With parents frustrated at the public education system, school choice is having a moment. Major policy victories in Arizona and the Supreme Court – which expanded access to private schools – have education reformers looking for more. But before the momentum wanes, school choicers should focus their efforts on the option that has given lasting choice to the most families: charter schools.
This is a unique moment in education politics. Early data suggests school closures due to Covid caused irreparable learning loss, especially for students of color. Combine that with the culture wars over Critical Race Theory and sex/gender education, and many parents are searching for alternatives. 2021 saw historic levels of school board recalls as voters demanded new leadership. Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race due in no small part to his education plan. And a 2022 Gallup poll found that 69% of Americans were somewhat or very dissatisfied with the education system, the highest level since Gallup started asking in 2001.
The school choice movement has capitalized on this dissatisfaction. Arizona just made history as the first state to offer education savings accounts (ESAs) for all students. In Carson v Makin, the Supreme Court struck down Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from its voucher program. There were at least 30 private school choice bills proposed in 22 states this year. And Congressional Republicans proposed what would be the first national tax credit scholarship program if passed.
But by focusing only on voucher programs, school choice activists are missing out on the much larger potential benefits of charter schools. ESAs are great, but red state reforms that only appeal to red voters will never create the broad, fundamental change our education system needs.
Charters reach a much larger population than vouchers do. Over 3.4 million students attend 7,500 charter schools. There are more charter students in California (675,000) than there are private school choice recipients nationwide (600,000).
Charter schools have larger enrollment in part because they’re historically more politically appealing, especially to independents and Democrats. Charter schools are public schools; and despite the Covid shakeup, most Americans still believe in the idea of public education and oppose publicly funding religious schools. The moderate parents who are newly upset with the status quo will be more drawn to public charter schools than religious voucher programs.
Their broad political appeal helps explain why charter schools are much wider spread than vouchers are. Forty-four states have charter schools, compared to only 31 with private school choice. And most of the states without vouchers are Democratic strongholds like New York and California, where voucher programs have no chance of implementation.
It wasn’t long ago that there was broad bipartisan agreement about the value of charter schools. Historic levels of parental unrest give choice advocates, who are often appealing mostly to voters on the right, a chance to revive that consensus.
Despite a presence in nearly every state, charter schools still have plenty of room to grow. Six states have zero charter schools, and another seven states have fewer than ten each. 20 states set caps on the number of charters allowed, inhibiting growth. Now, one million students are on charter school waitlists, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools believes there are another four million students who want to attend a charter but have none available.
If school choice advocates want to maximize their impact, they should look to extend options to the millions of families waiting for charter schools. They can and should get behind sensible, broadly appealing ideas like lifting charter school caps, streamlining the permitting process for new charters, and fully funding the federal Charter Schools Program to help quickly meet the demand for charter schools.
These reforms would not only reach a larger universe of families who need choice; they would be much more likely to pass. This is partly because of their historic bipartisan nature, and partly because expanding existing programs is easier than creating new ones. The Reason Foundation analyzed private school choice legislation proposed among states this year, and found that almost half (5 of 11) of bills that would expand programs passed, compared to only 1 of 19 that would establish new programs.
If school choice advocates are serious about ensuring more families have access to good schools, they should help lead a new coalition to expand charters in every state in America.