From the State House to the School House


April 17, 2023 1:31PM

Monumental reforms in K-12 education have been a common theme for the last few years. 2021 was dubbed the “Year of School Choice”, with parents reclaiming their rights in their children’s education. Not to be outdone, 2022 saw universal ESA (education savings accounts) expansion in Arizona, a major victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, and here in Tennessee, the ESA pilot program was ruled constitutional. Yet only a few months into 2023, this year is shaping up to be the biggest year yet for school choice and educational freedom. Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, and most recently Florida have created universal ESA programs, offering unprecedented educational opportunities to millions of students. While ESAs are a great way to increase access to educational opportunities, there is a type of school choice that has—up until recently—around thirty years of bipartisan support: Charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools, free and open to all students eligible for public education. But their main draw is that they are autonomous, that is, not operating under rigid district-wide rules, and are able to cater to individual community and student needs. Since their inception in 1991 in Minnesota, these innovative and independent public schools have spread to 45 states and D.C. That may soon be 46 states, with Montana currently debating two charter bills.

The history of charter schools shows their bipartisan nature, both nationally and here in Tennessee, and may not be what you expect. That is why the Beacon Center released a new report detailing the true history and facts about charter schools. In short, the initial idea of autonomous, small public schools came from a New England educator, was first passed by a Democrat-controlled legislature in Minnesota, and the first-ever charter school was started by teachers. The concept of charters was even praised by a former head of a national teachers union. In Tennessee, the state’s charter school bill was sponsored in the house by a veteran educator and rural democrat and passed by a Democrat-controlled legislature with a Republican governor in support. Similar to Minnesota, the first charter school in Tennessee was founded by teachers. Up until recently, charter schools received bipartisan support for years, from past presidents and governors to local officials.

Providing educational choices, especially within the public school system, was applauded and supported by most across the political spectrum, yet support from the left—mostly from white democrats—has plummeted recently. Even the left-of-center Public Policy Institute states that this drop in support is not based on the real benefits of charters, but because of what they call “anti-charter propaganda” from union leaders because of charter school teachers’ lack of unionization. These attacks on charter schools are “born of self-interest, designed to protect the jobs of mostly white, middle-class teachers and union officials, at the expense of mostly poor, minority kids.”

Charter schools have a proven track record of providing quality, public education and increasing educational opportunities for the most disenfranchised in society, in addition to giving teachers more freedom in their profession. These benefits were why charters received bipartisan support for decades. Unfortunately, “anti-charter propaganda” pushed by teacher union officials has permeated society and led to charter support decreasing for white democrats. Tennesseans and policymakers nationally, should recognize charter schools benefits and forget the soundbites from self-serving special interests. Above all, charter schools are public schools, and they should be praised, not shunned, because they aren’t controlled by a bureaucratic district.