From charters to vouchers — the next evolution for liberal Democrats

About two million American children now attend more than 5,000 charter schools nationwide. Although it is likely to take some time for charter schools to be the educators of even 10 percent of our children, they are heading in that direction and appear to have become an entrenched feature of our public education system with charter schools now operating in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Attractive charter school regimes have these fundamental features:

  1. Charter schools receive enough money to offer a good quality program. (In fact, many charter schools are now unfairly financially starved — especially if they have to pay for their school buildings from a funding package that envisions payment only for current operating expenses.)
  2. Charter schools may not select among applicants, but rather must admit all who apply, accepting their pupils by lottery if there are too many applicants for the available slots.
  3. Charter schools may not charge families tuition (which would price out low-income families), but must rather live on the per-pupil allocation they receive from government plus any additional moneys they, like other public schools, are able to obtain from charitable or foundation fund raising.
  4. Applicants can obtain a charter fairly easily, so long as they present a plan that is sensible, both educationally and financially. (Unfortunately, many charter-hostile local school districts reject deserving charter applicants, so appeal processes are vital.
  5. Charter school operators are given great autonomy in setting the mission, pedagogy, teacher hiring policies, and curriculum of their schools, even if their pupils are required to take the standardized tests required of traditional public school pupils, with the school-wide scores disclosed as in other public schools. (In some states excessive regulation makes the charter school law largely a sham.)

This embrace of public school choice seems widely supported across the political spectrum. Indeed, beginning with President Clinton, three successive administrations have strongly supported charter schools, and charter schools are one of the linchpins for President Obama’s education reform efforts. A significant number of liberals have recognized the importance of providing lower income families with access to desirable schools beyond the traditional public schools. Moreover, along with charter schools has come the widespread adoption of broader public school choice plans that in many communities now permit families to select from among several regular public schools as well as charter schools. Before this embrace of school choice within the public sector, families who were not financially able to pay for private schools exercised choice primarily by moving to where they thought the schools best suited their children, an option frequently unavailable to low-income families.

It’s time for the next evolution in our liberal thinking. The many liberal Democrats who support public school choice including charter schools should cease their opposition to progressive school voucher and tax credit scholarship plans targeted on the poor. Progressive plans precisely resemble the quality charter school programs described above and also provide access to more school choices for low-income families. Opposing these plans deliberately disrespects the values of those low-income families with strong desires for their children to attend faith-based schools, the one type of school that charter schools cannot be. Moreover, usually these faith-based schools have been fixtures with deep roots serving low-income communities for decades. Yet the changing economics are rapidly diminishing this ability to serve the poor and failing to act has already significantly reduced the numbers of these schools.

My wife and I have a number of friends who are liberal  Democrats like us and who pay or have paid to send their children to religious  schools. Many of our national leaders, including presidents, pay or have paid to send their children to faith-based schools. Although some low-income families struggle mightily and manage to do the same or who luckily receive financial aid to make this possible for their children, households of modest means are generally and increasingly priced out of this option. Progressive private school choice plans could change that.

Clearly these private school choice plans that include faith-based school options are constitutional, as the U.S. Supreme Court has now upheld both the Cleveland school voucher plan and the Arizona tax-credit scholarship program.  This is legally a “free exercise” issue, not an “establishment of religion” issue that so many liberals seem to miscast it as. To be sure, there may still be some state constitutional barriers to certain types of private school choice plans that include faith-based schools as an option, but there are no such barriers in many states.

I find this hostility towards religion in the school choice setting closely analogous to the position of those who say they respect a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, but who then oppose the payment for abortion services by Medicaid.  After all, just as Roe v. Wade decided that women have a constitutional right to choose and abortion, Pierce v. Society of Sisters decided that families have a constitutional right to choose a faith-based school. But for the poor without public financial support, both of these rights can become a mirage. Something is wrong here.  Liberals clearly favor public funding of abortions if low-income women choose to have them. Why don’t more of them support public funding of faith-based education if low-income families wish their children to have that?  Most other wealthy nations do this.

Maybe there is room here for a deal. If liberals will reevaluate their stance on educational choice programs that empower low-income families to take responsibility and authority for their children, maybe religious opponents of the public funding of abortions will reevaluate theirs.

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BY Stephen D. Sugarman

Professor of law, University of California at Berkeley, author with John E. Coons of Private Wealth and Public Education and Education by Choice