[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Education.]
By Annie Bowers
Real Clear Education
Newly sworn-in President Joe Biden offered a long list of goals for his presidency in his inaugural address – chief among them were rebuilding the post-COVID-19 American economy and addressing systemic racial and economic inequalities. These are herculean tasks – however, the starting point for both might be as simple as ABC.
Or rather, how America’s students are learning their ABC’s.
Education reformers have long championed charter schools as a way to close race- and income-related education gaps. And after an era of support under the Obama administration and an abundance of research pointing to their success, the case for expanded charter school education couldn’t be clearer.
After Obama left office, however, the Democratic party turned sour on charter schools. Senators Warren and Sanders bashed charter schools and school choice during the Democratic primaries. Even Biden, who had a front-row seat to the success of charter schools under his former boss’s watch, stated on the campaign trail that charter schools “siphon off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.”
But it is possible that President Biden will change his tune now that he’s in office. New U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona is a moderate when it comes to charter schools. As the Connecticut Commissioner of Education, he served as a charter school authorizer, typical of many local and state education leaders. Cardona isn’t publicly pro- or anti-charter, an indication that Biden may not dismantle or promote charter schools while in office.
An apathetic approach to charter schools, however, would overlook a clear-cut and evidence-based solution to advancing the stated goals of the Biden campaign. With strong support for charter schools, the new administration has the opportunity to attack the worst failures of our education system, a system that systematically disadvantages some of the most vulnerable members of our society. To break through the cycle of generational poverty and boost wealth for racial minorities and low-income families, charter schools are a great step in the right direction.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on low-income families and racial minorities. For children losing education during the pandemic, enrollment in a successful charter school could reverse this loss. A 2015 Center for Research on Education Outcomes study found that urban charter schools give their students the equivalent of 40 additional school days of learning in math and 28 additional days of learning in reading a year. One Princeton-Brookings study even finds that attending some high-performing urban charter schools for only three years can produce test score gains “equivalent to the size of the US black-white achievement gap.”
The economic cost of America’s race- and income-based achievement gaps is staggering, both in terms of private income and GDP. A 2009 McKinsey report estimates that if the U.S. racial achievement gap had been closed by 1998, the U.S. GDP a decade later would have been $525 billion higher and aggregate earnings would have been $160 billion higher. The same report estimates that if the achievement gap between low- and high-income students had been closed by 1998, the 2008 U.S. GDP would have been $670 billion higher.
The Biden-Harris transition website states: “There’s no greater economic engine in the world than the hard work and ingenuity of the American people.” Charter schools are one of the best ways to build the economy through a more educated workforce while closing the devastating achievement gaps that have only widened during the pandemic.
To accomplish its lofty goals, the Biden administration should consider allocating a larger portion of its budget to the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), which currently receives less than 1% of all federal K-12 spending, even though 6.5% of children at public schools attend charter schools. Biden can also push cities to lift caps restricting charter enrollment and use grants and incentive programs to encourage charter school opening and growth across the country. This would help the more than 5 million American children currently on waiting lists for charter schools.
This is not the time to adopt a neutral approach to charter schools. The Biden administration has the foundation for an extraordinary education solution before them, one that would in turn assist some of their most important goals. To eliminate race- and income-related education gaps and boost our economy, we must invest in America’s charter schools.