In the wake of the national disgrace known simply on social media today as #Charlottesville, and in the face of so many students and families being ill-served by our public institutions (the least of which is public education), it’s hard to get worked up about polling data that shows mixed and, in some cases, declining public support for the very reforms intended to expand effective education to more students — particularly students of color. But worked up we were at the Center for Education Reform (CER) when by 7 am on the day of its release, we began to analyze the results of the annual Education Next poll. By mid-day, we’d issued a statement showing that the news reports figuratively declaring the death of charter schools were wildly exaggerated.
But we made a big mistake. We were comparing the wrong years. And as the founder and CEO of the institution that helped start the charter-school movement, I’m responsible and accountable for the work we do, and it wasn’t good. Our friends at the AP and Politico were right in their coverage, and now, given some time to reflect on the findings of the Education Next poll, there is much more to say.
First, I am gratified that EdNext has conducted these surveys in recent years. CER conducted survey research annually for nearly 15 years, and they were a bear to manage. EdNext’s poll is balanced and reliable. That said, the only role for public-opinion polls in education reform is to diagnose whether the public’s perception is itself balanced and reliable, and to learn exactly what it is that their opinions are based on.
On the issues of charter schools and voucher/scholarship efforts that we believe provide the most immediate relief and support to parents, the results of public opinion are mixed. But the most troubling results relate to the respondents’ perceptions on charter schools. The EdNext poll finds only 39% of respondents support charter schools when the schools are defined as “publicly funded but not managed by local school board ... expected to meet promised objectives ... but exempt from many state regulations.” Fully 25% have no opinion, and 36% oppose. What, you might ask yourself, and why? Before one can diagnose that, consider some contrasting findings.
An AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in April 2017 found that 47% of respondents favor more charter schools as defined as “public schools that function independently of local school district control, while only 23% oppose. 30% have no opinion.” And those who don’t believe they have enough options support charter schools at higher rates.
However, we are surveying a nation where most people are still largely unaware of what a charter school is. In the AP-University of Chicago poll, “58% of respondents say they know little or nothing at all about charter schools and 66% report the same about private-school vouchers.”
According to EdWeek’s Ariana Prothero, in writing about the 2014 annual PDK poll, “48% of respondents said charters were not public schools and that they could teach religion, while 57% believe charters could charge tuition and 68% think they can select their students based on ability.”
Ten years ago, CER’s survey research found that only 20% of respondents correctly identified charter schools as “public” schools when asked to pick from a list that also included private, religious or parochial, and magnet schools.
In the past decade, despite more laws, approximately half of all Americans know what a charter school is on a good day, and that number swings depending on what is asked and when.
This is perhaps the most troubling data to come out of polls. For all the laws, the work, and the effort, we not only have confusion in the marketplace, but also a perceived sense of negativity by some measures of public opinion.
Charters were called the “grassroots revolt” by Time in 1994, as well as the most bipartisan education effort by Education Week. They’ve been applauded by both Republican and Democratic Presidents and lawmakers. Advocates seized on changes in state capitals that were ripe for education reform (not unlike today), and real strides were made.
But today, while there remains a strong, grassroots component to the movement, much of its energy has dissipated and progress has slowed dramatically. The reality is that more was accomplished in the first nine years of the education- reform movement than in the past 16. So what happened?
To be sure, the strategy and tactics of charter opponents — relentlessly portraying the reform movement as rich, separatist corporatists who want to privatize our public schools — have had an impact. And their inflammatory attacks continue to skew perceptions and warp the debate (see American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten’s ugly characterization of choice as a form of racism).
But another part of the problem can be traced to a split within the charter community itself. Instead of being bold in supporting and promoting the true role and value of charter schools, too many leaders in the community have been timid. While some held tightly to the philosophical principles and distinguishing characteristics that are the foundation of the charter movement — independence, innovation, and entrepreneurship — others worked to move charters into the mainstream adopting policy positions designed to avoid controversy, broaden support from the establishment, and make charters “more acceptable.”
The retreat from the philosophical front lines of the charter fight has blurred the public’s perception of what charters are — in some cases they’re being described as “public school-light” — and, as importantly, what they can be for children, parents, and communities. That, as much as anything, is one of the biggest reasons for the muted public response found in the EdNext poll.
We have talked about this a lot since CER did a refresh in 2016, most notably in the manifesto we released entitled The New Opportunity Agenda. We have also pointed out, in op-eds and reports, how regulatory barriers to charter growth have caused a backlash in states.
Public opinion of course is only as good as the information the public receives and only matters if it impacts the flow of good education to all kids, most of all those who are disenfranchised. Doing what is right is always more difficult that doing what is popular. That the tide of public opinion seems to have turned is a wake-up call, but it in no way suggests or signifies that we should slow down. On the contrary — doing what is right and just for the millions of students who are stuck in failing schools with no opportunity to participate in the future is a moral imperative.
Jeanne Allen is an entrepreneur, an innovator, and a leader. Her entire career has been devoted to education reform, and, as a result, she is the most recognized and respected expert, thought leader, speaker, and writer in the field. She founded the Center for Education Reform in 1993 and leads the nationwide fight to ensure that the bedrock of U.S. schooling is innovation, freedom and flexibility. She’s active on Twitter, at @JeanneAllen.