Groups against the expansion of charter schools may need to find new talking points.
A study from Michigan State University professors Sarah Reckhow and Matt Grossman and University of Rochester Ph.D. student Benjamin C. Evans recently found that the language used by pro-charter school advocates is more effective in advancing their cause than the language used by groups who discourage support of these schools. Researchers surveyed over 1,000 Michigan residents about their views on charter schools in order to glean these results. The study was published in December in the peer-reviewed Policy Studies Journal.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but typically privately run. In recent years, the schools have proliferated: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between the school years of 1999 – 2000 and 2011 – 2012, the percentage of public schools classified as charters increased from around 2 percent to 6 percent. While support for charter schools has largely become a bipartisan issue -- President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton have come out in favor, as well as Republican legislators like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, researchers were interested in ascertaining whether trends of support are likely to fall along certain ideological lines.
Researchers surveyed people about their views on charter schools to see how arguments for and against charter schools resonated with liberals and conservatives. Some survey participants were told that charter schools were more likely to employ nonunion teachers when asked about their support of the schools, while others were told that charter schools were operated by for-profit companies. Another group acted as a control.
Groups against the expansion of charter schools typically argue that charter schools serve to privatize public education, thereby exacerbating existing inequalities. Supporters of charter schools, on the other hand, say that they offer parents a choice, and that employing nonunion teachers can help spur innovation.
The researchers found that self-reported conservatives were more likely to express support for charter schools when they learned that these schools employed nonunion teachers, while liberals were more likely to turn against charter schools when presented with information about the role of private companies in their operations -- although this made less of an impact. Arguments against unions seemed to resonate more strongly with participants, and made them significantly more likely to support charter schools.
“People who clearly had relatively little political knowledge and identified as conservative were the most persuaded,” Reckhow told The Huffington Post over the phone.
“I’ll be blunt about it, I was very surprised by our privatization results. I really thought that would have an impact and I was surprised that it did not," she said. "People had either already incorporated that information -- they already knew that -- or perhaps it wasn’t persuasive.”
Reckhow also noted that when people were asked if they support the proliferation of charter schools in their communities versus in the state’s lowest-performing districts, they were more likely to favor increasing the number of charter schools in failing areas. She told HuffPost she thought this was because respondents might be satisfied with their local school options, and might be more likely to support charter schools in places where they feel distant from the schools' impact.
Still, certain aspects about Michigan politics and the state’s charter landscape may have also impacted the results.
“Michigan recently became a 'right-to-work' state,” noted Reckhow. This means that in Michigan, it is illegal to require groups of workers to pay union dues as a precondition for employment. In recent years, union membership in Michigan has dropped.
"This is a visible issue in Michigan," said Reckhow. "Once you bring unions into the equation, it does affect public perception."
The survey did not measure participants' reactions to charter schools after learning about their academic results, although Reckhow said she would have been curious to see that data.
“In Michigan, charter schools run the gamut -- some schools are high-performing and do better than nearby public schools, and a good number of charter schools are in the bottom 25 percent of schools in the state, they probably should be shut down but they’re not being shut down,” said Reckhow. “The limitation of the study is we really can’t deal with that type of question.”