Charter Schools and 2020: The Huge Elephant in the Classroom

It’s not just about the unions. As we gear up to hear leading Democratic 2020 candidates at the National Education Association forum this afternoon in Houston, pundits keep missing the point about charter schools and our new political landscape.

nea forum

I, too, …erm…would just like to say that I have always advocated the position I recently adopted…

One thing is hard not to notice: Leading Democrats have flipped on charter schools. Until very recently, leaders like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke were positively rosy about the prospects of improving education with charters. No longer. Even Senator Booker, the candidate most thoroughly associated with charter reform, has backpedaled.

For some reason, pundits keep missing the obvious explanation for this important partisan realignment. Writers assume that the only reason Democratic hopefuls bash charters is to please the NEA and other teachers’ unions. As Bloomburg put it,

On charter schools, the top Democrats seem intent on placating teachers’ unions at the expense of low-income families.

Another pro-charter activist warned Democrats like Beto O’Rourke that “pandering” to union interests won’t pay off in the end. “The Presidential campaign trail,” she writes,

is littered with candidates who have won the union endorsements and never made it to the White House or even the nomination. They should remind themselves that our north star in education must be what’s best for children.

Will we see candidates pandering to the NEA this afternoon? Probably. I can’t imagine many of them pushing for more charters and voucher programs in front of this crowd. But there is a bigger, more obvious reason for this; candidates aren’t simply telling the audience what it wants to hear.

Here’s the scoop: Like most education-reform ideas, charter schools could never possibly deliver on the inflated promises of advocates. As historians know—and as I’m finding more and more as I complete the research for my book about America’s first urban school-reform movement—school reform ideas tend to follow a predictable pattern. Confronted with intractable social problems, reformers and politicians glom on to a “silver-bullet” idea that promises to save education in one fell swoop.

Charter schools were never the solution to America’s social and educational problems. They are also not the problem. Some charter schools do a great job of educating children. Some don’t. Since the 1990s, however, charter schools have been unfairly touted as the Next Big Thing, the cure-all for structural problems such as poverty, inequality, racial segregation, and underfunding.

betsy devos dolores umbridge

All Hufflepuffed up.

Until 2016, leaders from both parties embraced this convenient political fiction. It wasn’t the rise of union-backed teacher protests that killed it. Rather, it was the rise of Queen Betsy, the stumbling elephant in the ed-reform china shoppe. By associating charter schools with only the Trumpist wing of the GOP, Queen Betsy has forced Democratic hopefuls to swing the other way.

Do Democratic candidates hope to secure NEA votes? Sure. Will they bash charters to do so? Most likely. But the real elephant in the classroom is Queen Betsy. By making charter schools her signature issue, she has forced a widespread political realignment on the issue.

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5 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  July 5, 2019

    Sure. Just like putting kids in cages was fine with the Democrats until Trump did it.

    Reply
  2. Opportunity and choice opens the door for creativity and individualism, something that inspires and brings out the best. Inventions come from such venues.

    Reply
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