Will Biden’s Education Nominee Stand for Students or for Unions?

Joe Biden

has chosen an education secretary who may be open to reforms that enhance student achievement, even at the cost of ruffling feathers in the education bureaucracy.

Miguel Cardona,

Connecticut’s education commissioner, pressed to get children back in school while teachers unions wanted them closed. Rather than follow the “college or bust” monomania, he has urged equal support for children “who need hands-on experiences, who want to build things, who want to manufacture.”

Dacia Toll, CEO of the Achievement First charter-school network that operates in Connecticut, says of Mr. Cardona: “I haven’t found him to be driven by ideology and politics. He is more focused on making sure every kid gets an excellent education than the type of school they go to.”

Let’s hope he can maintain that evenhandedness, taste for excellence, and openness to reform. For if Mr. Cardona ends up running the Education Department, he will face heavy pressure to focus less on children and more on what is politically expedient. Advocates surrounding him will demand lots more money for the status quo and an end to disruption of existing K-12 systems.

If a Secretary Cardona does choose to resist, he’ll have evidence on his side. People who demand more spending on social programs love to chatter about “evidence based” policy making. Follow the science! goes the familiar cry. Alas, this sloganeering is often lip service.

One sad reality about “evidence-based social policy” is that astonishingly few interventions show any proof that they work. Beginning in 2001, some very smart economists and social scientists worked for more than a decade to build the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy. These careful investigators reviewed many hundreds of academic assessments, and commissioned some original ones of their own. In the end, they were able to identify only 12 domestic programs that clearly helped the population they were aimed at. Another 16 programs showed partial signs of effectiveness, and 31 more had outcomes that were somewhat encouraging though indefinite. That was it. After decades of interventions consuming billions of dollars, a grand total of 59 programs could demonstrate any positive effect.

But one social invention of the past generation stands out in rigorous evaluations as a clear success: charter schools and educational choice. In randomized-control trials similar to those used to test new drugs, charters produce hard proof of their effectiveness. For instance: KIPP—the largest charter-school provider in the U.S., whose students are roughly 90{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} black or Hispanic—was shown to lift achievement in both reading and math.

The ability of charter schools to lift up millions of at-risk children initially elated political progressives. Not long ago, Democrats like

Cory Booker


Barack Obama

praised charters for closing racial achievement gaps. But as poor parents eagerly shifted their children and charters grew to serve more than 3.3 million pupils at 7,500 schools (many of them so popular they have long waiting lists), the educational empire struck back. Public schools are a $750 billion a year bureaucracy, and their eight million government employees provide the most important volunteers and funding for liberal activism today.

Under pressure from teachers unions and district administrators, politicians put caps on the number of charter schools allowed. Thus in Boston, where charter schools produce impressive results for children ill-served by conventional schools, charter operators are prevented from expanding. New York Mayor

Bill de Blasio

has resisted charter success and growth by denying them access to buildings. In many other cities, public officials refuse to allow charter-school students to ride public school buses.

Most recently, the educational establishment has crimped charters in an even more threatening way: by squeezing off payments for each child they educate. A new study from the University of Arkansas called “Charter School Funding: Inequity Surges in the Cities” shows that, over the past 15 years, the gap between how much a typical charter school is reimbursed for each pupil and what conventional schools get has doubled. In the past two years, the shortchanging of students in charters widened by 28{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}.

In Chicago in 2018, a conventional school was reimbursed $27,859 for each student, while a charter school received only $14,600. In the District of Columbia, conventional schools received $36,266 a head while charters were paid $24,896. In Atlanta, district schools got twice what charters did: $20,861 versus $10,020.

This is discrimination. It has nothing to do with results or evidence. It is political protection provided by progressive politicians to their powerful allies in the public-employee unions.

Systematic bias against charters is creating a two-tiered system of public schooling, separate and unequal. That is grossly unfair to youngsters without other options. Urban mayors, blue-state governors, President-elect Biden, Secretary-designate Cardona: Does discrimination against vulnerable children bother you?

Mr. Zinsmeister, author of “From Promising to Proven: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Expanding on the Success of Charter Schools,” was an aide to

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

and President

George W. Bush.

Wonder Land: Voters can’t pretend a Biden presidency will help the black children trapped in failing inner-city schools. Images: Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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