It’s National Charter Schools Week, and there is much to celebrate about North Carolina’s charter school movement. Public charter schools in our state now educate 145,000 students in 63 counties, and charter popularity continues to grow with families. In fact, the state’s charter school waitlist now features over 85,000 student names. Despite widespread popularity, however, charter schools face mounting political challenges.

First, some facts: Charter schools are free, public, and open to all. Yet, as more parents turn to them for their children’s education, there remains a threat that these public schools of choice will face new regulatory obstacles or even a cap prohibiting new charter schools from opening. The reason baffles me, but some corners view public charter schools as a threat to be tamed, rather than a dynamic educational environment that provides the best choice for some children.

A broad bipartisan coalition birthed public charter schools decades ago, and has supported the movement for many years. It has long been my dream for the politics surrounding the issue to return to that.

After all, a Democrat-majority North Carolina General Assembly first authorized public charter schools in the mid-1990s. Former New York City mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat, has long supported public charter schools. Former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, called for states to lift their caps on the number of allowed public charter schools, as North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature did in 2011.

Back then, Republicans and Democrats alike viewed public charter schools as an obvious and common-sense policy. As public schools of choice, charter schools provide parents with options, allowing them to decide which school is best for their children. Most importantly, public charter schools do a good job of educating children.

Last year, Stanford University published the most comprehensive study of charter school performance ever undertaken. The results? “In both reading and math, charter schools provide students with stronger learning compared with the learning in the traditional public schools that are otherwise available to them.”

As public charter schools became increasingly popular, though, the mood in a small but powerful constituency darkened. Teachers’ unions came to view public charter schools skeptically or even outright oppose them.

In addition, press reports and polling results began emerging about a growing racial divide: “Support for charters looks reasonably strong and stable among black and Hispanic Democrats, but it looks weak and is plummeting among white Democrats. The result, I argue, is a risk that growing ideological opposition to charters among white Democrats will have tangible, unwelcome consequences for families of color,” reported Jon Valant of the Brookings Institution in 2019.

A small contingent on the Democratic Party’s left flank thus began to view public charter schools as a competitive threat to enrollment — and therefore, funding — at district schools.

I’ve often stated that public charter schools complement, rather than compete with, district schools. By and large, charter school educators and leaders do not see themselves locked into some sort of fight with district schools. They just want to do their job, which is to help the children in their classrooms realize their full potential. For some families, the local district school is the best option to achieve that goal. For others, a public charter school is a better fit, perhaps because it offers a curricular focus on STEM or the arts.

Regardless of my view, though, the debate over public charter schools in recent years has political consequences. A revealing chart published by The Economist last month highlights the likeliest swing voters in 2024: “Those most likely to have swung from Mr. Biden to Mr. Trump are non-white parents of school-age children.” 

It’s my hope that, in a future National Charter Schools Week op-ed, I can write about those odd few years when public charter schools faced political headwinds from a small contingent of naysayers. In the meantime, our coalition here in North Carolina will continue empowering parents with a choice in their children’s schooling as we work to protect and promote public charter schools.