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Why Has Charter School Popularity Suddenly Dropped Off?

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Ever since President Donald Trump picked up the school choice banner during the 2016 election, some charter school advocates have worried that an endorsement from such a polarizing president could erode support for the schools—especially among blacks and Latinos.

A new poll, which shows a 12 percent drop in support for charter schools since last year, would seem at first glance to confirm their worst fears.

But researchers from Education Next, a journal published by Stanford University's Hoover Institution that conducted the poll, say that drop doesn't seem to be caused by Trump. For one, charters lost popularity among both Democrats and Republicans. Secondly, there wasn't a similar drop in opinion for other school choice policies that Trump has also backed.

So, what's at play here?

No one can be certain, but the pollsters hypothesize that the causes may include changing dynamics within the Democratic Party, as well as debates over charter expansion.

To the first point: President Barack Obama, one of the most high-profile champions of charters, has left office, while some of the most prominent liberal voices on the national stage—Sens. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent—have voiced opposition to charters.

National civil rights leaders—including the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives (a coalition of groups that includes Black Lives Matter)— have also taken a harsh stance toward charters. Both called this time last year for a ban on any new charters opening, which was a significant PR blow for the charter movement.

Finally, pitched political battles over charter schools may also contribute to eroding of support beyond the Democratic Party. The researchers who conducted the poll pointed to the failed effort last fall to raise the cap on the number of schools allowed to open in Massachusetts.

How worried should charter school advocates be? Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is urging calm. 

"This dip in broad public approval, as reported by Education Next, seems more reflective of the unique moment we're in," Rees said in a statement. "With the spotlight shone on public school choice this election year, we've seen a stirring up of opinion (as in all presidential election cycles, followed by a leveling off)—and we've also seen expensive, sustained, and coordinated campaigns to discredit charter schools, led by teachers' unions and special interests that feel threatened by families having a choice in public school."

Now, let's break down the numbers.

Overall, 39 percent of respondents said they supported charter schools, down from 51 percent last year. Thirty-six percent said they oppose charters. Nearly a quarter said they had no opinion one way or the other— something the EdNext pollsters say could have to do with lack of familarity among the general public with the charter school concept. And, indeed, another survey from earlier this summer would seem to back that up.

The EdNext poll also found that support among African-American respondents fell from 46 percent to 37 percent, and it fell from 44 percent to 38 percent among Hispanics. This is notable because a visible segment of the charter sector devotes itself to serving low-income black and Latino students. But the biggest dropoff came from whites— from 54 percent approving of charters last year to 40 percent this year. 

Support fell by 13 percent among Republicans and 11 percent among Democrats. But those numbers shifted considerably when pollsters informed participants about Trump's position on the policy.

Meanwhile, opposition to private school choice seemed to soften.

Twenty-four percent of survey participants said they opposed tax-credit scholarships compared with 29 percent last year, while support remained essentially flat at 54 percent. Researchers saw a similar trend on the question of whether all families should be allowed to use a publicly-funded vouchers to send their children to private schools: Opposition fell and support went unchanged.

Finally, one last school-choice item of note: For the first time this year, EdNext asked survey participants for their views on home schooling. Forty-five percent reported that they support the idea of allowing parents to educate their children at home while 34 percent opposed it.

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