What Beto O’Rourke Should Say about Charter Schools

What Beto O’Rourke Should Say about Charter Schools
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

There’s an issue dogging Beto O’Rourke that he just can’t shake—charter schools. His wife, Amy, founded one and works with an El Paso, Texas-based organization that actively supports their expansion in their home town. Even though Beto’s position on charter schools is exactly the same as Barack Obama’s, because that position is at odds with teachers unions, whose support often comes with an influx of cash and other resources, it’s problematic in a Democratic primary campaign. 

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At town hall after town hall, charter opponents have backed Beto into a corner on charter schools and he’s struggled to provide a coherent answer about his position. Only July 5, Beto and others will appear at a Presidential candidate forum hosted by the nation’s largest teacher’s union. This issue will undoubtedly come up. Here’s what he should say: 

Charter schools are public schools and I support any type of public school that is preparing students for our increasingly competitive and changing job market. In my home state of Texas, charter schools serve a disproportionate share of low-income students and students from historically underserved communities. And on the whole, they are crushing it. Hispanic students attending charter schools in Texas scored higher on the Nation’s Report Card 8thgrade math test than any other Hispanic kids in the country. Higher even than Hispanic kids in states that typically dominate the rankings. Charter schools in Texas have higher high school graduation rates for low income students, higher college acceptance rates, higher college completion rates, and are closing the racial and income achievement gaps that plague our public schools. I stand by any schools that achieve these results for the kids who have not been handed a golden ticket at birth. 

Are there bad charter schools? You bet. Just like there are bad district-run public schools. Here’s what Texas does right: A few years ago, our Legislature passed the toughest charter accountability law in the country. If you fail academically or don’t meet stringent financial standards for three school years in a row, you’re closed down. This automatic three-strikes policy has closed down the worst-performing charter schools in our state. That’s a good thing—those students are now in schools that can serve them better. Meanwhile, we allow generational failure to continue unchecked in many traditional public schools run by districts. That is not OK. 

Here’s another thing Texas does right: Only nonprofit charter schools are allowed to serve children. I know other states have had some problems with for-profit charter schools, but we don’t have that in Texas because we don’t allow it. 

Texas also incentivizes charter schools and school districts to work together to make sure all students have access to a public school that will prepare them for life after high school. A growing number of our school district leaders are embracing charter schools as partners to bring innovative, creative, student-centered practices into their campuses. 

This is what accountability looks like in Texas. As President, I’ll appoint a Secretary of Education who will be an ambassador of these best practices to ensure all students have access to the quality education they deserve. 
Charter schools and district-run schools are part of one public education system that families are counting on to prepare our children for life-long success and to be active, informed participants in our democracy. There is room for all types of schools. We should reject a one-size-fits all approach to education and embrace empowering families to choose what is right for their kids. 

Democratic candidates who have previously been enthusiastic supporters of charter schools (Castro, and Booker too) shouldn’t be shy about telling it like it is. The Presidential campaign trail is littered with candidates who have won the union endorsements and never made it to the White House or even the nomination. They should remind themselves that our north star in education must be what’s best for children. 

And they should talk to moms like me. I’m a registered Independent who doesn’t vote party-line. I live in an urban neighborhood that I love, but will have hard choices to make when my little girl is ready for kindergarten because she is assigned to a failing district school that is getting worse with each passing year. I can’t send her to that school. 

There are millions of moms in my shoes. White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, urban, suburban, and rural. We don’t want pandering. We want leadership. We want someone to say what we all know: There are schools in America today that are driven by a bureaucracy that does not put the needs of students first. If it takes fresh eyes and fresh leadership in the form of a charter school to make sure that children receive a high-quality public education, then we expect policymakers to have the courage to support them.

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