Will the Left Wake Up to Charter Realities?

The left in Washington is indistinguishable from the right on charter schools, a rare point of agreement in times marked by contentious discord. In 2009, Race to the Top specifically targeted expansion of charter schools and in May, President Obama offered the following words in his proclamation of national charter school week.

“I commend our Nation’s charter schools, teachers, and administrators, and I call on States and communities to support high quality public schools, including charter schools and the students they serve.”

Mr. President, though I support students, teachers, and leaders of charter schools through my work at the University of Arkansas, I won’t support charters and respectfully disagree with the your calls for increases for three central reasons:

  1. Competition. While Albert Shanker’s original vision for charter schools was for innovation, labs where teachers could experiment with new ideas and then, if demonstrated successful, return to the host public schools with those ideas, today’s charters are all about winning and losing. Sorry but when kids are involved, I can’t accept a system setup for some to lose. I’ve never met a single child who deserves to lose or to attend a losing school.
  2. Privatization. I believe that public education should now and forever remain public and that attempts by private industry to engage in the education conversation are duplicitous at best. When larger cities take over failing schools, shutter them, and then usher in companies to re-open charters in those spaces, I don’t believe the greater good of our country or those individual cities rests at the heart of this issue. Several states are experimenting with the same notion: declare something failing, sweep in for a takeover, and then sell it to the highest bidder.
  3. Segregation. My strongest negative reaction to charter schools is the way in which they are serving to provide choices to people. Choice in schooling creates situations where charters are segregating our schools by race and class. With schools more segregated now than before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and evidence that charters are exacerbating the issue, it seems that our country is taking steps in the exact wrong direction when people vote with their feet.

So how did we get here?

As educational historian Diane Ravitch detailed in her 2010 book, at least some of the roots of these issues began under President Ronald Reagan’s 3C’s initiative for content, character, and choice.

Choice photo

An Inconvenient Truth pronounced Davis Guggenheim a hero of liberals, making his Waiting for Superman, as Ravitch explained, “the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far.” Or, as Hermansen-Webb concludes in her 2014 rhetorical analysis of the film, “The growing enthusiasm about charter schools from the political left stems, in part, from arguments for market-based reform that are delivered to liberal audiences through popular culture (p. 533).

It was comments on an article about President Bill Clinton published at Huffington Post in September that gave me some hope that the liberals who were seduced by Waiting for Superman, victims of the blistering hot school choice narrative, were waking up to at least some issues with charter schools.

I’ve selected the following quotes from the comment section because they offer criticism of the charter narrative. Of course these comments are not a scientific reflection of anything.  

“The privatization of public institutions will ALWAYS lead
to disaster.”

“The profit motive can’t be trusted.”

“Funny, we’ve been saying that for years but no one will listen until a famous politician says it? They are motivated by profit, not results.”

“Charter schools are veiled discrimination against the disabled and disadvantaged.”

“And don’t forget to add the racially different to your list! Whether some are passed over for race or the difficulty of getting to the chosen school several miles and neighborhoods away. (Could therefore be a dangerous journey.)”

“Everybody needs to quit calling charter schools “public schools”. They leach public money just like the private prison industry. But we do not call private prisons, ‘public prisons.'”

“Education policy is being determined by people who know little to nothing about education, so the failure of charter schools shouldn’t come as a surprise. These schools are being run by folks who care a lot about making money, and not so much about educating children. And just like with the big banks: deregulation = disaster.”

I responded first the day the Clinton article posted, primarily citing this piece from May. While my comment and a few of the others focused on the segregation issue, commenters were more concerned with the privatization aspect that charters represent. While I deplore that as an unforgivable reality too, the real issue for me and others is the idea of segregation based on race and class.

“Drive to Anywhere, Southern State, USA and look around for the private school and public school. It’s Jim Crow all over again with near complete segregation by race, something a colleague formally linked to expanding charter schools, not only in terms of race but also ethnicity and class. Is this the country we want? […] stacked measurements and positive press don’t obscure the deeper realities.”

Is this the country any of us want?

Iris C. Rotberg’s research published in Phi Delta Kappan in 2014 on the issue offers three specific findings:

“There is a strong link between school choice programs and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income. 

The risk of segregation is a direct reflection of the design of the school choice program. 

Even beyond race, ethnicity, and income, school choice programs result in increased segregation for special education and language-minority students, as well as in increased segregation of students based on religion and culture.” 

While some–including President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan–want charter school proliferation, the dangers of doing so, of giving choice to some, seem to far outweigh any benefits.

As Rotberg concludes:

“Proponents of charter schools believe they’re giving low-income and minority students opportunities they otherwise would not have had. That belief is true in some cases; all charter schools do not result in segregation. But far too many do, and the trend is unfavorable.”

Dr. Paul Thomas articulates the big ideas well in a post written in honor, ahem, of National School Choice Week:

“Choice in education is an ideological lie driven by an idealized faith that ignores the negative consequences of choice: some parents choose for their children to drop out of school, some parents choose to smoke with their children in the car, some parents choose to place their children in schools based on racist and classist beliefs.”

Isn’t choice that leads to segregation unconscionable?

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Author’s note: Thank you Jen, Brandon, John, and Paul for reading and responding to earlier drafts.