Politics & Policy

A National Defeat for School Choice?

(Dreamstime image: Tyler Olson)
Despite some Election Day losses, the charter-school movement is only growing nationally.

At first glance, the 2016 election seems like a loss for the charter-school movement, with prominent ballot measures that would have expanded charters going down to defeat in Massachusetts and Georgia. But a closer look reveals that while some high-profile education fights ended in temporary failure on Election Day, the school-choice movement is still gaining momentum nationwide.

Massachusetts Ballot Question 2 would have raised the state’s charter-school cap, which artificially restricts worthy applicants from opening new schools, even where such schools are sorely needed. But on Election Day, it was defeated by a resounding 62 percent to 38 percent. In Georgia, voters struck down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have expanded the power of the state to reform failing schools, converting them to charters if necessary. It lost by 20 percentage points, so chronically failing schools in Atlanta and elsewhere won’t have to worry about consequences for their performance any time soon.

Yet school-choice advocates can point to significant victories in 2016: They again performed well in state-representative elections. The American Federation for Children (AFC), a nonprofit organization that focuses on state elections, called 2016 “a historic success for the educational choice movement.” AFC targeted 121 elections, and their candidates won an astounding 108 of them.

What’s more, several Democrats have been elected to the House of Representatives after demonstrating their school-reform bona fides in their state governments. But, most important, state lawmakers will continue the work of education reform that has quietly proceeded for years, even as the federal government’s efforts on that front have met with little success.

Having the right ideas is crucial, but effective school reform also depends on government’s acting at the appropriate level. As education experts Alyson Klein and Andy Smarick noted on the latest episode of AEI’s Banter podcast, the last two presidential administrations show the downsides of top-down reforms from the federal level. George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” failed to replicate Texas’s effective reforms, and the Obama administration’s technocratic approach further soured voters on the idea of federal intrusion into local schools. After “Race to the Top” and Common Core standards bred resentment, the Obama administration and Congress passed a great deal of power back to states through the Every Student Succeeds Act. Reformers may end up grateful if the Trump administration starts by leading from behind.

There is still a gaping partisan divide on the issue, however, which could hurt students in blue states where the education establishment has a tight grip on power. In Massachusetts, teachers’ unions spent less advertising money and were peddling the false assertion that charter schools drain money from education statewide, yet they still prevailed against Question 2. Their message stuck even among voters who stood to benefit from charter schools. Polling data seemed to indicate that charters had won support among urban minority populations stuck with bad schools, but when Election Day came, they voted with the unions that had crisscrossed the city with volunteers. 

As this election showed in many ways, Massachusetts is not a state that is in line with much of the rest of the country.

The media treated Massachusetts as a bellwether for charter schools nationally. The New York Times quoted MIT professor Parag Pathak saying, “What happens in Massachusetts will send shock waves throughout the United States either way.” But taking into account the whole of the election results, we might more accurately say that the state’s vote on Question 2 was an outlier. After all, it’s natural that a strongly liberal state with a small percentage of underperforming schools would be more resistant to reforms, even well-designed ones.

Question 2 was a statewide vote about public schools, and in Massachusetts, the vast majority of people live in great school districts. Is it such a momentous political event that Question 2 went down to defeat? As this election showed in many ways, Massachusetts is not a state that is in line with much of the rest of the country.

#related#Despite some losses, there’s no evidence that we’ll see a stepped-up effort to shore up failing public schools at the expense of charter options. Teachers’ unions used scare tactics to stop ballot measures in Georgia and Massachusetts, but do they have a strategy to maintain dominance over the system for the long term? Charters, educations-savings accounts, and other school-choice measures continue to pop up in an increasing number of states, while guardians of the existing system play defense. If Republicans continue to dominate state legislatures, they might just win the war despite losing some much-publicized battles.

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