Charter schools and private options can thrive in

Charter schools and private options can thrive in tandem

The nation’s first charter school law passed in 1991, the year after an improbably left-right coalition enacted the nation’s first modern school voucher program.

Ever since, charters have been the go-to “third way” solution: More regulated than private schools. More flexible than district-run public schools. Accountable to the public in more ways than either. And, crucially, amenable to worldviews of Democrats and Republicans.

But that may be starting to change.

Support for independently run public schools has eroded among elected Democrats. In a break from his predecessors in both parties, President Biden declined to issue a pro-charter proclamation and proposed cutting or restricting programs that support their growth.

And private education scholarships are sweeping the country: 18 states and counting have enacted education savings accounts or a similar mechanism allowing parents to direct public education funding to schools and providers of their choice. Growing numbers of large states like Ohio are opening private school voucher programs to all students. It’s clear this is where Republicans’ education policy enthusiasm lies.

All of this has led some observers, like Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether, to worry charter schools are at risk of becoming a political orphan. As Republicans and Democrats pull further apart on education policy, will they strand charter schools in a barren middle ground?

It used to be a big deal when you had a pilot voucher program in places like D.C., Cleveland, and Milwaukee. Now another state passes universal choice and it’s like, yawn. And whether you love them, hate them, or are a wait and see how they play out type, these programs are wildly popular right now. Speaks volumes about where the energy is.

Second, the Republicans are, on average, a lot more interested in ESA’s than other choice options. They like the universal features, less regulation, less publicness, all of it. Democrats, meanwhile, mostly see those things as flaws. For a while there was stasis in this debate; charters were something of a compromise. Charters offered fewer regulations, could be universal, but they had key elements of publicness. They were an outpost for Democrats and a way station for Republicans. The ground has shifted, and post-pandemic, the energy is with rapidly expanding choice.

So, as private options expand, will that way station be abandoned?

Florida offers cause for optimism.

Last year, when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1, expanding private education scholarships and opening them to all students, he also signed a separate bill that, at long last, equalized facilities funding for charter schools (phased in over five years). The year before, legislation created a statewide charter school board. And this year, the state rolled out the welcome mat for Success Academy’s first potential expansion outside New York.

Each of those developments is a monumental success for Florida’s charter school movement that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but happened with barely a peep from critics at about the same time the state was launching the largest expansion of private education choice in U.S. history.

The expansion of universal private education choice hasn’t led to the abandonment of charter schools. It’s opened up political space for the third-way solution to flourish, largely free of controversy. Florida’s charter schools have quietly and steadily grown to serve just shy of 400,000 students.

Last fall, our state education commissioner appeared on stage in Orlando, calling for public charter schools and private education options to join forces in a unified movement. That productive coexistence is already visible on the ground. The national education commentariat should take notice.

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