Charter Schools: Why The Model, Who Supports Them and Their Results Should Command Progressive Support

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

December 7, 2023

Progressive (adj): favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, especially in political matters. 

By this definition alone, charter schools are the epitome of progressive change, and more progressives should be supportive of them.

Before I discuss why, let me present my own personal progressive bonafides: I am a former twice elected municipal councilman who was supported by Democracy for America (DFA) – a progressive political action committee founded by former Democratic National Committee Chair and Vermont Governor Howard Dean in 2004 that has also endorsed candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown – in four campaigns (2002, 2006, 2010 and my losing congressional effort in 2012). As an elected official, I sponsored legislation that created the most comprehensive “Ban the Box” (eliminating arrests and convictions as a consideration in hiring) law in the nation, inaugurated the most comprehensive municipal campaign finance reform in New Jersey, and sponsored legislation that created Newark’s LGBTQIA+ and Environmental Commissions. Yes, I am a progressive and that’s why I know that public education needs the answers that charter schools are providing nationally.

All charter schools are public, free, and open to all, regardless of their school zoning. In fact, when critics make the false allegation that charter schools significantly exacerbate segregation in public education, they overlook this fact. Opening enrollment to high-performing charter schools beyond neighborhoods that have been segregated for over a century due to housing redlining, poor public transportation offerings, and deliberate local and state government policy actually supports a more diverse student population by attracting and retaining families of every race, ethnicity and socio-economic background.

Charter schools are supported by the African-American and Latino communities and their institutions – two key constituencies of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Polling has consistently shown African-American and Latino support for charter schools from 65-80% over the last decade. Organizations such as UnidosUS and the National Urban League have affiliates that run successful charter schools. Black churches like Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, Maryland, through their separate education and community based non-profit structures, have started charter schools in educationally disadvantaged neighborhoods. Parents and community organizations have created incredible charter schools rooted in feedback from communities of color that address the unique needs of Black boys and girls through restorative justice disciplinary practices that have been lauded by the federal government. 

The charter schools model also provides the autonomy to school leaders to create programs that are more aligned with progressive ideals. The Magic City Acceptance Charter Academy in Alabama, for example, describes itself as a “brave, LGBTQIA+-affirming learning environment,” and the University Charter School in that same state is one of the most racially integrated public schools in Alabama just three short years after its opening. 

Native American-created and led charter schools like the Native American Community Academy in New Mexico are meeting their communities’ demand to teach native culture, language and customs alongside a world class education as are public charter schools in Hawaii.  Thirty-three percent of charter schools nationwide are led by people of color as opposed to only 17% of traditional district schools. Charter schools continue to be at the forefront of meeting the promise of school desegregation, cultivating diverse learning environments and offering successful models for other public schools nationwide. 

Parents are embracing charter schools with their actions, another tenet of progressive ideology. During the two years of the COVID pandemic, charter school enrollment increased by 240,000 students nationwide while traditional district public schools lost an estimated 1.3 million students. Parents literally voted with their feet and chose charter schools due to their tenacity, school based decision-making capabilities, and nimbleness during a global crisis.

Charter schools also meet the progressive challenge of providing students with high-quality outcomes (especially students of color), closing achievement gaps, and preparing students for college and careers. Recent reports from Harvard University, Mathematica, and Stanford, clearly show the gains that charter students make, especially in urban areas, as compared to their peers in traditional public schools. Mathematica gave accolades to the KIPP schools for their preparation of students for college and that network’s continued tracking and support for the graduates during their college years. Now, if that isn’t progressive, I don’t know what is.

Progressive elected officials have shown and continue to show support for charter schools. President Barack Obama gave the Charter Schools Program (CSP) record increases in funding to create new charter schools and replicate and expand high-performers. Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) send their own children to charter schools, and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) have served on charter school boards and helped to support great charter schools raise the money to keep their doors open. Countless other Democratic leaders such as former Rep. and noted Bay Area progressive George Miller (D-CA) and former DNC Chairman and Vermont Governor Howard Dean have expressed support for charter schools as community-sponsored educational change. 

Opponents often criticize charter schools for needing to educate a greater share of special education students. While the gap certainly needs to be closed, the national difference between charter schools and district schools in special education enrollment is only 1.5 percentage points, although these statistics vary greatly by state. Charter schools receive approximately 30% less in per-pupil public funding than their district school counterparts and virtually no state, federal, or local assistance with facilities – contributing to the difficulties that charter schools face when providing necessary services. And yet, there are many charter schools across the country doing an exceptional job of serving students with special needs. For example, charter schools like Arizona Autism Charter Schools stand as national models for what the future of education can look like for this demographic of students. 

Charter schools, in the spirit of all progressive causes, challenge the status quo of poor outcomes for the populations that are most in need of remediation. Instead, they offer innovative public options to students from historically disadvantaged groups, employing best practices and new ideas to empower families. Charter schools are actively delivering on the promise of reform in education, and they are only getting more effective, more inclusive, and more diverse– signaling a promising future for public education.