A political battle is being waged over charter schools in Massachusetts right now, and it’s a microcosm of the state of the charter debate across the country. In the lead-up to a November ballot measure in which voters will decide whether or not to lift the state’s cap on charter schools, known as Question 2, Democrats passed a resolution this month opposing charter school expansion. The resolution states that the pro-charter campaign is “funded and governed by hidden money provided by Wall Street executives and hedge fund managers.” In response, the pro-charter group Democrats for Education Reform drafted a letter to the coalition behind the resolution, called the “No on 2” campaign, claiming that they misrepresented Democrats’ attitude towards charters. “There is great Democratic support for public charter schools,” wrote Liam Kerr, Massachusetts State Director of Democrats for Education Reform.
However, public sentiment has actually been turning steadily against charter schools, and not only within the Democratic party. The NAACP recently called for a moratorium on charters, as did the Movement for Black Lives. Over the past year and a half, The New York Times published a series of scathing reports on the high-profile New York City charter chain Success Academy, including a teacher caught on tape screaming at a young student for a math mistake, a principal with a list of difficult students titled “Got to Go,” and students peeing their pants out of fear. John Oliver’s recent “Last Week Tonight” segment on corruption in charter schools in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania prompted a defensive response from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, acknowledging that the practices at the schools featured were “unacceptable” but insisting they “are not representative of charter schools nationwide.”
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On top of all that, the Democratic party platform this year contains language unprecedentedly critical of charter schools, saying they “should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools” and “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 was such a break from the norm in the party that Shavar Jeffries, Democrats for Education Reform president, called it an “unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy” that “stands in stark contrast to the positions of a broad coalition of civil rights groups.”
While charters have always been a controversial subject within the Democratic Party, there’s been a longstanding bipartisan consensus behind closing poorly performing public schools in low-income communities and replacing them with charter schools. Both No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top program encouraged the expansion of charter schools, and both initially enjoyed bipartisan support. And while teachers unions have been a consistent voice of criticism against those policies, pro-charter groups were often successfully able to write them off as self-interested. Even within the Democratic Party, reformers painted public school teachers as selfishly fighting for job protections — as if that’s the worst thing a worker could do — and not actually interested in the well-being of their students.
That narrative has always been misrepresentative and cynical. but for a long time, it has been dominant. That’s why the critical stances of the Movement for Black Lives and the NAACP are so powerful. At least since President Obama took office, and arguably since President Bush passed No Child Left Behind, charter schools have been winning the rhetorical war, presenting themselves as the compassionate solution for poor families of color struggling in an under-resourced public education system. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to put up a fight against Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, arguing that the well-resourced network can afford to pay rent for public school space (Moskowitz herself makes six figures a year), Moskowitz went on national television and accused the mayor of wanting “to deny poor kids in Harlem an opportunity, a shot at life.” It was an effective strategy for Moskowitz, who got her free rent, allowing Success Academies across the city to continue to claim space from the same public schools she demonizes. It wasn’t until The New York Times series on Success Academy’s questionable practices toward its students, along with a federal civil rights complaint over the network’s treatment of students with disabilities, that Moskowitz found herself losing ground in the court of public opinion.
“We have a confluence of events,” explained Preston Green, professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut. “One is that we’re getting more and more evidence that charters are problematic, that there are issues with charters”— particularly, said Green, the issue of segregation. (A study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that “charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.”) But that’s not the only factor contributing to the changing educational climate. “In addition, you’re seeing more and more discussion about fraud and mismanagement, and questions about whether the money actually makes it to the students and to the schools.” In the past, argues Green, charter schools called out for corruption were written off as simply “bad apples.”
But it’s becoming harder and harder to write off the types of stories featured in the John Oliver segment — schools over-reporting attendance in order to receive more public funds, CEOs convicted of embezzlement, or nonprofit charters directing government funds directly into private management companies — as isolated incidents. “Slowly but surely, people are starting to see this may be a systems problem, and that the fraud and mismanagement issues that we’re seeing in charters are not just because they’re bad apples, but because there is a lack of oversight,” Green said. He acknowledges that charters are still popular with many families and many Black families in particular. The pro-charter movement has “made the argument that choice is liberty,” explains Green. “But what you’re seeing very slowly are counter-narratives developing, and that while choice may be liberty, unfettered choice can cause all kinds of problems.”
Plus, he says, despite the enthusiasm for charters, Black communities have long emphasized the importance of oversight to ensure that charters are doing right by their students. “This debate has always been present,” Green said. “It’s just that there’s more evidence that indicates that it’s a problem, such that Black Lives Matter and the NAACP can come together and try to address this.” The fact that some charter schools are beloved by students and families, and that some are even structured around themes that meet particular needs of the communities they serve, doesn’t take away from the fundamental need to regulate the allocation of public resources out of public institutions (public schools) and into the private sector.
Interestingly, the pro-charter movement is largely built on the idea of oversight, or “accountability,” for public schools. The primary mechanism of accountability for education reformers is the type of high-stakes testing ushered in with No Child Left Behind and maintained under Race to the Top. Those programs’ “accountability” mechanisms were largely based around firing teachers and shutting down schools based on student test scores. But at the same time the Department of Education pushed for “accountability” for public schools by way of replacing them with charters, there are few systems in place to account for how charters spend the federal money they receive to educate their students, leading to the kind of rampant corruption outlined by Oliver.
The entire mission of the modern charter movement, allegedly, is to end educational inequality. It premises itself fundamentally on the notion that public schools are failing and that a marketplace of choices will give students and families better options. A better education, as goes the American way of thinking, is the way out of poverty. But that rhetoric just doesn’t hold up against the onslaught of stories of fraud, theft, civil rights violations, student push-out and a call to action by the nation’s most important movement for racial justice in a generation — a movement led by Black youth with an immediate stake in the fight for equality.
Plus, the defense of charters sometimes loses all sight of their stated purpose. In a truly baffling piece at USA Today earlier this month, Peter Cunningham, executive director of the pro-reform (and pro-charter) organization Education Post, argued that perhaps it’s not worth it to fight segregation, but to instead just focus on making schools better. Cunningham seems to have forgotten that separate schools that are equally high-quality, is an idea this nation decided was brutally racist and inherently unequal. “I support every effort to address poverty and segregation, but not at the expense of needed reforms,” writes Cunningham. Here, he shows his hand: “reform,” a movement theoretically created to address educational inequality caused by poverty, is more important than addressing poverty itself. Reform is more important than integration is an order handed down from the Supreme Court in 1954 that this country has, shamefully, yet to fully follow. Cunningham’s words are the logical conclusion of the goal of reform superseding the goal of equality — if you take reformers at their word that equality was ever really the goal.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, those fighting to expand charters are relying heavily on the language of equality. “I find it disappointing that the Democratic Party, which I feel is full of a lot of people who believe in equal opportunity and giving everybody a chance, would choose to be against something that is so important — especially to working-class families in underperforming school districts,” said Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker after the Democrats passed their resolution against lifting the cap. But critics of charters now have more leverage than ever to puncture that narrative.
It’s been almost 30 years since Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, introduced the idea of charter schools as a way to better serve the highest need students. He envisioned a unionized workforce, empowered teachers and diverse student bodies. The best examples of charters today may adhere to Shanker’s vision, but most don’t — only around 12 percent are unionized, a quarter of teachers leave their schools each year (twice the rate of public school teachers) and they’re more likely to be “intensely segregated” than public schools.
Because the problem of educational inequity remains so entrenched, some families still seek out charters as the best option for their children. But the structural solution to inequality will never be a separate-but-sometimes-equal system.