Charter Schools Might Not Have A Chair When The Music Stops. Plus, Remembering Greg Schneiders.

Recent And Coming Attractions

I discussed Virginia’s efforts on school accountability with Susan Pendergrass on her “There’s A Policy For That” podcast.

This month, on the 22nd I’m participating in this Aspen Institute webinar about advancing bipartisan policy ideas in a hyper-polarized time. I’ll be at the RISE conference in D.C. on the 23rd, moderating what should be a lively panel about school choice, parent voice, and pluralism.

ICYMI new briefs this week on school finance as part of Bellwether’s Splitting the Bill series this week, this time on special education.

Let’s Hope The Music Never Stops

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools made an inspired choice in Starlee Coleman as its next President and CEO. That was announced this week. She brings political acumen, public affairs experience, and has run a state charter school association – as a former board member of one I can tell you that’s harder than it looks! (I also should note I was a founding board member of the Alliance). Nina Rees did a great job at the Alliance, and will be a tough act to follow so this is a solid choice.

One reason it’s a good choice is that the charter sector has some particular challenges ahead. (It’s important to note it’s a freewheeling sector and the Alliance doesn’t call the shots.) The challenges are somewhat ironic, of course, because overall charter performance continues to get better and is in some cases simply outstanding. The reasons why some charters outperform haven’t been some great mystery for a while. They’re common sense. But in a sector where, ‘it’s all about what’s good for the kids’ is the benediction at any meeting, charters somehow remain controversial in a lot of circles despite turning in results we don’t see a lot.

The other day I posted on Twitter that while I get paid to do elaborate analyses of various questions, the challenge facing charters is pretty simple so it’s a freebie:

I was screwing around but it’s a real point. This is part of the political problem charters have, we’ll talk about the other part in a second and they are to some extent related. A few things are happening. One, big statewide universal voucher plans, ESA’s, are passing now on the regular. 13 states have ESA’s of some kind, more will this year. 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 regulations, 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 less 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.

This perhaps would not be such a big problem for charters if they enjoyed a strong base of support in the Democratic party and were genuinely bipartisan in 2024. But they don’t. They’re not. Sure, there are still some pro-charter Dem governors, but Joe Biden cut the public charter school program at the Department of Education in his budget. Tells you what you need to know. Charters enjoy support among base Democratic voters, but not among elites and powerbrokers. And as the Democratic party becomes more a party of the highly educated and affluent suburbs this further pressures and threatens charter support.

For their part, many charter leaders read the political problem with Democrats as a challenge of convincing Democrats that charters are, in fact, the good guys. That they themselves are the good guys. This often showed up as a “we’re for social justice, too!” agenda.

The problem is, the Democratic opposition to charters is not about the politics of the schools, which were always to some extent left wing ideas about opportunity, equity, economic mobility, and empowerment funded with right wing money that wanted choice by any means. It’s not about the politics of the personal either. Rather, the opposition is about the intraparty politics of the Democratic coalition. Democrats are cross-pressured between education producers and education consumers and the producers – in particular the teachers unions – are incredibly powerful in American politics and especially in the Democratic coalition. You can dress it up however you like but that’s the dynamic. Full stop. It’s why, despite the evidence, you don’t have more Dem charter supporters.

The parents may want more charters, the polling and preferences on the ground clearly show that, but the parents are not yet organized. The teachers unions are. In politics concentrated beats diffuse most of the time. And the parents are less interested in the wide-ranging social justice agenda than you probably heard at the last education conference you attended. They just want good safe schools and are less interested in discipline reform, DEI, culture wars, and so forth than your median education non-profit employee and certainly less than the activists. People are pragmatic, if not conservative, about their own kids.

So what’s happened in practice is many charters have tried to play up to the party that structurally really can’t embrace them while antagonizing, or on a good day giving the cold shoulder, to the one that could. And in the process they’ve started to dilute and blur the crispness of their brand and differentiation, too.

The Republicans are no picnic in general these days. Here, although they’re allergic to accountability in some of these ESA programs, they are pretty good on school choice. That’s the awkward reality Democratic education reformers have to accept. What charters need to do is engage, maintain, and build on that Republican support while also organizing parents to actually pressure Democratic leaders to moderate their posture here and again make charters a default consensus position. That can’t be about partisan politics, it has to be about charter politics.

Otherwise, we have to ask, when the music stops and ESAs are even more established and the Dems have moved further from an embrace of any kind of school choice, will there be a chair for public charter schools?

Greg Schneiders

The political world, and the education world, lost a good friend and wonderful person earlier this week when Greg Schneiders passed unexpectedly. Greg was a pollster and strategist, loyal Democrat and veteran of many Democratic campaigns. I interviewed him about all that a few years ago just prior to the pandemic. More recently he was working to try to ensure that Donald Trump doesn’t return to The White House.

Far more important than all that he was just a terrific person to be around. Politics has great people and ones who are more of an acquired taste. Ones who think they’re God’s gift to the rest of us and humble ones. Greg was humble and great. A lot fun with a contagious joie de vivre and appreciation of the charmed life. Whip smart. Wise counsel. I worked with him on some projects but really connected when we realized we had some friends in common in the education and media scenes. So what I really treasure are boozy lunches and dinners, usually at The Palm (the “cafeteria” to Greg), discussing, sometimes arguing, politics and current affairs and learning from his stories and experiences. After he moved from Washington I looked forward to his visits back to the city and a long lunch or dinner with a small crew. Like so many, I will miss him.

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