(Guest Post by Collin Hitt
A Romney red state and an Obama blue state both went for charter schools yesterday. Georgia and Washington faced statewide ballot initiatives to create and expand charter schools. Both measures passed.
The past two years have been years of school choice. As Greg has noted, vouchers and tax credit scholarship programs have seen a renaissance and massive growth. Charter schools have grown in turn, often receiving little notice while voucher programs and tenure reforms draw the attention of a dwindling number of anti-reformers.
Here’s a bit of policy background for understanding yesterday’s elections. Two laws must be in place in order for charter schools to open in meaningful numbers. There needs to be a law that allows charter schools to exist, obviously. And there needs to be a law giving charter schools a realistic chance of being approved by those overseeing the application process.
Forty-one states had created charter school laws, before yesterday. But several of those laws, like Virginia’s, are practically meaningless since they entrust the entire approval process for charter schools to school boards and union-dominated interests. This issue – that of charter school “authorizing” – is most important now facing the charter school movement.
Some states have created independent commissions to vet charter school proposals. Others have entrusted colleges to approve charter schools. These entities don’t need local school district say-so in order to approve a charter school in a given area. Independent authorizers bring impartiality to a process otherwise dominated by special interests. Charter commissions and universities aren’t crusading change agents either, just less partial authorities that in many states have allowed the charter school sector to bloom.
Georgia has had a charter school law on the books for years. It had an independent charter school commission for a time, as well, until the state supreme court ruled that a constitutional amendment was needed in order to bypass school district authority when approving charter schools. So the legislature placed an amendment on the ballot to do just that. Amendment One was up for a vote last night.
Washington was, before yesterday, the largest state to not have a charter school law. Through the state’s ballot initiative process, a new charter school law was proposed. This “Initiative 1240” would create a charter law, legally allowing charter schools to open. It would also create a statewide commission like that debated in Georgia, which would realistically approve applications to open charter schools. According to the Washington Policy Center’s Liv Finne, “Initiative 1240 would give Washington the best charter school law in the country.”
Both Georgia and Washington approved the measures. Georgia and Washington are not similar states. Georgia is reliably red and Romney carried it by 8 points. Washington is blue; Obama won there by 12. Georgia approved the charter school measure by 16 points, while Washington adopted the charter law by 2.4 points.
There were, of course, some common factors in both states, mainly the fierce union and bureaucratic opposition to charter schools. Both initiatives were on the one hand attacked as part of an elitist agenda of corporations and billionaires; this was supposed to incite the Occupy and labor union crowds. The teacher unions tried to hide behind the usual smokescreen of local control, as well, hoping to turn the Tea Party and rural voters against a market driven reform. The tactics – devoid of policy substance – didn’t work in either place.
Charter schools prevailed. And not just that, they prevailed on a day that was a mixed bag for other education reform voters. Between candidates and ballot initiatives, there were a number of notable elections, and the results were all over the place. Idaho rejected merit pay and tenure reforms. Michigan rebuked the teachers unions’ attempt to constitutionally guarantee collective bargaining. Republicans retook the Senate in Wisconsin.Tony Bennett lost in Indiana; Mike Pence won in Indiana.
Jay has noted that the status quo has no more intellectual defenders. Elites have bailed on the old way of doing things. There’s disagreement about which reforms are best. And the unions will still block reforms whenever they can, while remaining a potent force in elections.
But when it comes to whether American needs more school choice, the debate is over. Yesterday was evidence of that. Washington and Georgia agree, charter schools are good. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama agree, we need more school choice. There is still disagreement over how much school choice is appropriate, whether charter schools are sufficient, or whether private school options should be expanded as well. That debate will be important, but it was the thoughtful conversation that anti-reformers never wanted America to have.