Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) has a plan for public education, and it starts with restricting parents and kids from choosing charters over traditional public schools.
"If you think your public school is not working, then go help your public school," Warren told the National Education Association (NEA) in December. "Go help get more resources for [your public school]. Volunteer at your public school. Help get the teachers and school bus drivers and cafeteria workers and the custodial staff and the support staff, help get them some support so they can do the work that needs to be done. You don't like the building? You think it's old and decaying? Then get out there and push to get a new one."
Warren adopted this stance in 2016, when "a handful of bazillionaires" attempted to lift the cap on charters in Massachusetts. "Public dollars must stay in public schools," she said in December. Of course, charter schools are themselves public schools and do not charge tuition. But charters are not required to collectively bargain with teachers, which often leads to better educational outcomes.
This is especially true in Warren's home state. In Boston, for instance, taxpayers spend $2,900 less per pupil per year on charter attendees compared to students in traditional public schools. Despite costing less to educate, Boston's charter students significantly outperform their peers in both reading and math.
Those gains are most dramatic for the disadvantaged populations that Warren suggests are being left behind. As Jonathan Chait noted in New York magazine, "Researchers have asked and answered every possible objection": The city's high-quality charter schools are indeed replicable, and they aren't snagging only the "best" kids. What's more, students in traditional public schools have actually seen a slight uptick in performance as charters have grown.
Nationwide, a majority of Hispanic Democrats (52 percent) and black Democrats (58 percent) hold favorable opinions of school choice, according to the group Democrats for Education Reform. Yet contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination have demonized charters this election cycle. One possible explanation: Unions vote and spend money on campaigns, while low-income charter school families have far less political might.
Warren isn't wrong on her diagnosis of the overall problem. "Assigning children to schools by zip code, and doing funding by zip code, means that our public schools are very uneven," she told the NEA. That's a real issue, and one that charter schools can help address.