There’s a sharp racial divide among Democrats on charter schools, according to national data newly released to Chalkbeat.

A separate poll commissioned by Democrats For Education Reform, an advocacy group that backs charter schools, was the first to illustrate a racial divide among Democrats on the issue. It found that white Democrats are strongly opposed to charters, while black and Hispanic Democrats are modestly in favor.

That gap is backed up by the new data from a poll conducted by Education Next, which has tracked opinion on charter schools for many years. Among black and Hispanic Democrats, support for charter schools held steady from 2016 to 2018. But among white Democrats, approval tanked, dropping from 43 to 27 percent.

Those results may factor into the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, as well as within broader debates about school reform, where all sides claim to champion the interests of students of color. A partisan divide has emerged on the issue in recent years, with most Republicans favoring charters and a plurality of Democrats opposing them. Nationally, U.S. House Democrats recently moved to cut federal funding for charters.

“It creates a bit of a challenge for Democratic candidates in the presidential primaries,” said Marty West, a Harvard professor and editor in chief of Education Next, which is generally sympathetic to charter schools. “It’s not clear to me that many people will be basing their decisions on education, but voters of color are a substantial segment of the Democratic primary electorate.”

Education Next had not previously broken down the results of its poll by party and race at the same time, but West did so at Chalkbeat’s request. That poll asks a nationally representative group of American adults whether they support or oppose charter schools, described as “publicly funded but … not managed by the local school board.”

In the 2018 data, 47 percent of black Democrats supported charters with 29 percent opposed; similarly, 47 percent of Hispanic Democrats backed charters while 35 percent opposed them. (The remainder neither supported nor opposed charters.) Opposition has held steady among black Democrats since 2016, but ticked up among Hispanics. The biggest jump in opposition has been among white Democrats, though, going from 37 to 50 percent.

It’s not clear what is driving the racial divide. It could be that black and Hispanic Democrats have more direct experience with charter schools, or that white Democrats are more responsive to the unpopularity of the pro-charter Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Black and Hispanic Democrats may also be more dissatisfied with schools in their communities, driving support for alternatives or substantial reforms to existing schools. A separate recent poll showed that black and Hispanic voters were much more supportive of school integration efforts than white voters.

Several things are worth keeping in mind about the new poll data. First, slicing polling data into small groups makes the results less precise, with bigger margins of error. In the Education Next poll, the differences among Democrats by race are statistically significant in 2018 — meaning the pollsters are confident that they’re not due to random chance — but the exact results may not be worth putting much stock in.

The DFER poll had even larger margins of error by subgroup — plus or minus 9 percentage points for black Democrats and 12 points for Hispanic Democrats — though again the differences in opinion compared to white Democrats is statistically significant.

Second, there actually isn’t a lot of national polling on the issue of charter schools, and the exact wording of questions often influences results. The DFER poll asked Democrats whether they held favorable views of “public charter schools.”

“Polling on school choice — it really matters how you ask the question,” West said.

State results also vary. A 2018 California poll did not find much of a racial divide among Democrats, and another state poll from this month showed that African-Americans opposed charter schools at a rate similar to all Democrats.

A poll of New York state voters by Quinnipiac released in March was more consistent with Education Next and DFER, though. In results shared with Chalkbeat, white Democrats in New York opposed expanding charter schools by a margin of 72 to 19 percent; black Democrats supported expansion 52 to 41 percent. (The sample of Hispanic Democrats was too small to report.)

Third, we’re talking just about Democrats. Among all voters, black, Hispanic, and white people support charter schools at about the same rate. (That’s because white Republicans are highly supportive of charters, balancing out white Democrats’ skepticism.)

Lastly, views change. Some polling on the 2016 ballot initiative to lift a cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, for example, showed stronger support for the measure among black and Hispanic voters in the state than among white voters. But after an effective messaging campaign by charter opponents, voters in nearly all parts of Massachusetts, including in predominantly black precincts in Boston, overwhelmingly rejected the measure.

Here’s the full polling data from Education Next for Democrats.

A nationally representative sample of adults was asked the following: “As you may know, many states permit the formation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but are not managed by the local school board. These schools are expected to meet promised objectives, but are exempt from many state regulations. Do you support or oppose the formation of charter schools?”

2018

  • Black Democrats: 47% Support / 29% Oppose / 24% Neither (margin of error 8.1%)
  • Hispanic Democrats : 47% Support / 35% Oppose / 18% Neither (margin of error 7.3%)
  • White Democrats : 27% Support / 50% Oppose / 23% Neither (margin of error 4.3%)

2017

  • Black Democrats : 37% Support / 29% Oppose / 37% Neither (margin of error 9.3%)
  • Hispanic Democrats : 39% Support / 31% Oppose / 30% Neither (margin of error 5.8%)
  • White Democrats : 30% Support / 47% Oppose / 23% Neither (margin of error 3.5%)

2016

  • Black Democrats: 45% Support / 30% Oppose / 25% Neither (margin of error 8.5%)
  • Hispanic Democrats : 46% Support / 24% Oppose / 29% Neither (margin of error 6.9%)
  • White Democrats : 43% Support / 37% Oppose / 19% Neither (margin of error 3.8%)