The Danger of a Woke Duopoly

Regulated school choice could go woke
Photo: mgstudyo/iStock
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American education has long suffered under a monopolistic system in which students are assigned to public schools based on where they live. Supporters of school choice have tried to break this monopoly by offering education alternatives that families could select, with funding following the child. 

The expansion of publicly funded private school choice has been slow, with only about 1% of students nationwide participating. Charter schools, which are public schools operated independently of traditional school districts, have grown more rapidly, enrolling about 7% of all students.

Since the onset of the COVID lockdowns, more and more parents have expressed dissatisfaction with their assigned schools and increased their interest in alternatives. Yet, as choice is beginning to gain some steam, opponents are redoubling their efforts to both curtail private school choice and over-regulate charter schools. 

If successful, they will morph the old monopoly into a Woke Duopoly.  To the extent that families are left with any choice at all, it will be between a traditional public school that promotes a progressive ideology that undermines the values many families are trying to teach at home and a charter school that promotes the same progressive ideology even more fervently.  

Of course, there are charter schools that have not embraced woke values, especially those focused on classical education. But outside of a few states, like Arizona, non-woke charter options have become scarce.  

The heavy regulation approach — the approach favored by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), the largest charter management organizations, and the billionaire-backed foundations whose subsidies help determine which charters can get started and remain open — favors school options emphasizing social justice and equity. And they make no secret of it.

Jason Zwara, NACSA’s director of strategic partnerships says it quite explicitly: “’School choice for school choice’s sake’ is completely misguided…social justice and equity are the GOAL not some political tactic.”  

KIPP, one of the largest operators of charter schools, abandoned its original motto, “Work hard, be nice” because it did not “dismantle systemic racism.” 

Another large charter management organization, Democracy Prep, declares beneath the headline “#BlackLivesMatter” that “The Democracy Prep community stands in solidarity with all social justice movements. … We will continue to engage in these painful but necessary conversations about structural inequity, community empowerment, and racial identity to prepare our scholars to be the next generation of changemakers (sic).”

The Walton Family Foundation is one of the largest funders of charter schools. Its grants often determine which charter schools can obtain a building and keep their doors open. The foundation recently conducted a strategic review in which it committed to “prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in the grants the foundation makes.”

Some families prefer schools that inculcate students with these progressive values, and those options should be available to them. But the Woke Duopoly that is forming provides few or no options for families who would prefer a different set of priorities.  Rather than replacing the old monopolistic system with a Woke Duopoly, those who support empowering families to raise and educate their own children with their preferred values should push for a deregulated system of choice that offers a diverse set of options, including traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools offering a variety of approaches.

Jay P. Greene
Greene is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.