the national interest

Unlearning an Answer

Charter schools deliver extraordinary results, but their political support among Democrats has collapsed. What will Biden do?

Photo: Johannes Arlt/laif/Redux
Photo: Johannes Arlt/laif/Redux
Photo: Johannes Arlt/laif/Redux

In the dozen years since Barack Obama undertook the most dramatic education reform in half a century — prodding local governments to measure how they serve their poorest students and to create alternatives, especially charter schools, for those who lack decent neighborhood options — two unexpected things have happened. The first is that charter schools have produced dramatic learning gains for low-income minority students. In city after city, from New York to New Orleans, charters have found ways to reach the children who have been most consistently failed by traditional schools. The evidence for their success has become overwhelming, with apolitical education researchers pronouncing themselves shocked at the size of the gains. What was ten years ago merely an experiment has become a proven means to develop the potential of children whose minds had been neglected for generations.

And yet the second outcome of the charter-school breakthrough has been a bitter backlash within the Democratic Party. The political standing of the idea has moved in the opposite direction of the data, as two powerful forces — unions and progressive activists — have come to regard charter schools as a plutocratic assault on public education and an ideological betrayal.
The shift has made charter schools anathema to the left. “I am not a charter-school fan because it takes away the options available and money for public schools,” Biden told a crowd in South Carolina during the Democratic primary, as the field competed to prove its hostility toward education reform in general and charters in particular. Now, as Biden turns from campaigning to governing, whether he will follow through on his threats to rein them in — or heed the data and permit charter schools to flourish — is perhaps the most unsettled policy mystery of his emerging administration.

To head the Department of Education, Biden floated the names of fierce critics of charter schools, including the ex-president of the country’s largest teacher union and the former dean of the Howard University School of Education, who has called urban charters “schemes” that are really all about controlling urban land. Then, in a surprise move, Biden formally tapped Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s education chief — a nonideological pick who offends neither the party’s opponents of reform nor its remaining defenders. For policy experts and parents alike, it is baffling that Biden’s finalists ran the full gamut from charter hatred to moderation — a bit like if the job of national security adviser were down to a bake-off between John Kerry and Attila the Hun. It’s a clue that whatever Biden’s formulations on the campaign trail, he may yet refrain from dismantling the education legacy of the president he once served.

The achievement gap between poor Black and Latino students in cities and rich white students in suburbs represents a sickening waste of human ability and is a rebuke to the American credo of equal opportunity. Its stubborn persistence has tormented generations of educators and social reformers. The rapid progress in producing dramatic learning gains for poor children, and the discovery of models that have proved reliable in their ability to reproduce them, is one of the most exciting breakthroughs in American social policy. For many education specialists, the left’s near abandonment of charter schools has been a bleak spectacle of unlearning — the equivalent of Lincoln promising to rip out municipal water systems or Eisenhower pledging to ban the polio vaccine. Just as the dream is becoming real, the party that helped bring it to life is on the verge of snuffing it out.

In college, I had a brief experience tutoring bright students who’d been taught depressingly little by the public schools of Detroit, which impressed upon me the cruelty of a system that denied so many kids any chance to develop their talent. But it wasn’t until I met my wife that I got interested in charter schools. Robin has devoted her career to education policy: She studied it in graduate school, taught at a low-income school, worked in local and federal education departments, researched for a liberal think tank, did executive-level work for a charter-school network. Her current role is with a nonprofit organization, consulting for and providing technical assistance to schools and state education bodies. Because of Robin, I’ve gained a window into a siloed world of experts who grasp both the state of research on charter schools and its staggering moral implications. Once you have scrutinized a machine that systematically squanders the intellect of an entire caste of citizens before they have reached adulthood, then glimpsed an alternative that reliably does the opposite, it is hard to stop thinking about it.

Charter schools face a crisis in large part because people don’t understand them. They haven’t existed long enough — the first one opened in the U.S. just 28 years ago — for most Americans to gain a passing knowledge of what they are or how they work. Polling shows that only about half the public can correctly state whether charters are public schools (true) or are free to teach religion (false). Solid majorities incorrectly believe they can charge tuition or select their students on the basis of ability. Even people who work professionally in politics tend to know little about the subject, which resides at the margins of familiar terrain and operates by a peculiar political logic that confounds the ordinary partisan dynamic.

This confusion has persisted from the outset, as charter schools have evolved in ways that frustrate easy categorization. One variant of the charter-school model — schools operated by for-profit organizations, which account for about 12 percent of the category — tend to do badly. Another kind, “virtual” charters that conduct classes online, are regarded by experts almost uniformly as a scam. (Something that will surprise zero parents who spent 2020 watching their kids try to learn via Zoom.)

Even the underlying theory behind what makes charters work has shifted. From the beginning, the model has been fundamentally Darwinian: The idea is that charters in any given area will experiment with different styles of learning, causing the best ones to attract students and the inferior ones to up their game or shut down. Initially, reformers imagined this kill-or-be-killed pressure would be generated chiefly by parents, who would scrutinize performance statistics and enroll their children accordingly. But this dynamic has mostly failed. Measuring and comparing the effectiveness of different schools turns out to be too complex for most people, and there’s little evidence that parents voting with their feet has done much to help good schools beat out bad ones. Education researchers have found that what has worked, instead, is an enhanced role for entities known as charter authorizers — the official public agencies that decide which charter schools are allowed to open and which ones are forced to close. (Part of my wife’s job involves providing technical assistance to a state association of authorizers.) Weak and lethargic authorizers tend to have the lowest-performing charter sectors. And authorizers with a heavy hand, armed with quality data about student achievement, attendance, and reenrollment, produce outcomes that are consistently excellent.

Specifically, what the charter movement has developed is highly effective networks of public charters — such as Success Academy, the Knowledge Is Power Program, and Uncommon Schools — that specialize in closing the achievement gap between Black and white students. The fact that charters cannot select their students, and have to conduct admissions lotteries if they have more applicants than spaces, creates natural experiments. Researchers can compare the academic performance of children who win the lottery and attend a charter with those who lose it and attend a traditional neighborhood school. Every lottery study has found charters produce overall learning gains for urban students. Many of those gains are huge, effectively wiping out the educational inequities that have persisted for the entire history of American schools.

In part because of charters’ messy evolution, the mounting proof that the schools work has been met with a nagging roster of objections. Some skeptics have raised the suspicion that these schools are merely “teaching to the test,” incentivizing teachers to robotically drill their pupils in narrow subject matter. But that wouldn’t explain the fact that, as researchers have found, urban charter students are producing higher achievement on state high-school exams and SAT scores and are enrolling in more Advanced Placement courses and scoring higher on those exams. Teachers don’t get paid based on how students do on those tests, and schools don’t control them and can’t cheat on them. The only way to achieve those across-the-board gains is to teach the kids more.

Another possible objection is that charters can only help students whose parents have the motivation to seek them out. This turns out not to be true either. Some cities have automatically enrolled students in charter schools and have still produced the same impressive learning gains. “Evidence from the lottery studies,” researchers summarizing the evidence conclude, “suggests that charter schools may actually be more effective at increasing the achievement of students who are less likely to apply.”

Doubters have fallen back on the claim that, even if charters help the students who enroll in them, the children left behind are harmed. It is true that shifting funding into a charter reduces resources for a neighborhood school. But the research, so far, doesn’t support a zero-sum view. A survey of all the studies attempting to quantify such an effect found “some support for the ‘healthy competition’ hypothesis” — that is, the notion that charters force traditional schools to improve — “and almost none for the hypothesis that students in district schools are harmed by the growth of charters.”

For years, perhaps the most devastating acronym in anti-charter sentiment was CREDO. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford conducted a national survey in 2009 that compared the outcomes of similar kids (as measured by factors like family income) at charters and traditional public schools. The report found that charters were producing slightly worse outcomes than traditional public schools. If you’ve read much criticism of charters, you’ve probably seen a reference to the study, which skeptics have treated as the final word. But its conclusions have long since ceased to be true. Another CREDO study four years later found the sector had improved, and in 2015, a survey focused on charters in urban districts, where education reformers have concentrated their energies (and where gains have outpaced suburban and rural areas). It found urban charters on average gave their students the equivalent of 40 additional school days of learning in math and 28 additional days of learning in reading every year. CREDO’s studies confirm the conclusion that the lottery studies have found: In most cases, urban charters now provide the same group of students much better instruction.

“There’s a group at the top that are just remarkably successful in terms of helping students move forward,” Margaret Raymond, CREDO’s director, told me. “They’re using resources in a dramatically different way. It’s really striking, and nobody’s paying attention.” CREDO has not released a national study since 2015, but it continues to perform state-by-state analyses. The positive trend is ongoing. “Now, when we do state studies,” Raymond said, “it appears as though charter schools are getting even better.” This is the director, remember, of the studies that used to be the favorite evidence for charter critics.

The full scale of what these schools are able to accomplish is difficult to convey without an appreciation of what they are up against. American education has been plagued for its entire history by a cavernous gap in academic performance between white and Black students. Sixth-graders in the most affluent, mostly white school districts are already four grade levels ahead of their peers in the poorest urban districts. The lost economic output alone from this achievement gap has been estimated at as much as $2.3 trillion a year — “the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession,” as a McKinsey report called it. The social cost of this massive neglect of young Black minds is more terrible than the mere economic loss.

“In some cases,” an overview of the research by education professor Sarah Cohodes concluded in 2018, “these charter schools have quite large effects, such that attending one for three years produces test-score gains that are equivalent to the size of the U.S. Black-white achievement gap.” The ability of urban charters all over the country to get nonselective groups of poor, Black students to learn at the same level as students in affluent, middle-class schools is one of the great domestic-policy achievements in American history.

The fact that charters can produce dramatic learning gains is no longer in serious question. Why they can do so is a matter of some conjecture, but the most successful urban school models share some basic practices. Charters tend to have less money than traditional public schools, and so they focus their resources on longer learning time — extending both the school day and the school calendar. They invest in intensive tutoring, and they don’t spend as much as traditional schools on administrative staff or gyms, cafeterias, and other amenities. They instill schoolwide cultures of respect for learning and orderly environments, so that one or two disruptive students can’t bring classes to a standstill. The best charters tend to focus on high expectations for students, driving home the expectation that every student will attend college. Schools in the Knowledge Is Power program network name each classroom after the teacher’s alma mater, name every class after its expected year of college enrollment, and conduct visits to university campuses — among other methods that might seem hokey if you grew up the child of college graduates.

The final element of charters’ formula is inescapably controversial. They prioritize the welfare of their students over those of their employees, which means paying teachers based on effectiveness rather than how long they’ve been on the job — and being able to fire the worst ones.

The intellectual foundation of the education-reform movement is a series of findings about the importance of teacher quality to a child’s development. Research shows that teacher quality varies enormously; that the luck a student has in getting good or bad teachers plays a gigantic role in lifetime career success; that low-income students are more likely to get stuck with the worst educators. Reformers have followed these premises to the conclusion that the traditional practice of granting teachers near-total job security, without any differentiation based on performance, is a disaster for children.

The imposing barriers facing principals who want to replace even a completely ineffective teacher have been documented by research. If, like me, you’ve attended and sent your kids to traditional public schools, you’ve probably experienced it. One of my children had a year with a teacher who devoted the entire class to digressive rants touting the gold standard, disdain for the value of college, claims that men are inherently more rational than women, and other bizarre or offensive obsessions. The administration — which, like most of the teachers at the school, was dedicated and professional — did everything in its power to remedy the situation, but this teacher still remained in place throughout the year. In the middle of their efforts, the administrators were forced to lay off an extremely effective teacher because she had a low level of seniority.

For a period of time, the drawbacks of teacher tenure had a grip on progressive minds. In 2009, the New Yorker published an exposé on “Rubber Rooms” — offices where New York City stashed its most incompetent and even abusive teachers, who could not be fired but needed to be kept away from children. The next year, the documentary Waiting for Superman depicted the plight of low-income families desperately hoping to win the admission lottery for a charter that would rescue them from failing neighborhood schools.

That same year, in the midst of an economic cataclysm, the Obama administration passed a sweeping education-reform bill, plopped into an $800 billion stimulus package. Zipping through Congress in just a few weeks, it received little attention at the time. The money, a relatively modest $4.3 billion grant, turned out to have a huge impact. It was structured as a competition, with states (whose budgets had been ravaged by the recession) winning grants only if they submitted convincing plans to overhaul their education systems. Because not every state that applied won a grant, more states implemented reforms than received money for it. The grants set off a national wave of reform, with states implementing systems to evaluate teachers and students and to strengthen charter laws. “If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances to improve but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching,” said Obama that year. “I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”

That line of thinking put education reformers in direct conflict with teachers unions, whose contracts traditionally pay on the basis of seniority rather than ability and which have tenure protections that make firing ineffective teachers difficult to impossible. Charter-school operators believe that avoiding these contract terms is an essential element in their success. This conviction locked the reformers and the teachers unions into a political conflict neither side seems able to escape.

The unions could have compromised on their tenure protections — reformers were often willing and even eager to raise teacher pay in combination with eliminating job security. The most famous urban reformer, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, reportedly offered across-the-board raises for all teachers, plus the inducement of larger performance bonuses for those willing to give up tenure.

But the unions were hardly irrational to treat reform as a threat. Charter advocates often treated them like enemies. (Rhee posed for the cover of Time wielding a broom.) The sudden national focus on teacher contracts as a cause of failing schools gave them justifiable reason to feel singled out, given that city schools were bearing the brunt of widespread social and economic failure. Perhaps most important, to surrender on tenure protection would have meant abandoning the principle of solidarity that sits at the heart of the labor ethos. By the end of the Obama administration, the most recalcitrant voices within the unions had gained sway, and it became common to hear the view that education reformers only used helping poor children as a pretext and that their true purpose was to do battle with labor.

Unions have energetically questioned research proving the effectiveness of urban charters, but as the evidence has grown increasingly difficult to gainsay, they have increasingly emphasized populist themes. Critics insist on describing charters as an “industry” and calling reform “privatization.” Money clouds the issue. Because charters receive less funding per student than traditional public schools, they rely on donations to close the gap. Their reliance on philanthropists has helped identify them as a rich person’s cause and created confusion about their public character. The language used to attack charters has effectively marshaled this confusion to insinuate a profit motive. In fact, the involvement of rich people in the charter sector is overwhelmingly philanthropic — a motive progressives have no trouble understanding when the same liberal billionaires donate to causes like gay rights or the environment.

Today, teachers unions have adopted a militant defense of the tenure prerogatives of their least effective members, equating that stance with a defense of the teaching profession as a whole. They have effectively mobilized progressives (and resurgent socialist activists) to their cause, which they identify as a defense of “public education” — rather than a particular form of public education — against scheming billionaires.

Imagine the progressive stance on education as a series of expanding concentric circles with the peripheral actors only barely aware of the core dispute: at the core, a tiny number of bad teachers, protectively surrounded by a much larger circle of union members, surrounded in turn by an even larger number of Democrats who have only a vague understanding of the issue as one pitting heroes (unions) against villains (rich privatizers).

In the recent book Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch, a Democrat turned conservative turned populist leader of the education-reform backlash, jubilantly declares the charter-school movement dead. While that declaration is premature, she is correct that her struggle to redefine charters schools as toxic among progressives has succeeded almost totally. In the 2020 Democratic primaries, Elizabeth Warren bashed them, and even as clumsy a candidate as Bill de Blasio understood that his hostile relationship with charters was one of his few selling points. “No one should ask for your support or be the Democratic nominee unless they’re able to stand up to Wall Street and the rich people behind the charter school movement once and for all,” he said at one forum. “I know we’re not supposed to be saying ‘hate’ — our teachers taught us not to — I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.” Perhaps the most instructive candidacy, though, was that of Cory Booker.

As mayor of Newark between 2006 and 2013, Booker had overseen a major charter effort; his goal, he said at the time, was to make the city the “charter-school capital of the nation.” The project worked. A recent study documenting the gains found that Newark’s students, whose performance on statewide tests had once ranked in the 38th percentile, had vaulted nearly 40 points. Newark’s charter-school students now exceed the state average in math and language, an extraordinarily impressive result given their high poverty rate. And the report found gains among charter students had not come at the expense of students in traditional schools, who were also gaining, albeit not as rapidly as the charter students. This was one of the most impressive executive achievements any candidate in the field could boast. But Booker was unable to tout his success. Instead, the issue played as a liability. News stories assessing his candidacy presented his support for charters as a kind of dark secret in his past, for which he “faced scrutiny” and “could create still more problems.” The sight of a candidate forced onto the defensive for the crime of making his constituents’ lives better resembled Mitt Romney running in 2012, having to placate conservative activists furious that he had once engineered a health-care overhaul so effective Barack Obama would use it as a model. Booker’s agony was a sign the Democratic Party’s posture on education was beginning to mirror the rigid ideology Republican activists applied to — well, everything.

While the party backlash has gained intensity, experts continue to publish research showing how much good charter schools can do for disadvantaged children. Recently, Tulane economist and education specialist Douglass Harris published Charter School City, a detailed study of what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when reformers turned the failing public-school system into a network of charter schools. The city’s mostly poor black students have closed the achievement gap with the rest of the state, vaulting over every possible measure: state tests, ACT tests, high-school graduation rates, and college enrollment. The old charge that the schools are cheating on tests, or teaching to the test, cannot explain facts like the district’s percentage of graduates enrolling in college the next year shooting up from 60th in the state to tenth.

New Orleans also refutes the insistence that charters only work because they skim off the most motivated students, leaving the worst ones behind in traditional schools. It couldn’t be true in a city where the entire sector consists of charters. And the scale of the improvement is enormous. “Usually in education research,” Harris said, “we are pleased to find effects that are only one-tenth this size.”

The most important test of teachers unions’ clout within the Democratic Party came in Massachusetts in 2016. Boston is notable because it has one of the best networks of charter schools anywhere in the country. Carrie Conaway, now a Harvard professor, was working for the state’s research department in 2007 when she authorized the first study of learning gains in the city’s charter schools. “The effect was so large,” she recalls, “that for a time researchers wouldn’t tell me what the answers were because they were sure they made a mistake.”

Encouraged by the improvements, Massachusetts raised the cap on the number of students allowed to enroll in charters in 2010. Researchers scrutinized the result and found that scaling up the number of charter schools had not weakened their benefit. Instead, low-income kids were gaining in every possible metric. “Relative to other things that social scientists and education-policy people have tried to boost performance — class sizes, tracking, new buildings — these schools are producing spectacular gains,” MIT economist Joshua Angrist told the New York Times. A Brookings study noted, “The effects are particularly large for disadvantaged students, English learners, special education students, and children who enter charters with low test scores.”

Massachusetts had a funding formula that gave neighborhood schools several years of financial cushion to help compensate for funds they lost when students moved into the charters. But they did pose a long-term threat: In the long run, the creation of a vastly more effective parallel system would place untenable pressure on the traditional school system. So, when charters tried to lift the cap again, with a number of proven school operators eager to expand, the state legislature voted it down. Charter advocates placed a referendum on the ballot in 2016 to lift the cap in Boston. Both sides poured millions into the fight. Unions were signaling that their opposition to charters was ideologically unshakable. Even in one of the country’s best-run charter sectors, with an undeniable record of helping poor children, they would oppose them.

The state’s mostly Democratic political Establishment sided with the unions. The referendum lost overwhelmingly and seemed to augur a sea change in the politics of education reform. An academic who has studied charters told me: “It gave the wing of the party that opposes charters the sense that if we can do this in the place where charters are most successful, we can do this elsewhere.”

The departure of Obama, who gave the movement some protective cover, accelerated the Democratic Party’s anti-reform lurch. And then, of course, the advent of Trump presented unions with the ideal foil. His secretary of Education, the arch-conservative Betsy DeVos, backed charters. (Prior to her appointment, in Michigan, she had aggressively lobbied for a charter sector that was one of the country’s most loosely regulated and poorest performing.) DeVos also championed private-school vouchers, making it easier for reform opponents to package “school choice” as something that was entirely wicked. Liberal supporters of charter schools immediately saw DeVos’s appointment as a catastrophic blow to their cause.

Unions gleefully announced plans to make DeVos the face of charter schools and drive education reform out of liberal politics. One measure of the Democratic Party’s movement away from reform is the evolving language in its platforms over the years, which have progressively lost their enthusiasm as the language has moved closer to the union line. The party once proudly advocated education reform as a hopeful new tool to open avenues of upward mobility. The 2000 party platform promised, “The Democratic Party will triple the number of charter schools in the nation.” The 2008 platform called to “promote public charter schools that are held accountable.” By 2016, the platform allowed that “high-quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools.” The 2020 version demanded “more stringent guardrails,” “measures to increase accountability,” and “conditioning federal funding,” without even a token line conceding that any charters help any students at all.

Charter advocates’ energies have turned to a struggle to simply defend their place in the party at all and not to be treated as inherent enemies. “Now,” one education-policy analyst told me, “I think a lot of folks in the ed-reform movement are depressed and angry all the time.”

Polls show that the backlash against charters has been mainly confined to white liberals, while Black and Latino Democrats — whose children are disproportionately enrolled in those schools — remain supportive. It’s not that upscale progressives don’t care about minority children. Their passion is quite evidently sincere. Rather, they have convinced themselves that better schools by themselves do little good, because only structural reform to the entire economy and social system is worth pursuing. In 2019, Nick Hanauer wrote a widely circulated Atlantic essay titled “Better Schools Won’t Fix America.” Hanauer, a former charter-school donor, argued that the economy has deeper problems that education alone cannot solve. On its own terms, the point is obviously true: Good schools can’t eliminate inequality. For that matter, eliminating inequality can’t solve climate change, and solving sea-level rise can’t eliminate racism. The world has lots of problems. It is odd to dismiss the value of solving one problem by pointing to the continued existence of other problems.

Hanauer was echoing a theme that critics of education reform have been developing for years. They dismiss the very possibility of better education outcomes as unimportant or impossible on the grounds that poor children cannot learn at the same level as middle-class ones. “The biggest correlation in education is between poverty and test scores,” Ravitch has said. “If you think the test scores are too low, go to the root causes.” The education-reform critic Richard Rothstein has claimed that we will “never fix education in America until we fix the poverty in our society.” The left-wing social critic Joshua Mound has written in Jacobin that “increases in equality tend to increase educational attainment, not the other way around.” And so on. The message to poor urban parents who want to send their kids to a decent school is that they simply need to wait for the revolution.

“There’s a narrative that’s gained traction: that we can’t improve anything, so if it looks like we’re getting better outcomes for kids, somebody must be cheating,” education analyst Sara Mead told me. “That is not an accurate read of the evidence. But it is affecting a lot of people’s thinking in the political and media cultures and makes people reluctant to believe that what the research says about charter outcomes is either meaningful or true.”
Acknowledging the success of education reform hardly implies that we don’t need radical social change — or socialism, if that’s your cup of tea. But even a herculean and largely successful effort like Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty came nowhere close to eradicating poverty. Waiting for inequality to be fixed until we close the achievement gap means waiting somewhere between decades and forever to give poor kids a better chance to move up the ladder. The rhetoric of broad, structural change is a cudgel against action, a deflection against proven methods that are helping poor children right now. For all the success education-reform critics have had seizing the progressive mantle, their position has a deep undercurrent of futility — and even conservatism.

The union fight against charter schools has led them into some quiet alliances with Republicans in Congress, who will of course take any opportunity to scale back federal power. Since Washington was driving education reform with its regulations and funding, less of both would mean less reform. Shrewdly, Ravitch and other reform critics have increasingly charged charter schools with threatening local control, an idea that was featured heavily in union advertising in the 2016 Massachusetts charter referendum. The attraction of this arrangement is that local school boards don’t put up much resistance to traditional union contracts. For all its romanticized connotations, though, the system of local control is deeply segregated and unequal. “Public” education generally describes a system where parents buy their way into expensive neighborhoods that include, as a property right, guaranteed admission into good schools. And this system assumes that the penalty for being unable to afford a home in an affluent neighborhood is consigning their children to schools that systematically squander their prospects.

If Biden wanted to build on Obama’s model, he could push cities to lift caps restricting charter enrollment and supply federal funds to open new charter schools. Unions will push Cardona, the Department of Education nominee, to roll back charters by limiting funding or imposing new regulatory burdens that make operating them cumbersome or even impossible. One early choice he’ll face, if confirmed, is whether to cancel the national student assessment for the second straight year, as unions want, or use it to measure the scope of the learning loss from a year of closed schools.

Whether or not we gauge the destructive effects of school closings, we already have plenty of evidence that they have wreaked disproportionate harm on the nonrich and nonwhite. Cardona’s stated first priority will be to reopen schools as quickly as possible — a task that will create tension with unions, which have resisted in-person learning during the pandemic. It’s possible that having spent political capital on getting kids back into classrooms, Biden and Cardona will try to win it back by sending unions a friendly message on charters. If they defy the unions on both issues, it might well provoke an even deeper breach than the one opened under Obama, alienating a constituency any Democratic candidate has come to rely on.

It’s obvious already that, whatever else Biden may accomplish as president, he will not have the opportunity to end poverty or eradicate the root causes of inequality. Given that limitation, the choice before him on education is either to open more pathways for Black and brown urban children to enter the middle class or to close them down. The old excuse, that we don’t know if these schools help these children, is no longer plausible. The question is whether we care.

*This article has been updated to reflect that KIPP identifies students by their expected year of college enrollment, not college graduation.

Unlearning an Answer