Whenever I contemplate the fact that many leftists and left-leaning centrists believe charter schools are a good idea, I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s premise in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness that it is not the evil children of darkness who cause most of the world’s problems, but foolish, misguided or uneducated children of light, i.e., well-intentioned good people.
Make no mistake about it, from day one the charter school movement has been a darling of contemporary children of darkness, very wealthy families seeking to lower their taxes or make more money by privatizing public schools and the right-wing ideologues who support them. People like the DeVoses, the Princes, the Anschutzes, the Bradleys, the Kochs. I think you get the idea—the selfish ultra wealthy, as dark a group of people as the average leftist or lean-leaner could imagine. These are the people who originally funded the charter school idea, set up think tanks and grass roots associations to campaign for charter school funding and got public relations agencies to make sure the mainstream news media thought this failed idea was more successful than it actually was. These people know in their greedy little hearts that the charter school idea is the big right-wing lie in education policy discussions, similar to the big lies in other important policy areas, such as climate change denial, intelligent design, voter fraud claims, abstinence only training, budget deficit panics and the idea that lowering taxes on the wealthy stimulates the economy. All are discounted ideas of America’s children of darkness that persist and, in the case of charter schools are thriving, in practice and public discussion.
One reason more charter schools are popping up around the country despite their widespread failures and scandals is because of support from well-intended children of light, including a good number of left-leaning centrists and leftists, such as President Obama, Hillary and President Bill, Andrew Cuomo, Howard Dean and Marian Wright Edelman. A survey by Stanford’s Hoover Institute found that 58% of Democrats liked charter schools in 2016.
The advocacy of charter schools by left-leaning politicians can’t be because of charter school performance, since studies show that the students in more than 70% of all charter schools across the country perform at lower or the same level as the students in the competing public school, 31% performing worse. Many of the approximately 29% of charter schools whose students manage to do better than those in their public school alternative have fixed the game. They discourage kids with disabilities from applying or weed out students who are less successful; for example, one Arizona charter school that U.S. News & World Report placed in the top 10 of all high schools across the country starts with 125 students in sixth grade but has a mere 21 in the graduating class. The administration presumably weeded out low performers, who then returned to their traditional public school, artificially raising the performance of the charter school and lowering the performance of the traditional public school. Improvement at a mere 29% of schools, up from a miniscule 17% in 2009, makes charter schools a failure. Only ideologues who prefer to create their own reality would continue a program that fails to work 71% of the time and actually makes things worse about a third of the time. On top of all that, it turns out that charter schools are more segregated than regular public schools. I have an article in the autumn issue of Jewish Currents that goes into greater detail on the disadvantages of charter schools and other right-wing educational reforms such as cyber schools and school vouchers, but I think you get the idea: charter schools are bad.
I can understand why many desperate parents of modest or little means with children in schools of few resources in poor districts might be attracted to the line of bull professed by charter school operators, many of whom are for-profit companies whose investors will make their dough by spending less on the children and lowering compensation for their teachers. Just like subprime mortgages, payday loans and for-profit vocational schools, charter schools target the most vulnerable and sell them a bill of goods.
But what about sophisticated left-leaners, policy wonks like the Clintons and Obama? I think there are three reasons so many mainstreamers seem comfortable with charter schools: First, out of respect for minority communities among whom they think there is a lot of support for charter schools, mainly because the mainstream news media and charter school lobbyists tell them so. In point of fact, there is an organization that purports to represent African-Americans who like charter schools, called the Black Alliance for Educational Options, but it receives most of its support from the ultra-right, ultra-white Bradley Foundation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella group for 50 organizations, have come out vehemently against charter schools.
Secondly, embracing charter schools is part of centrist Democrats’ slow dance away from unions. It’s not that Democrats don’t like unions, it’s that they don’t think about them as a central part of their core constituency anymore. Union issues have become an afterthought. Centrist Dems don’t consider the impact on unions when deciding how to shape policies, in or out of power; e.g., NAFTA. When unions protested that the impetus behind charter schools was to kill public school unions and thereby lower teachers’ salaries, the centrists probably thought it was more union obstructionism, or perhaps veiled racism since charter school folks were falsely touting how minorities could take hold of and thereby improve their children’s education. Maybe they have vague memories of accusations of union racism that marred the first controversy over locally controlled schools, in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1968, long before conservative billionaires started funding the charter school movement. On the one hand, who can blame the centrists Dems, given that so many union members abandoned the Democrats for Trump? On the other hand, it’s inconceivable to imagine a progressive movement or a large middle class in this country without a vibrant, large and politically active union workforce.
The last reason is the most subtle, and perhaps the most important. Leftists and left-leaners who have supported charter schools look at its superficial features and see the model for community organizing advocated by the sainted Saul Alinsky. In his Rules for Radicals and elsewhere, community organizer Saul Alinsky proposed to effect progressive change and empower people by organizing them around existing community organizations or symbols for direct nonviolent action against a well-known (“useful”) enemy. The Alinsky model asks the community itself to determine the precise goal of the organizing.
That does seem a lot like charter schools, doesn’t it? The existing organization or symbol is the public school. The community as represented by the school’s board of directors—all community members and parents at the school—determine the goals. The enemy is the public school/union bureaucracy. The nonviolent direct action is to take over the school. The empowerment results when the community has more control over how its children are educated.
No wonder charter schools excited sixties and seventies radicals turned establishment types like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It sure does sound like solid gold Alinsky.
But it’s not even cheap brass plating. It’s an illusion. Underneath the radical left exterior, the operation of a charter school is a conveyance for privatization by which control of all decisions rests in the hands of private businesses, either for-profit companies or non-profit companies whose administrators make big bucks. Since state and national standards drive virtually all curriculum decisions, virtually all the decisions the community boards make come early and involve window-dressing, e.g., make it a Spanish-language school or mandate uniforms. The board can’t dictate that the school not teach evolution or teach that the South won the Civil War. The board can’t restrict minorities or those with handicaps from attending the school, although the for-profit school administration has been known to do so by where they market the school and what they require of applicants. Maybe that’s why charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools.
Everything else is driven by the administration installed by the charter school operator with whom the community board has contracted. Like many boards of directors in the private sector, the community board becomes a rubber stamp for the senior management. As long as the operator fulfills the terms of the contract, it can pretty much do what it likes. And that almost always involves hiring less experienced teachers and fewer certified teachers, nonunion in most cases, paying them less, and providing them with fewer professional development opportunities. Cut and take profit. It’s how government privatizers make a living, be it in education, prisons or the military, and it’s central to the crony capitalism practiced by the contemporary Republican Party.
In a sense, much like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the charter school movement is Milton Friedman masquerading as Saul Alinsky.
Charter schools have proven to be a failure. It’s time to move on, to shut down all existing charter schools and reintegrate those schools and the students in them, into their traditional public school district.
But ending a school-reform-gone-bad is not enough. We also have to address what made the charter school attractive in the first place—not the racism, but the lack of resources in public schools. We need to invest in more teachers in elementary schools, where it is well-established in the real world that smaller classes are better for the students. We need to buy schools more computers, updated non-Texas-vetted text books, more enrichment such as music and art materials and teachers, equipment and supplies for special magnet schools and other resources that public schools now lack in many areas. It might be helpful to tax rich school districts statewide to support poor school districts, to in a sense, mandate equity in public education.
There are lots of things we can do to improve our public schools and make sure that every student gets the best and most appropriate education. Virtually all of these ideas involve increasing spending. The only thing that will really help our education system that doesn’t involve spending more money is to end all charter schools.