, the outcome is much different. There is so much turmoil in St. Louis. A lot of it has to do with the lack of education.” The students at North Side Community School are twice as likely to be proficient in reading and three times as likely to be proficient in math than as peers at other high-poverty elementary schools in St. Louis.

The good news is that these charter schools are helping families change their trajectories. Many of them will make it out. We know that. Nine of the largest charter school networks in the nation that serve disadvantaged students and have enough alumni to track have college graduation rates that are three to five times the national average for low-income students. Not only are these students off the street and out of jail, they are starting their adult lives with college degrees.

And don’t think for a minute that these successes are only happening in poor, urban districts. Hundreds of public school districts in the U.S. are using charters as a tool in their toolbox—when enrollment is growing faster than they can add buildings, when enrollment is declining and their small-town school might be forced to close, and when parents seek unique educational programs that their public school district cannot or will not offer. Last year, five of the top ten high schools in the U.S., according to US News, were charter schools. These are five highly rigorous, suburban high schools with long waiting lists.

And yet, opponents have continued to trot out the same tired arguments for decades. Charter schools don’t cost more than public schools; typically, they cost less because charter school students only get, on average, about 78 percent of the funding that traditional public school students get. And they produce more bang for the buck. Charter schools don’t cherry pick or discriminate. They don’t charge tuition. They don’t teach religion.

To those of us who work in this field and have seen the same excuses for all these years, it’s clear that  where charter schools aren’t made widely available, it’s because they threaten a powerful establishment. In these places, charter schools might be reluctantly allowed to compete with the poorest performing schools, but they are barred from competing elsewhere, lest they expose the “good” schools as really just mediocre or worse. They threaten the public school monopoly because, if forced to compete, the monopoly may lose market share. Charter schools are agents of change, and in some places, the public education establishment, all its talk notwithstanding, is viscerally afraid of change.

This isn’t the case everywhere. In many districts, charter–district collaboration has led to increased funding for all schools, sharing of best practices and professional development, unified data and information systems for parents, and improved outcomes for all students—charter and traditional alike. While détente is possible, collaboration, as it turns out, is even better.

But, unfortunately, not for the parents and students in Missouri.

In Missouri, every time someone makes a real proposal to expand charters, the threatened interest strikes back. The public employee unions lean on liberal lawmakers from the urban areas, while school superintendents and school board members and “public spirited” corporate types lean on conservatives from the suburbs and the rural areas. Wealthy and middle-class parents—the kind of people who would insist on change if their kids were at stake—make their own arrangements for their own families and stay out of the debate. And most elected officials aren’t willing to buck the tide—not when the only real interest on the other side are marginalized people who may not vote at all and, if they do vote, probably won’t figure out who is blocking their chances anyway.

So the politicians vow to study the problem, or cite canards about charter schools in interviews with reporters who don’t know anything about the subject, or pass legislation purporting to make charters widely available while regulating them in a way that ensures they will never open.

But we’ll keep fighting. We’ll keep making the arguments; we’ll keep recruiting a few precious champions, whether liberal or conservative, and we’ll keep trying to persuade the other lawmakers to do what’s right. And we’ll keep helping parents demand what they know they deserve—high-quality education for their children, regardless of where they live.

About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.