School-choice advocates were bitterly disappointed by the recent failure to enact a new program in Pennsylvania. In recent years, as parental and public support for choice initiatives has grown, new programs have proliferated across the map. Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro had expressed support for expanding school options, and an agreement seemed to be in place. But Pennsylvania still has blue-state tendencies, Shapiro is a Democrat, and many left-of-center activists can’t abide government support for private schools.

This is all sadly familiar to those who remember the school-choice battles of the 1990s and 2000s. In state after state, choice advocates would document the struggles of low-income kids in low-performing schools, build a political coalition designed to pass a modest voucher program, sense victory on the horizon, and then come up short as the opposition proved too much to overcome.

But bipartisan compromises remained possible back then. We hadn’t yet fallen into the era of hyper-polarization and perpetual conflict. Though voucher programs failed, leaders on both sides of the aisle recognized a strong case for different kinds of schools and more parental power. States, including virtually all blue states, adopted charter-school laws. New, nonprofit-run, and largely autonomous schools could receive reliable streams of public funding while abiding by key public school rules like open-enrollment policies and participation in state standards and tests. Choice advocates didn’t get everything they wanted (funding could not support existing private schools), but neither did choice opponents (districts lost the exclusive right to run public schools). Still, over time, millions of students gained access to new and better schools, and American education enjoyed a surge in innovation and social entrepreneurialism. 

A similar compromise is within reach now, too, if the opposing sides could be persuaded. That compromise is faith-based charter schools—and Pennsylvania could lead the way. 

Faith-based charter schools would differ from the last 30 years of charter schools in one meaningful way: the schools’ educational programming (and the organizations running the schools) can reflect a faith tradition. Since the beginning of chartering, all other types of nonprofits have been permitted to operate schools aligned with their mission and values. This reform would simply add faith-based groups to the constellation of organizations eligible to run charters.

For choice advocates working to expand and diversify the types of schools available to families, this would be a big win. Faith-based institutions have run schools on our shores since before the American Founding; millions of families trust them. Adding such schools to the charter portfolio would create financially sustainable seats that parents would be eager to fill. It would also be a win for those on the left who distrust programs like education savings accounts, which allow families to use state-provided funds for a vast array of educational goods and services without being subject to traditional public-accountability systems. Faith-based charters would go through the same rigorous application and approval process as other charters, follow customary charter rules, and be held accountable for their academic, financial, and operational performance.

Since charters’ creation in the early 1990s, states have required them to be secular. But a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions now suggest that excluding faith-based groups from participating in chartering might flout the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. A faith-based group in Oklahoma took advantage of this opening, applied to start a school, and won approval. Because Oklahoma’s charter law prohibits faith-based charters, and since the state attorney general is opposed to them, this battle is headed for the courts. But charters are too important a subject to be left to lawyers and judges. A state’s political branches ought to take up the issue, assess the guidance provided by the Court, decide how best to handle various policy matters (from funding to accountability to personnel issues), and then amend the state’s charter-school statute.

Pennsylvania is the perfect state to do so. The recent, remarkable wave of school-choice legislation has been mostly a red-state phenomenon. Conservative states have been creating new programs at a steady clip, while deep-blue states have avoided this movement. A purple-state strategy is needed. Pennsylvania voted for Barack Obama in 2012, swung to Donald Trump in 2016, then backed Joe Biden in 2020. Its legislature had GOP majorities for years, but now each party controls a chamber. The state has had Democratic governors for 16 of the last 20 years. Governor Shapiro had signaled support for choice and seems to want a reputation for consensus-building and moderation.

Moreover, Pennsylvania has historically supported educational pluralism. It has a long history of faith-based K-12 schools, and only two states have more private schools. Pennsylvania was among the first wave of states to pass a charter school law (1997). It was an early adopter of tax-credit scholarships (2001). If today’s choice wave is to expand beyond deep-red states, Pennsylvania is the place for it to happen, and faith-based chartering is the way.

Governor Shapiro and Republican lawmakers should craft bipartisan legislation this year with the goal of securing first approvals in 2024. Some on the left will say that such a reform goes too far; some on the right will say that it doesn’t go far enough. The same was said of chartering a generation ago. But that earlier reform transformed American public education for the better, providing new options for millions of students. Faith-based chartering can do the same.

Photo: davidf/iStock


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