Soccer or lacrosse, Whole Foods or the farmers market, microbrew or Pinot Noir? Suburbanites tend to relish their many options for food and entertainment. At block parties, neighbors engage in hearty debates about the best place to vacation or the optimal car for shlepping one’s kids. So wouldn’t these very same parents—individuals who likely enjoy the privilege of choosing between a week on a beach or ski slope—want more choice when it comes to their children’s schools?
Not always. The data suggests that one form of school choice—charter schools—are less popular in suburbs than in cities. Why? Experts say that politics and personal preferences are at play.
Charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars and, as such, can’t charge tuition or discriminate against children based on race, ethnicity, or disability. But as long as they fulfill certain accountability expectations, they’re able to operate on their own terms and, often, under their own governance structures. Some are organized by grassroots groups composed of teachers or parents, while others have been founded by organizations that run networks of schools, often in multiple states.
These schools have been hotly contested since the early 1990s, when Minnesota passed the country’s first charter-education law in the country. Proponents highlight their ability to innovate and serve diverse populations, as well as their freedom from the kinds of rigid bureaucratic rules that constrain traditional public schools. Advocates often cite the successes of well-established charter-school operators like Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). Critics, meanwhile, argue that they drain funds from public schools and “cream skim” the best students from a community. They point to charters that have come under scrutiny amid allegations of corruption or those that have produced poor academic outcomes and consequently shut down.