Last week, Joe Biden announced his reversal on the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for most abortions. “If I believe health care is a right,” the Democratic presidential front-runner said, “I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s zip code.”
He’s right about that. So why do so many Democrats wish to make public schooling dependent on zip code as well?
I’m talking about the growing opposition to the charter-school movement, which wants students to be able to select schools outside of their neighborhoods. But the same Democrats who have rallied behind choice in the abortion debate are rejecting it in education.
Mayors in Democratic strongholds like New York and Chicago have said they want to limit charter schools. California Gov. Gavin Newsom seems to have turned against them, too, appointing a task force to investigate the effect of charters on traditional public schools.
And several Democratic presidential candidates are on the anti-charter bandwagon as well. Sen. Elizabeth Warren opposed a proposal in Massachusetts to raise the cap on charter schools. Most notably, Sen. Bernie Sanders recently called for a freeze on federal funding for all new charter schools and a ban on for-profit ones.
I share many of their concerns. Charter schools’ academic performance is uneven, with most studies showing small or no test-score gains for students who attend them. Some for-profit charters have been cesspools of corruption, allowing sleazy operators to line their pockets with taxpayer dollars. In 2016, for example, the founder of a Beaver County, Pa., cyber-charter was sentenced to 20 months in prison after siphoning $8 million from the school to a network of businesses he created. And charter schools have sometimes exacerbated racial segregation, as Sanders correctly noted. According to a 2017 Associated Press report, 17 percent of charter schools had student populations that were 99 percent nonwhite, while only 4 percent of public schools are similarly segregated.
But here’s one thing he didn’t say: Charters are also popular among racial minorities, a key Democratic constituency. According to 2018 data compiled by Education Next, 47 percent of black Democrats support charters and 29 percent oppose them; similarly, 47 percent of Hispanic Democrats back charters, and 35 percent oppose them. By contrast, only 27 percent of white Democrats support charter schools and 50 percent are against them.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist — or a statistician — to figure out why. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to attend underserved schools, so they understandably want the chance to go elsewhere. But if we cut off public support for charters, as Sanders has suggested, some people who want to choose them won’t be able to.
Sound familiar? That’s precisely the argument against the Hyde Amendment, which has come under renewed scrutiny as states like Alabama and Georgia take measures to restrict or prohibit abortions. If poor women can’t receive public dollars for abortion, then “choice” becomes a chimera. It only has meaning if people can exert it.
Ditto for education. You don’t have to like charter schools to support the right of other people to select them, any more than you have to favor abortion to back the right to choose it. But if you prohibit public spending on them, you’re essentially denying those options to big swaths of the public.
And you’re also saying that you understand their interests better than they do, which is the epitome of paternalism. I am a skeptic about charters, but I know that they’re preferred by many people who are less privileged than I am. I’m not willing to deny them school choice on the ground that I think I know more than they do.
That, too, would echo opponents of reproductive choice. I know you don’t want to bear a child, their argument goes, but I understand its rights better than you do. And my understanding should trump your rights, including the right over your own body.
To be sure, governments also have a legitimate role in helping people make good choices. So in the case of charter schools, we need to demand much more data about their finances as well as their academic outcomes. Here in Pennsylvania, most notoriously cyber-charters have been allowed to multiply without any real oversight of their dubious practices and performance. That has to change.
Likewise, any abortion provider should be regulated to ensure that it follows proper medical procedures and provides people with full information about their different options. But the final choice on abortion should be theirs, just as it should be when it comes to schools. Not your choice, or mine. Theirs.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools” (University of Chicago Press).