On Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., a young Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat in the “whites only” section of a public bus, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Nearly 40 years later, the woman who by then was recognized as the “first lady of civil rights” started another crusade for equality: She joined an effort to open one of Detroit’s first charter schools. Even though the school ultimately did not open, it proves Parks’ views that “There is no future without education,” and, as Parks’ consultant helping her with her charter school proposal said, “We want parents to know there are options out there that are not bound by where they live and how much money they make.”
Today, New York City parents are reaching the same conclusion Parks reached: that children needed education options. As revealed this past week, between 2020-2022, enrollment in New York’s traditional public schools decreased 8.3%, while charter school numbers increased by 6.9%. Nationally, in the 2020-2021 school year families took more than one million children out of public schools and enrolled nearly 240,000 new students in charter schools, a 7% increase year over year, an increase limited only by limits on the number of charter school slots. Nationally, the waiting list for charters exceeds one million.
Homeschooling has also soared. In March 2021, the Census Bureau concluded that the number of households homeschooling their children had doubled from the previous school year. The proportion of African-American homeschooling households quintupled to 16.1% of the total. Hispanics almost doubled. Asian household proportions rose roughly 75%.
The pandemic may have pushed many of these families, but recent data confirms that ambitious parents have good reason to seek out — and, after the pandemic is over, stick with — alternatives to public schools.
That data comes from the Classic Learning Test (CLT), an online standardized college-admissions test myself and others created that’s grounded in the liberal arts tradition. Unlike the SAT and ACT, which are primarily common core aligned achievement tests, the CLT gives a well-rounded look at how comprehensive a child’s education has been. In other words, it is a broad measure of the quality of a child’s learning to date, as well as aptitude.
The results are stark and reported here for the first time. The average score for a public-school student is 65.85 out of 120 possible points. For a charter school student, it is 73.58, for a homeschooled student, 77.95, significant spreads over public schools.
A recent study from the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice that examined districts with charter schools confirmed the Classic Learning Test data regarding basic quality of education in different kinds of schools. On average, charter school students are performing better in reading and math and have higher graduation rates.
This leads us to believe that a charter school education and other options such as homeschooling present a possible solution to the drop in public education enrollment. By setting higher standards and creating competition for attracting students, they are — or should be — creating incentives for public schools to examine and improve themselves and their outcomes.
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Yet at this very moment, there is a move in Washington to bar the alternative-education door. With new regulations, the U.S. Department of Education is proposing to put obstacles in the way of charter school expansion, as many states are already doing, notably California.
Instead of placing restrictions on charter schools, we should be asking ourselves: Why are parents sending children to charter schools in the first place? And why are many families leaving public schools?
With parents nationwide seeking an alternative to public education, instead of making the life difficult for charters, we should look to them for lessons on how to make public schools better. In other words, instead of burdening charter schools, we should look at what is attracting families and students to them.
Traditional public schools need to give students the tools to excel. With vigorous local competition, public schools will have an incentive to improve their modes of teaching — such as emphasizing classic education grounded in tradition and development of critical thinking, to give students greater ability to think and grow as individuals.
Rather than fighting school choice, all who care for children should embrace school choice and encourage the public institutions to analyze, reform, and help restore the tradition of public-school excellence for all — just as Rosa Parks did.
As she said, “There is no future without education.” Real education.
Tate is the founder and chief executive officer of the Classic Learning Test.