This is Part 2 of A History of School Choice in America. In Part 1, I explained the school choice movement beginning with Brown v. Board of Education and ending in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president.
By the 1990s, school choice had gained even more traction. Political scientists John E. Chubb and Terry Moe published Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, in which they argued that the public education system was incapable of ever reforming itself. They blamed the vested interests of teachers’ unions and other associations, textbook companies, testing companies, etc. in protecting the status quo. They theorized that as long as schools are subject to democratic control the status quo would be protected. They also reasoned that poor academic performance is “one of the prices Americans pay for choosing to exercise direct democratic control over their schools.” They surmised that school choice “has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways.”
Chubb and Moe had struck a nerve, and a frenzy of scholarly writings emerged in educational journals where their book was denounced as advocacy for vouchers. However, Chubb and Moe accomplished much for their cause by keeping the school choice movement in the public discussion about education (Ravitch, 2010).
Thus, in 1990, the first voucher program was established in Milwaukee. It was hotly contested, but it was supposed to be a way to raise academic achievement for poor minorities. In, 1998 the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the legality of the voucher program and permitted religious schools to accept vouchers. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the decision. The program rapidly expanded from 2,000 students using vouchers in 1998 to over 20,000 in 2008, 80% of which were used to attend religious schools at that time (Ravitch, 2010).
In 1995, a voucher program was enacted for Cleveland by the Ohio state legislature. Students could attend any school (private, religious, or public) with their vouchers. This was also hotly contested. A legal battle ensued and ended in 2002 when U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v Simmons-Harris that the program did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
In 2003 the Republican-led US Congress established a voucher program for 2,000 students in D.C. About ⅔ of the those students enrolled in Catholic schools with their vouchers (Ravitch, 2010).
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on vouchers should have been a huge victory for the school choice movement, but vouchers seemed to lose steam to a new form of school choice: charters. There is an overlap in the timeline of the shift of focus from vouchers to charters as forms of school choice.
It is important to note here that unlike vouchers, charters raise no constitutional issues about separation of church and state. Perhaps this is why the charter school movement picked up momentum during the time when the constitutionality of voucher programs was being challenged.
Charter school legislation varies by state, but in general, it allows organizations to apply for a charter from a state agency for a set period of time to meet performance goals in exchange for autonomy. The timeframe is usually no less than five years, and no more than ten. Charter schools can be managed by for-profit or nonprofit entities at the national, state, and local levels. In Mississippi, charter schools are required to maintain a non-profit status at this time.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Albert Shanker, former president of American Federation of Teachers, supported charter schools in the form of allowing teachers to run schools with the freedom to be innovative. He thought this would provide the opportunity for educators to learn from each other as the charter schools tested ideas and shared with public schools. However, in 1993, he withdrew his support for charter schools as he realized that new entities were jumping into education as a business venture (Ravitch, 2010).
Thus, over time charters became increasingly hostile to teachers’ unions because charters wanted to be able to set pay scales, hire/fire teachers at will, establish merit pay plans, require longer working hours, etc. Even though there were a couple of exceptions, the majority were opposed to working with teachers’ unions (Ravitch, 2010).
In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to pass charter school legislation. In 1992, the nation’s first charter school opened in St. Paul. This school actually operated as the paradigm for what Shanker had hoped would happen with charters. It served the students who had not succeeded in regular schools and was a place where teachers could be innovative in their service of students.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. New Orleans schools were decimated, and the Recovery School District was established to serve students. The Recovery School District is a large network of charter schools. By 2008, 55% of all students in New Orleans were enrolled in charters or otherwise privately managed schools.
By 2009, 4,600 charters were in operation across the country. At this point, 60% of all charter students were going to school in California, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that in the 2012-2013 school year, there were 5,997 charter schools in the United States. As of 2012 (most recent data found) charter school legislation had been passed in 42 states and the District of Columbia. At that time, charter school legislation had not been passed in the following states: Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.
In 2013, Mississippi passed HB 369 allowing charter schools to operate in the state. In 2015, Mississippi passed SB 2695, also known as The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, which provides a limited number of vouchers for special needs students to attend any school of their choice.
Two major themes have emerged from charter schools in their current manifestation as a market model of reform: power of competition to improve all schools and deregulation by the government. The major assumption is that the market model works for businesses to lower prices, create better products, and offer leaner bureaucracies. Thus, the market model must work for the educational system (Ravitch, 2010).
Since the 1990s researchers have been trying to prove whether charters and school choice are having a significant positive impact on students. Interestingly reports published by opponents almost always find that there are no benefits, and reports published by proponents almost always do find benefits.
Now that the history of school choice in America has been established, I will continue this series by explaining some of the implications of educational research on the movement and how the movement impacts the state of Mississippi. My hope is that Mississippians can educate themselves so that we can make the best decisions for our students as possible. Stay tuned for the next post!
Amanda Koonlaba is an elementary art teacher in Tupelo, MS. She is a contributor to MSEdBlog. Her views are her own and do not represent the views of any other entity.