Other Opinion: Children are the losers in Elizabeth Warren's plan for charter schools
"I have a plan" is the battle cry of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as she campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. She has laid out a series of detailed policies that challenge what she sees as powerful interests standing in the way of better lives for Americans. But when it comes to education, Warren has a plan that seems aimed more at winning the support of the powerful teachers unions than in advancing policies that would help improve student learning.
As part of a comprehensive K-12 education plan recently released, Warren took a page from the union playbook in calling for a clampdown on public charter schools. In addition to banning for-profit charter schools (which make up about 15 percent of the sector), she would subject existing charters to more scrutiny and red tape and make it harder for new charters to open by ending federal start-up funding and allowing only local school districts to authorize charter schools. Other parts of the union-pleasing plan: an end to rigorous testing for all children to measure whether they are in fact learning.
The attack on charter schools is particularly disappointing given Warren's past support for charters in her home state, which has some of the nation's best charters. She once touted the "extraordinary results" of many Massachusetts charters and spoke of the need to "celebrate the hard work of those teachers and spread what's working to other schools." The federal program she wants to end helped to start some charters in Boston that have shown good results in educating low-income and minority students.
Warren's change of heart (which started in 2016, when she opposed a referendum that would have lifted caps on charter schools in Massachusetts), along with the silence of other Democrats who once championed charter schools (Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former vice president Joe Biden come to mind), is no mystery. The teachers unions wield outsize influence in the Democratic Party, and they revile the mostly non-unionized charter sector. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., another presidential candidate, unveiled a proposal similar to Warren's in May.
The losers in these political calculations are the children whom charters help. Charters at their best offer options to parents whose children would have been consigned to failing traditional schools. They spur reform in public school systems in such places as the District of Columbia and Chicago. And high-quality charters lift the achievement of students of color, children from low-income families and English language learners. Research from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found, for example, that African American students in charter schools gained an additional 59 days of learning in math and 44 days in reading per year compared with their traditional school counterparts.
More than 3.2 million children already attend charter schools, and 5 million more would choose a charter school if one could open near them. No question there are bad charters; unlike bad traditional schools, they are shut down if they don't improve in jurisdictions that set rigorous standards in authorizing and overseeing charters. That Warren would go after charters while letting traditional schools off the hook even more by lessening accountability is a plan for serving adult interests and not student needs.