Elizabeth Warren’s Position on Charter Schools Goes Against Everything She Supposedly Believes In

Sen. Liz Warren (D-Mass.) / Photo: AP

Elizabeth Warren looks out for the little guy. She’s skeptical of big-time cronies who buy influence from government. She’s laser-focused on making sure every kid in America gets a fair shot at a good education and a good job. And she’s not really an ideologue: She knows her policy and she follows policies recommended by good research.

That’s how liberals like to look at her, anyway. Plenty of moderate voters in Massachusetts like that idea, too.

If that’s true, then why did Warren just announce she opposes lifting the cap on charter schools in the Bay State — a question that’s on the ballot there this fall? It goes against every principle outlined above.

Plenty of Warren fans should be able to see the disconnect: Education reform needn’t be a partisan issue, and Massachusetts should continue to be a leader on it.

Let’s run down the ways Warren gets this wrong:

Charter school opponents are the picture of public-sector cronyism.

Teachers’ unions are generally the staunchest opponents of charter schools. At least in part, it’s a matter of self-interest: Charters are generally not unionized, and teachers’ unions are zealous defenders of channeling all possible government funding into the existing school system, which fails so many students but employs thousands of unionized teachers.

In Massachusetts, teachers’ unions are adamant opponents of adding more charter schools, even as parents demand them. Unions express that support through political donations — big ones. The Massachusetts Teachers Association spent $128,000 in behalf of Warren in her 2012 campaign; the American Federation of Teachers kicked in another $76,000.

The MTA and the AFT fight for their members not just through campaign contributions, but also through their powerful collective bargaining rights. As with all public-sector unions, they get to influence policy from sides of the negotiating table: as management (through their influence on the political process) and labor (through collective bargaining). And in large part, it’s collective bargaining that has blocked commonsense reforms to our schools, leaving charter schools, unencumbered by union power, a necessary and appealing alternative.

Teachers’ unions are among the most powerful political forces in a state like Massachusetts; they’re out for themselves, not taxpayers or students; and Elizabeth Warren is doing their bidding.

Education reform is a crucial part of leveling the playing field for all Americans.

Just take Elizabeth Warren’s word for it: Warren wrote in her 2003 book, “The Two-Income Trap,” that America’s existing education system — which generally assigns students to schools based on where they live — forces parents to make tough choices about where to live in order to enroll their kids in a decent school.

“At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where you live dictates where you go to school,” she wrote, going on to praise the idea of a voucher system that would allow students a choice of public schools.

Today, charters have been the main avenue for expanding school choice in most states. And yet Warren is standing in their way in Massachusetts.

Exactly how big a role education can play in economic mobility is a matter of debate, but there’s no question that Warren was right in 2003: Parents go to great lengths to get their kid to the best school possible because they know education helps determine their future.

The good news is, charter schools can help level the field, because . . .

They work — period.

One of the problems with the idea of swearing to make policy just based on good scientific evidence, as progressives like Warren boast they do, is that there aren’t tons of issues out there where there’s a clear consensus on the evidence. But the overwhelming weight of evidence finds that charter schools improve educational outcomes, and often at a lower cost to taxpayers.

You can look at national and Massachusetts-focused studies: A huge Stanford study of 41 different cities across the country found that charter school students learned significantly more in both reading and math than similar peers in traditional public schools, translating into several weeks more worth of learning each year. A study in Boston found similar big gains. An especially careful look, comparing students who wanted to go to charters but couldn’t get a spot versus those who did, found, again, that in Boston charter schools are beating traditional schools.

So given all this, what is Warren’s beef with the Massachusetts measure? She doesn’t really say. Her statement of opposition acknowledges that charter schools can be great, but then offers the following:

After hearing more from both sides, I am very concerned about what this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth, especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters.

This isn’t much of an argument from a reputed wonk.

As far as this “specific proposal” goes, it would simply allow for the approval by the state board of education of 12 new charter schools every year. If there’s more demand than that, priority is given to charters that want to open in districts with the strongest popular demand and the weakest test scores.

Warren is right that those will likely be poor urban districts, “with tight budgets where every dime matters.” It’s a shame she doesn’t want to let those districts spend the money the way they want, on a school model that’s been shown to use those scarce dollars best.

To give Warren the benefit of the doubt, she might be hinting at a common complaint that charter schools divert money from existing public schools. But that argument does not contradict the evidence that charter schools boost achievement overall, and it is very hard to see it applies under Massachusetts’s funding system.

Warren’s hypocrisy on the issue is such that it’s put her out of step with a number of prominent Massachusetts Democrats. As the nonprofit America Rising Squared points out, the Democratic state house speaker, Robert DeLeo, and one of the state’s most powerful Democratic congressmen, Stephen Lynch, both support the ballot measure.

They get it: Massachusetts Democrats say they’ll stand up for the little guy and make sure every kid has a shot. Voting to raise the charter school cap is one of the most effective, realistic ways to do that.

If only Warren could stand up to the teachers’ unions with the ferocity she does the 1 percent.