Opinion

How The Likely 2016 GOP Presidential Candidates Stack Up On School Choice

Joanne Butler Contributor

As it’s National School Choice Week, I wanted to see how Republican presidential hopefuls measure up on their actions to increase school choice (versus just talking about it). My specific focus: how charter schools are faring in their home states. Some states are doing well, others are muddling through, and still others are failing. (You can view a state-by-state matchup on charter schools here).

My home state of Delaware has popular charter schools; billboards advertising for students are a common sight. One school, the Charter School of Wilmington, is ranked number 10 nationwide among all high schools, public and private.

Despite this, establishing charter schools in our small blue state has not been easy. Democrats have controlled the governor’s office since 1993 and much of the statehouse over the past twenty years. Even now, statehouse Democrats are trying to limit access to charter schools. Delaware’s lesson is simple: charter schools need strong support from Republicans to survive and thrive.

With that in mind, I did some calculating. See the table below.

State

Candidate

Number of

Charter Schools

State Population Share

per Charter School

(lower is better)

Delaware

V.P. Biden (D)

24

38,573

Wisconsin

Gov. Scott Walker

245

23,440

New Jersey

Gov. Chris Christie

87

102,297

Ohio

Gov. John Kasich

400

28,927

Florida

Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio

625

31,284

Texas

Fmr. Gov. Rick Perry

689

38,386

Louisiana

Gov. Bobby Jindal

117

39,534

Kansas

Gov. Sam Brownback

11

263,087

Interestingly, the winner of my little survey is Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, the mild-mannered Clark Kent of the 2016 pack. He may act like Clark Kent, but he governs like Superman.

While Walker cannot take credit for establishing charter schools (that happened in 1993), he has helped the charter cause in his public career. As executive for Milwaukee County (2002-2010) and in his first term as governor, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee was empowered to form a charter school, and then to form more charters throughout the county. Coincidence? I don’t think so. An important extra benefit is the university is graduating people from its teachers program who have experience and a positive attitude to charter schools. Trust me, this is unusual.

The end result: Wisconsin has the most charter schools (245) for its population size (5.7 million).

However, it’s clear New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has some explaining to do. His population share per charter school is more than double that of neighboring Delaware’s. Blame grumpy teachers unions? We have them too! However, with so many charter schools in Delaware, I believe we now have a critical mass of charter school acceptance by parents and students.

Although Christie approved five new charter schools last year (with more to come in the 2015 pipeline), his approvals are too few to reach that critical mass, considering the state’s population of nearly nine million.

In Ohio, Governor John Kasich is doing a very credible job in promoting school choice. The Center of Education Reform rated Ohio 11th in the nation for school choice ‘Parent Power.’ Note that Ohio calls charter schools ‘community schools’ – a somewhat misleading term.

Florida can boast a respectable number of charter schools (625) for its population size (19.5 million) but it’s unclear if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio can take much credit for this.

Florida’s initial charter school law was enacted in 1996, and the first school opened the same year. Bush became Florida’s governor in 1999 – well after the charter movement had taken hold. Same for Rubio, he first became a state legislator in 2000. Perhaps these men, as governor or legislator, took certain steps to expand access to charter schools. If so, these are stories they must tell us.

Meanwhile former Governor Rick Perry of Texas has little to boast about regarding charters. His state’s population (26.4 million) is about 25 percent larger than Florida’s (19.5 million), but has only 64 more charter schools than Florida (an increase of nine percent). Plus there are over 100,000 Texas kids on a charter school wait list. The Lone Star state’s population share per charter is just a wee bit better than Delaware’s – puzzling when you consider the length and strength of Republican control in Austin.

Why such abysmal charter school numbers, Mr. Perry?

Turning to Louisiana, the state has a relatively low number of charter schools, perhaps because its charter system is so complex.

Louisiana’s charter school website lists seven types of schools; variables include the entity that authorizes the charter. Yes, the website states there are five types, but look closer and you’ll see a Type 1B and Type 3B tucked in below. Cute, but it still makes for seven types.

So, Governor Jindal, how does this classification information help your average Louisianan choose a charter school? A parent’s main concerns are about the quality of teaching and the safety of the students. Knowing that a charter was authorized by a school board versus some other agency does not add value to the decision making process.

Final comment for Governor Jindal: when blue-state Delaware is beating your state on charter schools, something’s wrong. He’s a famous wonk with an Ivy League degree.

I included Kansas (with its meager 11 charter schools) in my survey, as it’s a sad example of missed opportunities caused by a governor who switched policies in midstream.

Governor Sam Brownback used to support charter schools, but moved away from them in the run-up to his 2014 re-election campaign. He opted for tax-credit funded school choice scholarships (enacted in 2014), as those involve private schools. However, the Center for Education Reform gives Brownback’s tax-credit/scholarship program a ‘D,’ stating it has “seriously restrictive provisions.”

Further, Brownback’s embrace of tax credit scholarships over charters resulted in the 2013 failure of proposed legislation to help expand charters. Without his backing, the legislation died in the statehouse.

While some conservatives see vouchers or scholarships for private schools as a purer solution to our education problems, realists know America has thousands of charter schools teaching millions of children. Vouchers and/or tax credit scholarships are generally restricted to the poorest families, while charters serve all students, including the middle class.

Charter schools are a way for people to create schools to fit certain needs, without having to raise the huge amount of money required to open a private school.

One example is Wilmington’s Odyssey Charter School, an elementary/middle school located behind an auto dealership and a supermarket. It’s unique because it teaches the Greek language, along with all the usual subjects.

Was Odyssey was created just for the Greek community? No. As a public charter school, it cannot discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, and admissions are done via a lottery. Thus, Odyssey has nearly a thirty percent ethnically diverse student body, with about 27 percent classified as low socio-economic-status. It has 938 students in grades K-7, a student-teacher ratio of about 10:1, an average class size of 20, and is ranked among the top four schools in Delaware for mathematics. Over 98 percent of its students attend class daily – an outstanding statistic, and a key one for a student’s future success.

Who knew that a charter school teaching Greek to kids would make for better student outcomes? The important thing is the grown-ups behind Odyssey tried, and made it work. They must be doing something right: for the prior school year they received 751 applications; this year it’s 1,330.

Bottom line: more good charter schools will lead to improved retention rates, resulting in more kids getting high school diplomas (and possibly even more education), and in the end, our communities will improve.

Scott Walker seems to get it on the charter schools issue. But what of the other 2016 hopefuls? Is school choice too trivial for their lofty ambitions? It will be trivial unless we make the candidates pay attention.