Key to Equal Opportunity is School Choice

As liberals talk about inequality and poverty, conservatives should emphasize education reform as a means to reducing those measures.  Democrats think that conservatives are evil, mean-spirited, and heartless. The reality is that conservatives care about poor people and their policy proposals will actually be more effective in reducing poverty. One such policy proposal is vouchers for charter schools. A majority of America’s charter schools have a student population where over sixty-percent of students are from low-income backgrounds. These charter schools are highly successful and are the key to achieving equality of opportunity.

Children deserve a high quality education regardless of the parents they are born to and the zip code they live in. A few years ago, Stanford University professor Sean Reardon found out that the income achievement gap is larger than the racial achievement gap. The income achievement gap is defined as the average achievement difference between a child from a family at the 90th percentile of the family income distribution (wealthiest) and a child from a family at the 10th percentile (poorest). Reardon found that income achievement gap is twice as large as the black-white achievement gap, even though the latter gets more media attention.

In addition, there was also a strong correlation between SAT scores and family income in 2009. On the math scores, students from the poorest backgrounds scored an average of 457 when the students from the wealthiest backgrounds scored an average of 579 (a gap of 122 points). There is also a 130-point gap in the writing section and a 129-point gap in reading.  The income achievement gap is why states should support vouchers for charter schools and hold teachers accountable.

Vouchers are publicly funded scholarships that allow students to attend alternative schools instead of traditional public schools. When a state provides a student with a voucher, the parents can choose to enroll the student at an alternative school at no cost to them. In this way, children from poor backgrounds will have the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and receive a high quality education.

The most popular form of alternative schooling is charter schools, which are contract-bounded, independent, and outcome-based. The idea was originated by Ray Budde, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in 1974. Based on his ideas, Minnesota passed legislation and became the first state to legalize charter schools in 1991. California became the second state in 1992 and six other states followed in 1993. After that, United States Senators Dennis Durenberger (R-MN) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) authored federal legislation that encouraged states to legalize charter schools and after receiving bipartisan support, the bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Today, forty-one states allow charter schools and five percent of students nationwide attend them.

Charter schools have been extremely successful, especially for poor children. Overall, sixty-three percent of students who attend charters nationwide receive free or reduced lunch, which is far higher than the non-charter student population (forty-eight percent). The Oakland Charter Academy is the best performing school in the city, even though over ninety-percent of the student population is from low-income backgrounds.

The KIPP Empower Academy of Los Angeles is the second best performing school in the nation’s most populous county (nine million people), despite the fact that eighty-nine percent of their students have free or reduced lunch. The International Studies Charter High School in Miami is the second highest ranking high school in Florida according to U.S. News, even though half of their students are from poor backgrounds. Finally, the South Valley Academy in Albuquerque is the second best high school in New Mexico according to U.S. News, even though nearly every student is from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds. These are just a few examples of successful charter schools.

Charter schools are successful because they are innovative and independent. Over ninety-percent of them are nonunionized, which means that teachers are held accountable. If a teacher is ineffective, he or she could get fired whereas tenured public school teachers in most states are almost never dismissed due to academic performance.

One-third of charter schools have a college-preparatory approach and an additional eight percent have a STEM approach (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Many schools incorporate project-based learning and internships for high school students to develop connections. At BASIS schools, the last two weeks of the school year are devoted to project-based learning. At KIPP empower schools, parents and students are required to sign yearly contracts that require them to come to school each day on time, wear a uniform, and take responsibility for their actions. Charter schools set very high expectations for students, parents, and teachers.

There is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to charter school laws. Nine states still have not legalized them. The other states need to dramatically improve their laws. StudentsFirst, an education reform advocacy organization, grades each state on a 4.0 grade point average scale. When it comes to establishing charter schools, only New Jersey receives a perfect score. In 2013, Governor Chris Christie signed into law charter school reform that eliminates the cap on charter establishment, sets a high threshold for a charter contract, institutes a fast-track authorization process for established organizations, evaluates school performance via clear guidelines, and enacts automatic closures for low-performing schools.

No other state has a fast-track authorization process to allow organizations like BASIS and KEA to create new schools easily and quickly. Only four other states (Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada, and South Carolina) have absolutely no caps on the number of charter schools within state borders. When it comes to holding charter schools accountable, four states receive a perfect score (Hawaii, Missouri, Ohio, and Washington) in which there are five-year contracts, an oversight body that oversees school performance, and has closure protocols for low-performing schools. Thirty states have no governmental accountability mechanisms at all.

Conservatives care about poor children and should embrace charter schools as a means to achieving equality of opportunity. Every student deserves a high quality education regardless of what zip code they live in; yet there is a huge income achievement gap. States should look to New Jersey as a model for charter school reform. States should eliminate any cap on the number of charters in their state, set a high academic standard for a charter contract, institute a fast-track authorization process for established organizations, evaluate school performance through an established formula, and enact automatic closure protocols for low-performing schools.

When liberals talk about poverty and inequality, conservatives should emphasize their support for charter schools because the teachers’ union opposes them. After all, a high quality education for poor children can reduce inequality and poverty. When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law historic education reform he said “We live in an aspirational society and the opportunity to receive a quality education is part of the American Dream. Every child isn’t receiving an equal opportunity to a quality education today. For our country to continue to lead the world, we have to right this wrong.”

This article has been updated several times.

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