The divide between charter and private schools is destructive and misguided

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It’s time for charter school advocates who’ve doubled down against private school choice to “see the light.” We need to put aside old grudges and commit ourselves to cooperation.

As a new administration works to make education savings accounts and vouchers palatable to Washington, reform advocates should remember that when any type of educational option is strengthened, all options benefit. Families benefit. After all, freedom isn’t easily taken away once people experience it. So let’s open the floodgates and not argue about whether charters are better than private schools.

The charter/private school divide isn’t new. I remember my first tour of a charter school as the executive director of an organization with “school choice” in its name. The principal greeted me warmly, but was quick to point out, “We’re a public charter school. School choice isn’t our thing.” She would be the first of many to highlight this seemingly metaphysical difference.

What many in the charter camp wish to assert is that there are “good” choices and “bad” choices. And this isn’t a statement about school quality. It’s a position that private school choice in the form of vouchers and other funding mechanisms should not exist. It’s something like a religious belief.

Some of this group will tell you that chartering is the best and only mechanism necessary to reform American schools. Others are simply partisan—they believe that any education reform proposed by President Trump, no matter how potentially helpful, isn’t worth supporting. Such reform is the fruit of a poisonous tree, apparently.

But the charter school advocates who need a true “come-to-Jesus” moment are the ones who oppose private school choice because it helps faith-based schools. They’ve never liked how religious folks have kept their church schools running thanks to school choice. These people like to use the “charters aren’t unregulated private schools” slogan as a cover for an inflexible dogma of their creed: Private schools shall not get public funds.

Don’t believe such people exist? Well, let’s think about it:

How many times have you heard an education reformer say they support “high quality charters” but are “conflicted” about vouchers? If pressed, they’ll initially mention “accountability.” But as my colleague Michael Petrilli recently noted, “the newest and biggest voucher programs—those in Louisiana and Indiana—now have significant accountability provisions that are arguably even stronger than those found in many state charter programs.”

Get beyond accountability and you often encounter vague references to the Constitution and the importance of a “wall of separation” between church and state. It’s obvious some of these people simply have a problem with faith-based schools.

Some are truly anti-religion. Most just think it’s unconstitutional and wrong for private schools to get public money. But there’s hope: Provide a credible argument to the contrary and many seem relieved. I have had this experience over and over again.

Much like Saul “seeing the light” on the road to Damascus, the reform community needs to help more “charter or nothing” reformers to come and support private school choice. The most effective reform advocates support educational options, period.

We need to remind the over-cautious that the establishment—people like NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia or the AFT’s Randi Weingarten—wants desperately to thwart all efforts to reform. If we want all families have access to the education they choose, reformers need to work together instead of squabbling over which schools are “best.” Let’s have some pragmatism here.

For me, the fact that private schools were educating American kids in every state before the states themselves existed is enough reason to use new policies to help them continue what they’ve done for generations.

It is important to admit honestly that private schools and charter schools have the same aims. Neither type of school stops at teaching kids their ABCs. They focus on values and character. Good educators know that students are not statistics. Good schools address students as whole people.

One framework to build character, in many schools, is religion.

Christians talk about four “cardinal” and three “theological” virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage; faith, hope, and love. For Muslims, the Koran and the Hadith include themes of generosity, courage, humility, respect, justice, and wisdom. In Hinduism, the puruṣārthas point to individual rights and duties, the honorable pursuit of economic success, and love of others. The traditions are particular but the values are often universal.

Now think about the “values” and “character strengths” that a lot of charter schools promote. Take KIPP for example. Their lauded character framework includes: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. Aren’t these just new secular words for old virtues?

Schools like KIPP are innovating by re-presenting time-tested ideas that help students develop as human beings. And, in many cases, faith-based schools are continuing a long tradition of teaching transcendent truths. Both are teaching values. Call them what you will; these values define true education. They are important because they get to the heart of what it means to be a good human being.

One reformer’s “temperance” is another’s “self-control.” So be it. One family loves its faith-based school and another its charter school. That’s fine—I’m happy to live and let live. I wish more charter school advocates were, too. 

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.