This week is National School Choice Week, a time to celebrate the importance of giving parents the freedom to select a school that meets their child’s needs. A new poll from the American Federation for Children shows that school choice is highly prized by parents and voters. Fully 63 percent of likely voters support school choice, including a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.
Support for public charter schools is even higher, at 72 percent.
Few ideas in American life enjoy such wide-ranging support, and it didn’t develop by accident. Policymakers in both parties have consistently championed choice and worked to make more choices available to parents everywhere. At an event held last week at the American Enterprise Institute, veterans of the Bush and Obama administrations joined scholars and policy experts to discuss the legacy of the past 16 years of federal education policy, during which school choice thrived thanks to pushing and prodding from Washington.
Since President George W. Bush took office in 2001 and worked with both Democratic lions (Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts) and heartland Republicans (Rep. John Boehner of Ohio) to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government has aggressively worked to shine a light on achievement gaps and cajole states into developing plans to eliminate them. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, launched in 2009, doubled down on the federal government’s role in promoting educational accountability among states. These laws also bolstered investments in public school choice, magnet schools, and charter schools. The result has been a proliferation of school choices since 2001, particularly public charter schools.
Reform-minded Democrats, including many urban leaders of color, have courageously embraced charter schools against the wishes of the union-dominated education establishment. Republican reformers, meanwhile, have overcome their suspicion of federal intervention to accept the critical role the federal government plays in fueling charter school growth and giving parents more options about where their children attend school.
While President Bill Clinton provided early and essential support to charter schools, it was during the Bush and Obama administrations that growth really took off – from about 2,300 schools serving 600,000 students in 2001 to 6,800 schools serving more 3.1 million students last year. In more than 200 school districts across America, at least 10 percent of public school students are enrolled in charter schools. And in some cities, the share is much larger – more than 90 percent in New Orleans, around 50 percent in Washington, D.C., and about one-third in Indianapolis and Newark, N.J..
The past 16 years also spurred the growth of national charter school management organizations such as KIPP, Green Dot, and Rocketship Public Schools. Major regional charter networks have taken root as well: IDEA Public Schools consistently achieves a 100 percent college-acceptance rate among students in Texas’s economically disadvantaged Rio Grande Valley, and Success Academy has propelled low-income students from Harlem and the Bronx into the top echelons of student achievement in New York. California-based Summit Public Schools, through its partnership with Facebook, is the national leader in developing software to help students become more self-directed, independent learners.
Many single-site charter schools are providing vital options for students whose district-run schools simply haven’t worked for them. Local philanthropy has played a role in this process, but the federal government has been a driving force, making $3 billion of investments through the Charter Schools Program created in the late 1990s. Schools like Crossroads Academy of Kansas City, Mo., and Harding Fine Arts Academy in Oklahoma City relied on CSP funding to get started. Both schools diversified the learning models available to local students and have been recognized for academic achievement.
Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which has conducted the most extensive studies of charter schools, finds that students – especially disadvantaged students – often gain the equivalent of weeks of extra learning by attending charter schools. This can be the result of innovative approaches to teaching and learning, or simply of giving students an environment in which learning is celebrated and they are encouraged to believe in their own abilities.
While the Bush and Obama administrations actively encouraged charter school growth and achievement – in conjunction with visionary school leaders, dedicated teachers, never-quit parents, generous philanthropists, and supportive state and local elected officials – the trend is poised to continue in the Trump administration.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke at last week’s AEI event. She recalled her own work as a charter school and choice advocate in Michigan and reiterated her commitment to fostering educational innovation by giving states and local communities more latitude to take the lead in promoting a variety of choices for students and families.
The current administration is less interested than its predecessors in using federal levers to prod states into action, but it is firmly committed to the idea that students benefit when the adults in their lives can make a choice about their education. We hope the administration will continue to show a real commitment to choice by fighting for more funds for the federal Charter Schools Program. The CSP has amply demonstrated its effectiveness in making high-quality options available to the majority of parents who want to be able to choose their child’s school.
Nina Rees (@Ninacharters) is president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
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