Charter public school success depends on the opinion of parents. No student is ever assigned to a charter school. Without enough interest from parents, charter schools won’t open. And if a charter school fails to keep up enrollment, it will close. Therefore, it’s up to charter school leaders and teachers to prove to parents that their children are getting a high-quality education and laying the foundation for a life of opportunity.
The results of EdNext’s 2016 survey of parent opinions of traditional public, charter public, and private schools show that charter schools are succeeding in meeting parents’ expectations. Charter school parents are generally more satisfied with the schools their children attend than parents of students in district public schools. “Across five key characteristics—teacher quality, school discipline, expectations for student achievement, safety, and instruction in character or values—charter-school parents are, on average, 13 percentage points more satisfied with their schools than are parents of children in district schools.” Similar results are found in an accompanying analysis of 2012 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
In addition to being more satisfied with their child’s school, charter school parents also report having fewer concerns about their schools. The only issues on which charter school parents are either less satisfied or more concerned than traditional public school parents are is the availability of extra-curricular activities, school facilities, and the location of their child’s school.
Policymakers looking at these results should conclude two things: Parents need access to more charter schools near their homes, and charter schools need access to more resources to help round out their facilities and extracurricular offerings. More funding for the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) would be a big help, as the CSP is a prime source of funding to launch and replicate charter schools. States and localities should also do more to ensure that charter schools get an equal share of education funding.
The poll also raises a question for parents. If parents are generally more satisfied with charter schools than district public schools, what can they do to ensure that charter schools have the political and financial support to keep growing?
In some places, parents are very active. New York’s charter school movement mobilizes parents to march across the Brooklyn Bridge and gather in annual rallies to demand better choices for students. This fall, we saw parents and grandparents organized by Memphis Lift take buses from Memphis to Cincinnati to implore the NAACP not to pass a resolution designed to chill charter school growth. In Washington state, parents were vital to convincing the legislature to save charter schools after they were declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court. And, of course, many thousands of charter school parents are active in their own child’s school on a regular basis, providing support for a host of school functions. (Indeed, according to the EdNext results, “charter parents are 15 percentage points more likely to say they have communicated with the school about volunteering” than district-school parents.)
But this support doesn’t always translate into collective action to support the growth of charter schools or to fight against the criticisms that opponents perpetuate. Parents are far more effective advocates for their children – and for other children in their community – than charter school leaders or policy experts or professional advocates. Parents see how charter schools benefit their children, they like the results, and they need to make that known – loudly and consistently.
Those of us in the advocacy community need to do a better job of helping parents raise their voices effectively. Not just around specific campaigns like we saw in Washington state or in Cincinnati, but on an ongoing basis to promote the movement. There are more parents of charter school students in America than there are members of teachers unions. We ought to be able to turn the voices of satisfied parents into a sturdy foundation of support that grows the charter movement so that more students benefit.
As a new Administration takes shape in Washington, with an education leader who has long been an advocate of parental choice, the charter school movement needs to redouble its efforts to turn happy parents into active warriors for charter schools and school choice.
Nina Rees is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.