Education policy may not have received any attention in last week’s presidential debate, but results from a series of polls in critical swing states suggest voters in general, and Black voters, in particular, have strong feelings about the need for greater educational choice and charter schools. In August, at the request of the Manhattan Institute, Rasmussen Reports embedded a series of questions on school choice and charter schools into its state-wide polling in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. A new Manhattan Institute report released this week discusses the findings.
Among these states, 46% to 52% of likely voters reported that they believe that giving parents the right to choose their children’s school raises the overall quality of K-12 education for students; only 18% to 20% believe that it lowers educational quality. Black respondents were more likely to believe that school choice raises educational quality.
Between 66% and 70% of all respondents supported the concept of publicly funded K-12 school choice; among Black respondents, 66% to 77% supported this. More than half of all respondents supported state funding of charter schools as an alternative to traditional local district-managed public schools; support for charter schools among Black respondents ranged from 58% to 67%.
This general support for school choice and charter schools among Black families goes beyond the survey results. Whereas enrollment in charter schools only accounts for 7.3% of all students in public schools in the states polled, the number is 17% for Black students across all five states, almost four times that of white students. In all but North Carolina, Black students are the group most likely to enroll in charter schools. In Michigan, 27% of Black students in public schools attend charter schools, and in Pennsylvania, 23% do.
Under President Barack Obama, the Democratic Party was committed to the growth of charter schools as a means of expanding educational opportunities to traditionally underserved communities. This year’s Democratic Party platform, however, calls for increased scrutiny of the admissions practices, disciplinary procedures, and public finances of charter schools. The Trump administration, on the other hand, seems somewhat friendlier to school choice. It has voiced support for tuition tax credits for use in private and religious schools. At the same time, it has awarded $65 million to expand the supply of charter schools in needed areas and has not proposed any significant expansion of federal regulation of existing or new charter schools.
In a year in which equal opportunity for the nation’s Black citizens has risen to the forefront of the political debate, it is surprising that the support for charter schools among Black voters has met such indifference from the presidential candidates. Research of educational outcomes aligns with the support for charter schools among Black voters. A 2015 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Options found that “learning gains for charter school students are larger by significant amounts for Black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading.” The achievement advantages for students who were in two of these subgroups (Black and special education) were quite large, amounting “to months of additional learning per year.”
More recently, my Manhattan Institute colleague and Boston University professor Marcus Winters replicated a randomized control study on the impact of charters on students in Newark, N.J. It found that enrolling in a Newark participating charter school leads to large improvements in a student’s math and English language arts (ELA) test scores, on average. Further, these improvements were sustained over time.
We should not be surprised that parents in all communities value educational options for their children, and that when given the chance, they choose those options that work best for them. Nor should we be surprised that voters reject the notion that these alternatives somehow harm the local district-managed public schools. In a nationwide study earlier this year, Winters considered the possibility that charter schools might create negative impacts on local district schools and found no evidence to support that claim. Rather, he found “a very small but positive relationship between the proportion of students within a geographic district who attend a charter school as of 2009 and the test-score growth for students enrolled in the traditional public schools in the same district over the next seven years.”
Charter schools work for lower-income children of color in the urban school districts that have historically underserved them. As public opinion in key battleground states demonstrates, their parents are not seeking charters and additional choice in order to harm public education; most still send their children to traditional district schools. Rather, they are seeking greater opportunities for their children. Our elected officials and those seeking high office should listen to what they are saying and support their efforts.
Ray Domanico is the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute and coauthor of the recent report, “School Choice: Public Opinion in Five Battleground States.”