The Woke Capture of Charter Schools

Jay Greene, Ian Kingsbury & Jason Bedrick | June 24, 2024


School choice should empower parents to obtain an education for their own children that is consistent with their values. This is occurring well with private school choice, but with charter school choice it is falling short. Regulatory and philanthropic constraints need to be minimized for charter schools so they can better align with the value preferences of parents. Ultimately, states should adopt universal private school choice to avoid a binary option for families of charter schools that may not be aligned with their values or district public schools that are frequently unaligned and unsafe and academically ineffective.

Key Takeaways

  • Charter schools may become less well aligned with the value preferences of local parents if heavy regulations force them to please state authorizers over parents.
  • Additionally, charter schools can stray from parental values if they are overly dependent on left-wing national philanthropies to subsidize their operations.
  • Regulatory and donor capture of charter schools must be reduced so that school choice is more responsive to parental preferences.

There is a loose set of political and social values that can succinctly be labeled as “woke.” These woke values tend to be characterized by a departure from traditional American and classical-liberal values of individual responsibility and equal treatment in favor of emphasizing differentiated treatment by group identity and social rather than individual justice. Of course, there is a constituency of parents who favor an education infused with these woke values—but they tend to be a distinct minority. As past research suggests, when parents have more control over the education of their own children, that education tends to be less woke.

Given that parental empowerment is associated with less woke education, one might expect that charter schools—which are chosen by parents rather than strictly assigned based on the location of a family’s home—are less woke than nearby public schools operated by school districts. But school choice could produce more woke options if those choices are highly regulated and controlled by distant regulators and philanthropists. School districts still retain a fair amount of responsiveness to the preferences of the communities they serve given their democratic governance.

Charter schools, on the other hand, might become less responsive to the preferences of local parents if they have to please state authorizers to be established and remain open and if they are overly dependent on national philanthropies to subsidize their operations. Those charter schools may have to adopt woke values to gain permission to open from the public authorities that grant them their charter and to receive funding, especially for capital expenses, from large donors with progressive values.

Parents may nevertheless choose woke charter schools, either because they are among the minority that hold those values or because safety and quality of instruction may induce parents to select a school that is otherwise at odds with their values. By contrast, policies that permit private school choice with vouchers or K–12 education savings accounts do not require permission from an authorizer for schools to open their doors and therefore are less likely to require capital funds from donors since they often already have school buildings. That means that private schools are typically more directly accountable to parents than charter schools and so are more likely to reflect the values of the families they serve.