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The Democrats’ Dilemma On Charter Schools

President Donald Trump’s adamant promotion of “school choice” and his selection of Betsy DeVos for education secretary have put advocates for charter schools in the Democratic party in a bind, and now they’re scrambling to keep the luster of the well-polished charter school brand unblemished.

Their latest tactic is to carefully distinguish charters from the system of school vouchers Trump and DeVos favor, but they serve this cause poorly by making erroneous claims about how the charter industry works in most communities and what these schools do to harm public education.

The latest misfire comes from David Leonhardt’s op-ed in Monday’s New York Times in which he takes on DeVos and her preference for vouchers while denigrating charter skeptics as people who need to get “an open mind.”

It’s a precarious tightrope Leonahrdt attempts to walk, and he stumbles quite badly.

First, A Little Background

First, it’s important to understand the source of the school choice schism in the Democratic party goes back 25 years, Jeffrey Henig explains in Education Week, when proponents of school choice came up with two different ways to achieve their goals: school vouchers and charter schools.

While conservatives favored vouchers, which were a creation of free-market economist Milton Friedman, political centrists and some left-leaning people became infatuated with charters because they were birthed by “business-oriented moderates and technocrats” who became the predominant force in the Democratic party during Bill Clinton’s presidential administration.

Around the turn of the century, these two strains of school choice advocacy united after pro-voucher forces, largely funded by the Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame), encountered a series of stinging defeats at the ballot box and a rising tide of anti-voucher sentiment among the general public.

Voucher advocates welcomed their union with charter school fans because it gave their cause a bipartisan aura and some support from the civil rights community. “Charter proponents … welcomed the political and philanthropic support of the pro-voucher forces,” Henig writes, because they needed rightwing leverage and money to undermine opposition coming from teachers’ unions and public school advocates.

For conservatives, the bipartisan unification for school choice established the slippery slope to potentially privatize public education. Moderate and lefty supporters of charter schools, on the other hand, got a Faustian bargain that gave them “education reformer” cred and the favor of Wall Street investors in exchange for colluding with the right wing.

With Trump and DeVos, the bargain Democrats made on charter schools has come due.

What Leonhardt Gets Wrong

So what’s a charter-loving Democrat to do? Based on what Leonhardt writes for the Times, many are choosing to re-up their support with false claims and deceptive rhetoric.

Leonhardt begins his column by calling attention to a new study showing the voucher program in the District of Columbia has had a negative impact on student achievement – a worthwhile news item to note for sure. But it becomes quickly apparent Leonhardt brings the subject up not to lambast DeVos but to miscast charter school skeptics as actors in a “caricature” debate over the fate of public education.

That’s a convenient strawman that leads him to state there are those who “conflate vouchers … with charter schools,” but he cites no credible sources to substantiate his belief that critics of DeVos and school choice are incapable of distinguishing between charters and vouchers.

Most concerning about Leonhardt’s column, though, is the many misleading statements he makes about how charter schools operate and what their impact is.

He cites a few credible studies showing positive impacts of charter schools on student achievement, but he doesn’t appear to have read credible reports that have found otherwise.

For instance, the most rigorous and most expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the US Department of Education found no overall positive effect for charter schools.

A recent study of charter schools in Texas found charters overall have no positive impact on test scores and have a negative impact on earnings later in life.

So it’s totally misleading for Leonhardt to argue charters have “flourished” (whatever that means) when their track record is decidedly mixed at best.

Leohardt then piles on one misleading statement after another.

His assertion that “charter-school systems are subject to rigorous evaluation and oversight” is counter factual to reports from the charter industry itself that show only about 3 percent of charter schools are closed for under-performing, and even those that are closed have operated an average of 6.2 years.

In Ohio, only one of 10 charter school students attend a school rated high performing.

In Michigan, charter schools score worse on national assessments, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” than their traditional public-school counterparts, yet their numbers continue to expand every year.

In Louisiana, charter-school students perform worse than public schools on eighth-grade reading and math tests by enormous margins – 2 to 3 standard deviations.

And if you want to find out how charter schools spend the money they get from taxpayers, your job isn’t easy. Neither the federal government nor the states have created a place taxpayers can go to see how much in taxes these schools get and what they do with the cash, including what happens to real estate the schools purchase with the public’s money.

Leohnardt’s next howler is his assertion, “Local officials decide which charters can open and expand.” Actually, most often state boards or independent charter granting entities make the decisions to open and close charters, not local officials.

If you’re a local official in most states – including Arizona, Florida, California, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, – you have no idea if a charter school will pop up in your district and no control over what kind of students the charter will appeal to and how the charter will impact your budget.

In most states – including Florida, Tennessee, California, Illinois, Colorado, and Alabama – local officials who deny a charter application or seek to close a charter are frequently overruled by appointed boards set up by state officials whose political campaigns have been well supported by the charter school industry or its wealthy promoters.

The lack of local control endemic in charter school governance is by design. In its rankings of state legal statues governing charter schools, the charter industry lists “the existence of independent and/or multiple authorizers,” not local control, as a chief determiner of whether a state gets a top grade or not.

Leonhardt is wrong on this point as well: “Many charters are open to all comers.”

Numerous studies have found charters tend to serve lower percentages of students who have disabilities or whose first language isn’t English.

I’m sure Leonhardt can find an inclusive charter here or there, but the fact remains there are no regulatory or statutory requirements that prevent a charter school operator from saying to a family, “Your child isn’t a good fit for our school,” and any attempt to put those requirements onto charters would be fought tooth-and-nail by the charter industry and its powerful lobby.

Who Really Needs “An Open Mind”

Lastly, Leonhardt offers a “political compromise” of “fewer vouchers, more charters,” and he accuses anyone unwilling to take that deal of not having “an open mind.”

But expanding charters comes at a considerable cost to taxpayers as many of these schools continue to fleece the public coffers while traditional public schools lose vital resources.

According to the latest accounting of charter school fraud, waste, and mismanagement, conducted by the Center for Popular Democracy, public funding of charter schools has grown to $40 billion annually while oversight of these schools has languished. CPD has identified over $223 million in public fund misuse by charters but argues this is merely “the tip of the iceberg.” The total estimated loss may top $2.1 billion, CPD calculates.

As charters expand, the cost to public school systems is considerable, and many districts increasingly face financial insolvency as they lose students to these schools.

Maybe that’s a subject Leonhardt can open his mind to.

  • Joseph Nathan says:

    Actually, Jeffrey Henig is wrong. There are many ways that progressives have been working to create new public school options for low-moderate income families. These include offering schools within schools, alternative schools within districts, magnet schools, cross district options, post secondary options (where high school students are allowed to attend colleges and universities at state expense), offering statewide schools of choice, Pilot Schools, and teacher led schools.
    Many progressive educators recognize that there is no single best kind of school for all kids, or families. Progressive educators also see how school choice can help elevate their professional status by giving them a chance to create a distinctive school – whether it be Montessori, Core Knowledge, project based, language immersion, etc.

    May 4, 2017 at 2:16 pm
    • Rob Levine says:

      Joe Nathan is instrumental in the charter sector in Minnesota, where 1/3 of the “choice” schools have been started by Walmart heirs, and charter school students are twice as likely as regular public school students to be in a severely segregated school. As far as accountability and outcomes go, the charters in Minnesota do no better than regular public schools. In addition, there is a string of highly-segregated schools that do terrible on test scores that have been getting the same “outcomes” for years. Joe Nathan is in favor of segregation and experimenting on children. Those are hardly “progressive” values.

      May 4, 2017 at 3:07 pm
  • jim2812 says:

    How can a school board be open minded about charter schools when a charter school has a hand in the school district’s pocketbook?

    May 4, 2017 at 2:29 pm
  • micah6 says:

    The most significant — and largely unaddressed — problem with the discussion of U.S. schools is the widespread use of student scores on standardized tests as the primary basis for evaluation. Such tests do not measure what our society or parents should be requiring that our children learn: Critical thinking, verbal (both writing and speaking) ability, mathematical thinking, an understanding of the scientific method. None of those foundational skills/knowledge can be adequately measured with an easily scored multiple-choice test. In addition, studies have shown that regardless of the subject matter or testing approach, minority students will post lower scores on high stakes tests than they do on the same tests that are presented as just a routine thing, or no big deal. [The minorities in one landmark study included Turkish students in Scandinavia as well as African-American students in the U.S.]

    My own state of Missouri moved from focusing school evaluation on “input” — academic credentials of staff, class size, condition of physical facilities, number of books in the library (or the existence of a library), richness of secondary curriculum (i.e. the “opportunity to learn” such subjects as physics, calculus, foreign language), and availability to all grade levels of art and music — to focusing solely on “output” measurements such as graduation rate and test scores. Then the state legislature cut the funds for a testing program that included student writing assessments, because they were too expensive to grade. Then the state board used student scores on the state’s standardized, multiple-choice test to remove accreditation from several public school districts with student bodies that are majority African-American. It is an insidious degeneration and dismantling of our public schools.

    I have come to the conclusion that our public education system needs federal, state and local funding (to counteract the inequalities of local resources) with local control (that includes parents). State oversight of *input* is still a good idea. But local constituents should be the primary evaluators of a school’s “output.”

    Charter schools and vouchers do not address the critical problems of funding inequity for schools serving low-income, minority and disabled students. The current national discussion doesn’t come close to admitting that.

    (my byline: Virginia Baldwin Gilbert received state and national awards for her reporting on education for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (with the byline of Virginia Hick) in the 1980s and early 1990s).

    May 4, 2017 at 4:17 pm
    • Joseph Nathan says:

      Virginia, I agree that over-reliance on standardized tests is a huge problem. A variety of district & charter educators are working together to refine and use a wide array of more applied and comprehensive measures. It’s encouraging collaboration that the anti – charter advocates mostly ignore.
      Re funding inequities – again agree that this is a critical problem. Differences between inner city & suburban public school funding levels are in many places, outrageous and scandalous. Same is true for the gap between charters and district schools in most states.
      For what it’s worth, our 3 kids attended and graduated from urban district public schools.
      Joe Nathan

      May 4, 2017 at 5:59 pm
  • Mark Kotch says:

    I taught English to mostly Hispanic and Filipino students in Delano, California, for 25 years. Paramount Farms, owned by billionaire Stewart Resnik, collaborated with Bard College of new York, in opening a private charter to compete with the separate public elementary and secondary districts. Bard was offering a Masters in Ed. as part of a program to “revolutionize” teaching and learning in the San Joaquin Valley. No one that actually lives in the San Joaquin Valley could afford the tuition for Bard’s Masters program, so eventually Bard pulled out of the partnership. Paramount soldiers on and was 100 points below the DUSD and DJUHSD in the last go round of standardized tests under the old NCLB (ESEA), and that was as close as the entities got academically. Still, some parents like the Paramount Academy because it stays in session two hours longer than its public counterparts providing a good babysitting service. Charters were originally proposed by Shaker (AFT) as laboratories to develop cutting edge strategies for public schools. Vouchers are the territory of religious zealots uncomfortable with the constraints of the 1st amendment. Charters and vouchers, in their present iterations are all about privatizing public services without providing any transparency or accountability for the stakeholders.

    May 4, 2017 at 6:04 pm
  • Joe Nathan says:

    Here’s a link to a newspaper column urging that we learn from the most effective public schools, whether district or charter. http://hometownsource.com/2016/12/07/joe-nathan-column-sharing-stories-of-successful-schools/

    The Center I direct has run many programs bringing together a variety of schools to work with and learn from each other. We have many examples of how this has helped students.

    Our 3 kids attended and graduated from urban district public schools, Our organization has worked with district & charters all over the nation. We’ve helped create new district as well as charter options.

    We also think low income families ought to have a variety of public school options. Wealthy white people have lots of options including the ability to live in affluent suburbs that are 90% or more white.

    Anti charter, anti-Post Secondary Options activists in Minnesota have been trying character-assassination for several decades. Given that growing numbers of youngsters are participating in these programs, it might be worth considering…how well is that working?

    May 4, 2017 at 6:06 pm
    • Rob Levine says:

      Ha ha…growing numbers of children participating? Of course that has nothing to do with the $37 million foundations have pumped directly into charter schools in Minnesota, or the additional $20 million+ spent on charter advocacy including Joe Nathan’s organization. But it’s character assassination to say Joe Nathan supports segregation. Yet that’s just what he does.

      May 4, 2017 at 8:10 pm
  • Jim Horn says:

    Your claim that AFT and NEA have been charter opponents is as convincing as the David Leonhardt’s alternative facts about charter schools. Anyone who can read and is willing to visit NEA and AFT websites can see for themselves that both “teachers'” unions have been onboard the charter bus ever since philanthrocapitalist and charter-friendly Clintonian, Eli Broad, provided huge handouts to create the The Union Reform Network (TURN).

    If the growing cancer of TURN were not enough to assure AFT loyalty, there is the necessity for both AFT and NEA to do the bidding of the DNC, which is controlled by paternalist billionaires who want to use charters to segregate and culturally sterilize black and brown children.

    May 4, 2017 at 7:23 pm
  • Timothy Trewyn says:

    As an engineer, I can say the charter industry has been good news for the construction industry. It also has all the appearances of power lines built on both sides of the road and down the center median so businesses on both sides can have their choice of provider. Each utility takes a gamble on how much capacity they ought to build so they can handle a rush of new customers when they roll out their next marketing scheme. This kind of choice of schools, i.e., more locations and structures, is an inefficient expense that takes tax money away from the kind of choice schools used to offer: an impressive diversity in curriculum, from honors Phy Ed with indoor tracks and competition pools and tennis courts to industrial arts to fashion design to four years of Spanish, French, German, or Latin, high performing vocal and instrumental music programs including jazz bands, art studios, 1200 seat auditoriums with fully equipped fly loft stages, calculus, second year biology, chemistry, and physics and four years of electronic technology and communications courses and the faculty to match. You had lots of choices. Yup, one of those was my public high school built in the 1950’s. The building all by itself inspired excellence. Students respond to architecture. The floor plans of charter schools I look at today . . . are pathetic in comparison.

    May 4, 2017 at 7:49 pm

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