Why So Many Leading Democrats Hate Charter Schools

The moral bankruptcy of much of the Democratic Party’s leadership is nowhere more obvious than in their aversion to charter schools. Democrats hold themselves out as representing the little guy, but many do lasting damage to the very people in whose interests they claim to speak by attempting to strangle the charter school movement. The reason many office-holding Democrats oppose charter schools is quite simple: such schools may be in the best interests of children who would otherwise be stuck in abysmal unionized (and effectively union-run) public  schools, but they are manifestly disadvantageous to the teachers’ unions that are the Democrats’ most important contributors and volunteers.

When Waiting for Superman was released to considerable acclaim by Davis Guggenheim, who had also directed An Inconvenient Truth, I briefly imagined that it might shame progressive Democrats into reconsidering their alliance with the teachers’ unions, but with a few exceptions, that never happened. Right now, New York’s Mayor de Blasio, allegedly an uber-progressive, is busy finding ways to scale back and defund New York City’s charters. Apparently, the unions that backed him have louder voices than the poor people who will be deprived of the demonstrably superior educational opportunities that are provided by charters. That odor you smell is corruption – not the green money in an envelope kind – the overt and systemic kind.

Charter schools overwhelmingly serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They do not charge tuition. They do not select on academic merit; when the demand for slots at charter schools is overwhelming, as it typically is, students are chosen by lottery. Even without merit-based admissions, most charter schools provide a much better environment and better results than monopoly public schools. That’s why parents want to send their children to them.

(As an aside, the charter school movement is also often called the school choice movement for the simple reason that it offers parents a choice as to which school is best for their children. By doing so, it breaks the monopoly power that monolithic, and often horrid, public school systems have had over families that are not well off enough to be able to afford private schools).

Charter schools also save the government money; while they do get funding from the government, the amount that they get is generally less than the amount spent per pupil in standard, unionized public schools. Further, at least in New York City, the amount reported as being spent per pupil in public schools doesn’t account for facilities costs, while charters almost always do need to pay rent or buy their own buildings (an exception is that under former Mayor Bloomberg, New York City allowed some charters to use otherwise-vacant public school space for free). Indeed, rent is often charters’ biggest expense. Thus, the differential between the costs of charters to the taxpayers and the costs of public schools is commonly understated by a significant amount.

How do charter schools pay their bills, and provide a superior educational environment with less government money? Two ways: first, they hire more responsive, non-union labor and, second, they raise lots of money from charitable givers.

So politicians of all stripes should view charters as a bargain for the taxpayers – fewer tax dollar inputs, better education outputs. And, obviously, there is demand for them on the part of disadvantaged families with children – that’s why such parents enter their children into the lotteries for charter seats.

Teachers’ unions have exactly two purposes: to raise the pay of unionized teachers, and to protect incompetent ones. Which of these purposes is in the best interest of the public? Neither. The rise of the teachers’ unions has coincided with ever-higher per-pupil spending and ever-worse public school results. I don’t blame the teachers’ unions for all the declines in student performance, but they are an important part of the problem. In New York City it is almost impossible to fire a bad, or even criminal, public school teacher. There would be no political constituency for the disastrous public schooling status quo if the teachers’ unions hadn’t reached a tacit – and deeply corrupt – bargain with Democratic office-holders: we’ll fund, and man, your campaigns if you protect us from competition and negotiate sweetheart deals with us.

Our inner-city public school systems are a disaster. I have previously cited chapter and verse on them here. Waiting for Superman did so much more eloquently. How can anybody – but especially self-styled progressives – not see that teachers’ unions are a big part of the problem? And that the solution involves empowering parents to find ever-better alternatives?

Oh, yeah, I forgot: the teachers’ unions own many leaders of the Democratic Party.


M.H. Johnston 2/6/14


Note to readers: (3/5/14) I have edited the text of this post so that it is considerably less sweeping than it had been in its condemnation of the leadership of the Democratic Party, per se. The anger in the original version was occasioned by actions taken by the President over several years against charter schools in Washington, DC and New Orleans, and by Mayor de Blasio’s horrifying actions over the last few months; but over the last few days Governor Cuomo has made it clear that he is supportive of the charter schools in New York City – so at least some leading Democrats are not acting as the bought-and-paid for property of the teachers’ unions. I am delighted to have been wrong.

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