Won't someone think of the children? Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Won't someone think of the children? Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

One of America's most promising educational experiments is under attack in the country’s largest school districts. In New York and Los Angeles, opponents of charter schools are engaging in tactical strikes that are designed to halt and ultimately reverse the movement’s progress, which would have a devastating effect on many children.

Last month, the Los Angeles Unified School Board voted to close two of its highest-performing charter schools. Meanwhile, in New York this week, elected officials filed suit to block 36 charter schools from locating in buildings used by traditional public schools.

The details differ, but the backdrop is the same: The coalition that has held together for the cause of charter schools since the 1990s -- often uniting centrist governors with liberal mayors -- is fraying, while a growing populism within the Democratic Party is giving teachers’ unions new influence. In urban areas especially, the most powerful unions are invariably the teachers' unions, and the teachers' unions are invariably hostile to charter schools -- most of which are nonunion.

That's not the only reason teachers' unions don’t like charters, of course. But let's not kid ourselves -- it's the main reason. And it’s this freedom from union rules that helps make the best charters so successful: Charters often feature longer school days, principals have greater autonomy to run the schools, and their teachers often earn higher salaries.

It's also true, as opponents point out, that not all charter schools succeed -- there are bad charters, just as there are bad traditional schools. But in states that adopt strong laws that hold charter schools accountable for their performance, the results can be extraordinary. A charter school in the South Bronx outperforms every school in the state outside of New York City, including in the wealthy suburbs. That would have been unthinkable not long ago. A 2013 Stanford University study found that black, Hispanic and poor students especially benefit from charter schools, in part because they spend more time in class.

Nevertheless, the campaign against charter schools is likely to expand in the months ahead. The teachers' union in New York wants charters to pay rent for using public school buildings, for example, even though charters are public schools, and even though charters receive far less in per-pupil funding than district schools. Paying rent would exacerbate those inequities and doom many charters.

Some argue that charters are a Trojan horse for wealthy conservatives who want to privatize education -- a curious charge given that many donors are liberal Democrats. Moreover, many noncharter schools raise private funds and some have multimillion-dollar endowments.

There is no shortage of Democrats who remain committed to charter schools, from New Jersey Senator Cory Booker to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to California Governor Jerry Brown. They need to speak out more. So do President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who have strongly supported the expansion of charter schools, making them a centerpiece of their Race to the Top program.

If the Democratic Party’s charter coalition is to hold together, its members must join the battle before small victories turn the tide against them -- and against the children who benefit the most from charter schools.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.