As summer gives way to Fall, it is worth taking note how shifts, both subtle and substantial, are changing the ground on which charter school advocates fight for more of our public education system. This is not what they are used to. Backed by billionaire financing, using that money to pull the Democratic Party towards education policies more typical of the Republican Party, calling in favors from elected officials who owe their donors, getting unfettered and poorly monitored largess from the federal government, permitted to engage in practices that would land any public school district in a federal civil rights lawsuit, and existing in a regulatory environment that is charitably described as “permissive,” charter schools and their advocates are used to owning the conversation…and pretty much getting their way.
Slowly — but possibly steadily — that is changing.
An early blow actually came last November when current Democratic Party nominee for President Hillary Clinton was campaigning and made an entirely factual observation about the charter school sector as a whole:
“Most charter schools — I don’t want to say every one — but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.”
There is literally nothing inaccurate about that observation. Self selection helps charter schools in general with their student population, and many flatly rig their supposedly open lottery processes. The attrition rates at many charter schools, especially ones that apply incredibly narrow disciplinary regimes to their students, are well established, and the enrollment and financial impacts of these practices on host districts are also well known. Every observation she made in that comment was fundamentally true.
Which did not stop major charter school advocates from lamenting her statement. The pro-charter and hedge fund backed group “Democrats” for Education Reform (DFER) immediately released a response saying, it was “highly disappointing and seemed to reinforce fears about how her endorsements from both major teachers unions would affect her K-12 platform.” This is the same DFER that enthusiastically responded to Secretary Clinton’s campaign announcement, but which apparently has problems with her suggesting that charter schools be held to the same standards as fully public schools and doesn’t want anyone noting how quickly many charter operators purge themselves of students with disabilities, with behavioral needs, or with second language learning needs.
Since then, Secretary Clinton seems to have tried a bit of a pivot, saving her most negative comments for so-called “for profit” charter schools, which, to be fair, are a general disaster zone of a sector. However, as Peter Greene rightly noted in July, this is a distinction in desperate search of a difference. An actual charter school can be a non-profit entity run by a for profit charter management organization (CMO). A non-profit CMO can contract exclusively with for profit vendors that the CMO operators have a financial interest in. Real estate plays abound in the charter school sector, and various investment arrangements allow guaranteed returns for large financial firms. Operating as a not for profit also doesn’t stop charter school administrators from paying themselves extravagantly from the public money they receive.
In fact, these very issues were at the heart of a Last Week Tonight segment by John Oliver. The comedian and social critic was blistering. While explicitly avoiding the debate over the existence of charters and carefully noting that he was looking at the problems associated with a poorly regulated sector taking public funds, Mr. Oliver looked at financial scandals and fraud in charter schools across the country:
This level of scrutiny has been sorely lacking over the quarter century of charter school growth and promotion, but Mr. Oliver was specific and devastating, looking at schools that suddenly shut down without warning, crooked financial arrangements, questionable charter school applications, and oversight laws allowing administrators to select their own non-profit organizations as the legal overseer of their owns charters. Consider the quote in this screen shot warning parents in Philadelphia what to do before selecting a charter school:
Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
But the charter sector is still only in the denial stage of grieving, so, despite Mr. Oliver’s careful framing of his examination of fraud and mismanagement, the pro-charter Center for Center for Education Reform announced a $100,000 contest called “Hey, John Oliver, Back Off My Charter School!” I wish every public school district in the country had a spare hundred grand laying around for something like this.
The pro-charter camp also suffered set backs at the Democratic National Convention this summer when the education portion of the platform was amended with language explicitly supporting democratically governed public schools and making some actual demands of charter schools:
“We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”
It is hard to imagine anyone having a problem with this, so, of course, Shavar Jeffries of “Democrats” for Education Reform laced into the changes saying that the platform had been hijacked by the national teachers’ unions, and DFER tried, unsuccessfully, to block the language. The lack of total obsequiousness from elected Democrats must have been very shocking to them.
However, the most difficult blow to absorb must have been from the NAACP. The venerable civil rights organization, sometimes an ally in education reform during the No Child Left Behind era, called for a general moratorium on privately managed charter schools – in effect, all of them. The resolution cited the fact that charter boards accept public money but lack democratic accountability, that charter schools are contributing to increased segregation, that punitive disciplinary policies are disproportionately used in charter schools as well as other practices that violate students’ rights, that there is a pattern of fraud of mismanagement in the sector in general, and it then called for opposition to privatization of education, opposed diversion of funding from public schools, called for full funding for quality public education, called for legislation granting parents access to charter school boards and to strengthen oversight, called for charter schools to follow USDOJ and USDOE guidelines on student discipline and to help parents file complaints when those guidelines are violated, opposed efforts to weaken oversight, and called for a moratorium on charter school growth. Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig defended the resolution, saying that education reformers have only offered top-down and privatized solutions and that choices can be community based.
Dr. Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University explained the importance of the resolution clearly:
Civil Rights workers were concerned first and foremost with the eradication of legal policies or structures like separate but equal that resulted in inequality. This mirrors the cornerstone of the NAACP’s current call for a moratorium on charter schools. They do not claim that all charters are bad, as some commentators have suggested, but declare that the unchecked proliferation of such schools represents a real danger to communities of color. They expressed concern about the dearth of evidence proving their effectiveness and deplore the resulting segregation they often produce. Most importantly, they question the equity of diverting public funds to support private enterprises. As the NAACP rightly observed, “[Charter schools] do not represent the public yet make decisions about how public funds are spent [and have] contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.”
This is really the crux of the problem. The Civil Rights Movement was about inclusivity, while those who appropriate its language to buttress corporate education reform do so largely in support of programs that promote exclusivity at the public’s expense.
I find it difficult to emphasize this enough. For more than a decade and half, education reformers – backed by powerful philanthropies and funded by PACs funneling dark money from billionaires – have attempted to co-opt the language of civil rights. They have used the plight of children of color who attend schools that are deliberately segregated and criminally underfunded to justify, as Dr. Denisha Jones explains, privatizing schools, setting up “choice” systems where schools choose children, and offering barely trained, infinitely replaceable teachers for children of color. The NAACP resolution calls for a full pause in that agenda and recognizes it as antithetical to civil rights.
Of course, reformers could not stay silent on the matter. Secretary of Education and former charter school head Dr. John King chartersplained that there should not be any “artificial barriers” to charter schools calling them “drivers of opportunity.” Various African American led school choice groups pushed back on the resolution as well. Self-proclaimed “most trusted educator in America” Dr. Steve Perry took a blunter approach on social media, calling the NAACP platform “anti-Black”:
And former Assistant Secretary of Education Peter Cunningham continued his efforts to use millions of dollars in seed money to build a “better conversation” by blaming the whole drubbing that charter schools have suffered this past summer on AFT President Randi Weingarten:
Mr. Cunningham is also referencing a suit in Washington state against the charter school sector that was working its way through the courts at the time – charters in Washington lost, with the state Supreme Court ruling that the state’s charter school law violated the state Constitution.
Of course, charter schools are in no danger of folding up shop and going away (although the faster that virtual charter schools which even charter advocates cannot defend just die already the better). There are billions of dollars in public funds still up for grabs, and numerous ways to monetize public education. Despite their complaints at hearing actual criticism, it is unlikely that charter schools would face an implacable foe in a Clinton administration as much as they’d face an ally telling them to behave better. Charter school advocates are pouring money into a fight to convince Massachusetts voters that their already best in the nation school system needs unlimited charter schools — painting itself as a progressive cause when it is funded mostly by the same conservative groups – DFER, New Schools Venture Fund, billionaire donors – behind school privatization everywhere else. They might win that one, but, for the moment, they are in unexpected territory and feeling defensive.
That’s long past due.