School Choice & Charters

Striking Teachers Are Targeting Charter Schools. But Are Charters Really a Threat?

By Arianna Prothero — February 25, 2019 3 min read
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For the second time in two years, West Virginia teachers went on strike. But unlike the first time—which set off a wave of teacher walkouts across the country—teachers weren’t demanding more pay. They wanted to block lawmakers from legalizing charter schools and a type of school voucher program.

Lawmakers gave in to the union’s demands within a few hours.

Teachers’ unions in Oakland and Los Angeles have also recently made charter school growth a central issue in their strikes.

But are the expansion of charter schools and school vouchers really an existential threat to traditional public schools? In most parts of America, it’s hard to argue that they are.

Charter schools educate only about 3 million students, or 7 percent of all public-school students, according to federal data. It’s taken charter schools more than 25 years to get to that 7 percent enrollment share—and it looks as though that growth has been slowing in recent years.

Charter school enrollment grew by 5 percent between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, one of the country’s largest charter advocacy groups. Between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, charter enrollment grew by 7 percent. The year before that, it was 9 percent.

An even smaller share of families use vouchers and other related programs—tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts—to send their children to private school: only about 482,000 students, according to EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group, in 29 states. And while school choice supporters are diligently lobbying to expand the number of states that vouchers operate in, growth is still restricted to the availability of private schools and their willingness to participate.

That’s the supply side of things. On the demand side, vouchers and especially charter schools have made significant inroads into some large, urban areas. But areas with less population density struggle to support robust school choice, which requires lots of schools clustered close enough together that families can reasonably get to them.

It’s no coincidence that it’s mostly rural states that still don’t allow for charter schools 25 years into the movement: West Virginia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Vermont.

Another big driver of charter school expansion, philanthropists, are also focused on opening schools in urban areas serving low-income students.

This is not to say that charter school expansion is not a salient issue. But it depends on where you live.

In Los Angeles and Oakland—where teachers’ unions have said charter growth is hurting traditional public schools—charter schools enroll sizable shares of public school students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

In Oakland, 30 percent of students attended charter schools in the 2017-18 school year, according to the NAPCS’ latest data. In Los Angeles, it was 26 percent.

In West Virginia, lawmakers wanted to allow up to seven charter schools to open and to create 1,000 education savings accounts, a voucher-like program, for students with disabilities.

Make no mistake, this would have been an important symbolic victory for school choice advocates, especially charter school supporters who have been pressing to get charters in the state for a while.

But based on the rate of charter school growth so far, and where charters have been successful in expanding, it seems unlikely West Virginia would have been overrun by charter schools anytime soon, if at all.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.