Zuckerberg’s 200-Year-Old Mistake: The “Teacher Problem”

Who could have predicted it? Anyone with the slimmest knowledge of the history of education. I can’t say I’m happy to see it, but I’m not surprised that Mark Zuckerberg’s $100-million plan has died a whimpering death in Newark. It’s the oldest story in ed reform, with over two hundred years of obvious lessons for anyone who cares to look.

booker on oprah

Trust us…we know how to fix schools.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH remember these two intertwined stories. The first one is the tech-bazillionaire-meets-urban-reformer-on-a-plane story, as giddily announced on Oprah. As related by skeptical reporter Dale Russakoff, here’s it is in brief: Mark Zuckerberg met Newark Mayor Corey Booker on a plane. They talked for a while and Zuckerberg decided that they could use Facebook money to fix Newark’s schools. He pledged $100 million in matching funds to back Booker’s aggressive plans.

Those plans included a lot of elements, but key to all of them was a new attitude toward Newark’s public-school teachers. Zuckerberg, like a lot of his contemporaries, imagined that schools could be saved by rewarding good teachers and eliminating bad teachers. After all, that’s how Facebook made its money.

It didn’t work. As Chalkbeat reports, the last vestiges of that magical moment have been eliminated from Newark’s schools, with a new new teachers’ contract that eliminates most of Zuckerberg’s merit-pay plans.

The second story is a lot older. It is well known to everyone who knows anything about the history of American education. Back then, the governor was DeWitt Clinton, not Chris Christie. The charismatic reformer with the solution to all urban woes was Joseph Lancaster, not Cory Booker. And the money came from the King of England, not Facebook.

But as I’m finding in my current research, the basics of the story are depressingly similar. Consider the situation of New York City’s public schools, circa 1818. The city had gone all in on Lancaster’s reform plan. Like Zuckerberg’s, the basics of the plan revolved around the “problem” of teacher pay. According to Lancaster, expensive teachers could be replaced with free student labor. These student-teachers, called “monitors,” would educate all the kids in New York City without costing much.

Phil manual 1817 show slates

The best kind of teacher has always been the free kind… (from Lancaster’s manual, 1817 edition)

What happened? You could ask Cory Booker. Turns out, teachers don’t like working for nothing. In 1818, New York found that their free student-teachers kept leaving for—get this—paid positions elsewhere. The New York administrators considered some radical options—such as forcing teachers to work for free until they turned 21. Turns out teachers didn’t like that either. The system fell apart.

How could Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, Chris Christie, or Oprah have known any of this? Easy. They could have cracked a book. Just one book. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out two decades ago, school reformers tend to repeat these same mistakes, without giving heed to the obvious lessons of history. To wit: teachers might be part of the problem for schools, but teachers will always be most of the solution. Cramming a shiny new “system” down their throats will not yield good results.

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Revolution Is (Not) Coming to a Classroom Near You!

Time for conservatives to freak out? No, not really, but you wouldn’t know it if you only read the Chicken Little-ism of Gilbert T. Sewall in the American Conservative. As have conservatives for a full century now, Sewall makes a fundamental mistake when it comes to American education.

Why is Sewall freaking out? It seems California has introduced a new curricular requirement to its public schools. Soon, to graduate from high schools Californians will have to complete an Ethnic Studies class. What will it mean? According to Sewall, it will be nothing less than

a revolutionary storm sweeping through educational leadership in the nation’s legislatures and metro school districts.

Except…it won’t. Of course it won’t. For good or ill, no single curricular requirement can have that much impact on the goings-on in America’s classroom.

What is Sewall worried about? As he describes,

Ethnic Studies is the “disciplinary, loving, and critical praxis of holistic humanity.” It is the study of “intersectional and ancestral roots, coloniality, hegemony and a dignified world where many worlds fit.” It “critically grapples with the various power structures and forms of oppression, including, but not limited to, white supremacy, race and racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.” . . .

“The foundational values of Ethnic Studies are housed in the conceptual model of the ‘double helix,’” the text professes, “which interweaves holistic humanization and critical consciousness.” The proposed course of study, while promising to help with the “eradication of bigotry, hate, and racism” and the promotion of “socio-emotional development and wellness,” seems intended mainly to stir ill will and delegitimize the nation’s white majority. The conviction that malign U.S. wealth and power exist at the expense of certified underdogs undergirds the entire document.

So, should conservatives panic? For that matter, should progressives celebrate? No and no. Why not? A little background: As I argued in my history of American educational conservatism, conservatives have long assumed that progressive school rhetoric reflected a revolutionary new reality in America’s classrooms. It doesn’t and it never has.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

How to panic, c. 1949.

Consider, for example, the alarmist language of 1940s pundit Allen Zoll. Zoll was a hard-right hack who managed to build a mailing list of many respectable thinkers and activists. In his pamphlets, he snipped a few bits of progressive-ed language and baked them into an apocalyptic meringue for his readers. Consider this snippet from Progressive Education Increases Delinquency:

The tragic and terrifying thing about all this [progressive education] is that it represents not merely rebellion against a moral code, but denial that there can be any binding moral code.  It is a fundamental revolution in human thinking of the first order: it is mental and ethical nihilism.  If it goes on unchecked, it will mean not merely tragedy for millions of individuals, it will mean the disintegration and final extinction of the American society.

We don’t even need to argue that progressive classroom methods will do no such thing. All we have to do this morning is point out that such progressive methods never had anything near the influence Zoll assumed they did. Like many of his conservative allies, Allen Zoll read a few progressive pamphlets then told his many readers that those ideas reflected a terrifying new revolutionary reality in America’s classrooms.

They didn’t then and they don’t now. Think about it: If changing a curriculum could have sweeping revolutionary changes in the ways people think, we would have long ago have abolished both racism and radical young-earth creationism.

Exhibit A: When it comes to creationism, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Erik Plutzer noted, state standards for teaching evolutionary theory are generally pretty good. But that doesn’t mean that people are really learning evolutionary theory in schools. Obvs.

Exhibit B: As for racism, historian Zoe Burkholder argued that anti-racist academic activists such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead had some real success introducing anti-racist materials in the New York City curriculum, way back in the 1940s. Did that mean that racism was eliminated? Sadly, no.

The point here is not that anti-racist or pro-evolution curriculum is a bad idea. Personally, I agree that every student should be exposed to such ideas. But just adding an idea to a mandated curriculum does not now and has not ever resulted in sweeping changes in the things people actually learn in school.

For me and my progressive friends, that can come as a sad and sobering wake-up call. For some conservatives, like Gilbert Sewall, it should come as a heavy dose of reassurance.

Because unlike what Sewall predicts, this change in California curriculum does not herald the destruction of traditional values or hierarchies. California, regardless of what Sewall says, has not really “abandon[ed] teaching and learning in favor of political indoctrination.”

For what it’s worth, I sympathize with Sewall. No one would read his article if he said, “I don’t like this change but it’s not really that big of a deal.” As have conservative pundits for a century now, Sewall chose to inflate the real danger in order to attract anxious readers.

However, this kind of educational alarmism is a problem. It leads readers to conclude that something profound has gone horribly wrong with America’s schools. Even when they see counter-evidence with their own eyes, Americans tend to listen to the unfounded panic-mongering of writers like Sewall instead of calmer, boringer voices.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

What should we do instead? It’s not easy, but it is obvious. Instead of browsing through state mandates, we should get to know real schools. We should visit local schools, attend school-board meetings, and talk with teachers and neighbors about what happens on a day-to-day basis. If more people did that, there would less panic and more pragmatism in every discussion of public education.

Why Do White Reformers Keep Making This Obvious Mistake?

It seems like it should be obvious. Yet news from KIPP—the nation’s largest non-profit charter-school network—shows that this simple idea is still very difficult for well-meaning school reformers to understand. Why has it taken decades for today’s “visionaries” to learn this centuries-old lesson?

Here’s the latest: According to Chalkbeat, the KIPP network shared some powerful mea culpas at its recent 25-year anniversary meeting. Historically, the schools have tended to attract middle-class white teachers to work with lower-income non-white students. And the KIPP tradition included a “no-excuses” type of classroom management. Students—at times—were required to maintain a rigid silence, marching single-file through hallways, enduring silent lunches, and generally submitting to a harsh-seeming disciplinary scheme.

In many cases, KIPP discipline insisted that non-conforming students be publicly humiliated. After twenty-five years, some of KIPP’s leaders are admitting that such systems don’t work. As Chalkbeat explained,

KIPP was among several charter networks to pioneer a “no excuses” approach to student discipline. That philosophy emphasizes classroom order and obedience in a bid to minimize distraction and raise students’ academic achievement — and has been heavily criticized for largely being meted out to students of color by white educators. Over the last decade, KIPP has walked back some of its earlier practices, notably a punishment known as “the bench,” where students were made to sit apart from their peers, sometimes wear a different colored T-shirt, and remain silent outside official class time.

Turns out, such practices can be effective in the short term. But they build up hostility and anger. They turn school into yet another place for low-income kids to resent and resist. And KIPP is hoping to end its use of public humiliation as a standard practice. As KIPP CEO Richard Barth told Chalkbeat,

“There are practices that we did in the beginning that we out-and-out abhor.” . . . “There were mistakes.” The charter network is still focused on providing “safe and structured environments,” he added, but “that’s very different than processes that shame kids.”

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m currently up to my eyeballs in research about America’s first broad attempt at urban school reform. Two hundred years ago, well-meaning white “visionaries” pioneered KIPP’s journey away from humiliation-as-a-tool.

In the early 1800s, London reformer Joseph Lancaster promised he had figured out a way to solve the problems of poverty. By reforming urban schools, he promised he could educate the hordes of children who thronged the streets of London. Instead of beating students into submission, Lancaster enthused, middle-class white teachers could simply humiliate them. Lancaster’s favorite tool was the “birdcage,” “cradle,” or “basket.”

1810 punishment the basketIn the 1810 edition of his school-reform manual, Lancaster described this technique:

Occasionally boys are put in a sack, or in a basket, suspended to the roof of the school, in sight of all the pupils, who frequently smile at the birds in the cage. This punishment is one of the most terrible that can be inflicted on boys of sense and abilities.

Even Lancaster acknowledged that this extreme form of public humiliation was “terrible,” but it worked. As one enthusiastic teacher wrote to Lancaster in 1812, suspending kids from the ceiling could work wonders with classroom management. As this teacher put it,

When they first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children.

Just like KIPP’s leaders, however, Lancaster’s followers found out that public humiliation was not a good long-term strategy. By 1817, manuals of the Lancasterian system no longer advocated “the basket” or other tools of public humiliation. Instead, they moved to a simpler system of merits and demerits.

Why? Because when Lancasterian schools resorted to public humiliation, students stopped coming. Turns out people don’t like being publicly humiliated. Back in the early 1800s, especially, African-American students and families refused to have their children subjected to the same sorts of punishments that slave-owners had used on southern plantations.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult notion to grasp, yet for two hundred years school leaders have had to “discover” this truth anew. Which leads us to our question for today: Why is it so difficult for reformers to understand that public humiliation is not a good strategy?

The Right Historical Question about Busing

Ever since Senator Kamala Harris accused Vice President Joe Biden of cozying up to segregationists, the issue of busing has been back in the headlines. Instead of asking why busing failed or why it worked, the right question should be about where busing worked. The lesson from the twentieth century is clear: When reformers try to use schools to ram through social change, even with the purest of intentions, it won’t work.

What biden was trying to avoid

What Biden was scared of in 1975:

Vice President Biden’s political problems about busing came about long before Senator Harris’s accusations. Months ago, the Washington Post ran an exposé about Biden’s leading role in the 1970s as an opponent of court-ordered desegregation. Biden 2020 has been forced to defend decisions made by Biden 1975, and it hasn’t been easy.

Since the debate, historians and commentators have skewered the notion that busing did not achieve its aims. As Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out, the issue was never about busing itself, but about stark racism. The problem was not that busing didn’t work to integrate students of different races and backgrounds, but precisely that it did.

Historically, the politics of school integration are part of a broader pattern of school reform. Whenever reformers have tried to use schools to change society for the better, they have discovered the difficult truth. Namely, whatever the issue—racial integration, socialism, or progressive education—when reformers fail to enroll community support, their efforts at social improvement have been crushed. When they do, however, the results can be surprisingly effective.

In the late 1930s, for example, textbook author Harold Rugg came under fire for his popular textbook series. The series had been adopted by schools nationwide and the books were used by millions of American schoolchildren. As World War II heated up, however, conservative groups such as the America Legion came to believe that the books had a subversive, anti-American intent. The books, conservative critics charged, hoped to transform American society into a socialist state.

Professor Rugg protested that he was no socialist; he claimed a “deep loyalty to the historic American version of the democratic way of life.” Yet he admitted that he really did hope to transform society. In Rugg’s vision, decisions about proper curriculum should not be left in the hands of the ignorant community, but rather decided only by “competent experts” like himself. He dismissed protesters as irrational ignoramuses and their impassioned rallies as mere “Wednesday-evening testimony meetings of Holy Rollers.”

A generation later, a similar textbook controversy roiled Kanawha County, West Virginia. Protesters in 1974 and 1975 worried that a new textbook series derided traditional American values. In part, the protesters were right. As one editor of the books later recalled, he really had hoped the books would inject the “progressive energy” of 1960s radicalism into classrooms nationwide. The books took a “strong stand for pluralism and multicultural expression” that the editors hoped would overthrow the “conventions” of traditional schools and classrooms.

A laudable goal, but like Harold Rugg’s vision of “expert”-centered educational reform, the top-down reformism of the 1970s textbooks failed. Protesters in Kanawha County boycotted their schools; they convinced their Parent-Teacher Association that the new progressive textbooks were “literally full of anti-Americanism, anti-religion, and discrimination.”

The same lessons apply to the history of 1970s school desegregation—“busing”—that Biden and Harris have brought back to the headlines. On one hand, the policy of busing students to mitigate segregation often worked to improve both racial integration and educational outcomes.

On the other, busing policies often met ferocious political backlash from outraged white parents and activists. Most famously, as historian Ron Formisano described so powerfully, in Boston anti-busers rejected the attempts of Judge W. Arthur Garrity to impose more racial equality in schools.

All cities were not Boston, however. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the simple black-and-white politics of busing looked different. When President Reagan trotted out his anti-busing rallying cry in 1984, it fell on deaf ears. Busing, Reagan charged,

takes innocent children out of the neighborhood school and makes them pawns in a social experiment that nobody wants, and we found out that it failed.

What Reagan didn’t realize, and many people in today’s revisit to the 1970s busing debates seem to have forgotten as well, was that some white people embraced busing. The crowd in Charlotte met Reagan’s dog-whistles with stony silence, and the next day the Charlotte Observer insisted that the city’s “proudest achievement is its fully integrated public school system.”

reagan in charlott

White voters hate busing, right? …right?

Certainly, North Carolina was no racial utopia. But the differences between Boston and Charlotte serve as an important reminder of the real question in school segregation and busing. They are reminders that go back long past the 1970s, to Harold Rugg and before.

Whatever the issue, when social reformers hope to use schools to effect wide-ranging improvements in society, they can only hope to succeed if they enlist the support of at least a portion of the local community. Harold Rugg did not realize that people outside his college would not simply cede control of their textbooks to his “expert” hands. Protesters in West Virginia were not willing to accept books thrust upon them by editors fueled by the “progressive energy” of the radical 1960s.

The successes of busing, too, were not limited to improvements in integration and educational success. When integrationists managed to line up local support, as with Charlotte’s Democratic Party, busing also achieved significant political support. When they didn’t, as with Boston’s aggrieved segregationists, busing failed.

Waving the White Flag on High-Stakes Testing

No surprise to see Senator Warren come out strong against it. But even some of the most dedicated high-stakes-testers have now issued a new “hypothesis” about the real relationship between testing and student achievement. Seems like we have turned yet another corner on yet another school-reform panacea. What have we learned?

warren on pbs

Senator Warren: Testing is not the answer…

First things first: Just like the new partisan split about charter schools, we are seeing a new era of “second thoughts” about the value of high-stakes testing. Politicians such as Elizabeth Warren are now firmly against it. As Senator Warren told the National Education Association,

Education is what goes on in the classroom; what a teacher has said is the goal. And when a kid gets there, it is a teacher who knows it. We do not need high-stakes testing.

Similarly, formerly enthusiastic billionaires have noticed that their earlier school-reform focus was far too simplistic. As Nick Hanauer finally noticed recently,

We have confused a symptom—educational inequality—with the underlying disease: economic inequality. Schooling may boost the prospects of individual workers, but it doesn’t change the core problem, which is that the bottom 90 percent is divvying up a shrinking share of the national wealth.

Now testing mavens such as Michael Petrilli are getting on board. As Petrilli admitted recently, it seems possible that high-stakes testing did not actually improve things for students. Rather, any gains students made in schools might have been due largely to

prevailing economic conditions at the time of a cohort of children’s birth (or shortly thereafter).

In other words, ambitious politicians, policy wonks, and philanthropists have finally admitted that their feverish promises did not bear fruit. Their plans to solve social problems by ramming through school reforms have proven—once again—overly simplistic and wildly exaggerated.

petrilli graph

Hmmm…what’s the connection?

Can we blame them? In a word, yes. As teachers such as Peter Greene have pointed out, there has never been a lack of evidence available to the testers. As Greene put it,

We told these folks, over and over and over and over and over. “Don’t use poverty as an excuse,” they said. “Just have higher expectations,” they said. “Better scores on standardized tests will end poverty,” they said. Also, “Better scores will save your job and your school.”

Even if the starry-eyed testers didn’t want to listen to teachers, they might have read a book. After all, historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued long ago that school reforms are worthy goals, but they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again.

As I’m finding out in my current research, too, this story is the oldest one out there. Back in the early 1800s, the first generation of urban school reformers in the United States found it out the hard way. They thought they had found a silver-bullet reform, one that would eliminate poverty in one generation. A new “system,” they believed, would enable a single teacher to teach a thousand low-income students efficiently and economically.

Guess what? It didn’t work. And ever since then, the story has repeated itself over and over.

It seems obvious, then, that there isn’t a good excuse for the latest generation of arrogant school reformers not to see it coming. For centuries, outside reformers have been telling themselves that they had discovered a new system, a new program, a new algorithm that would fix social inequality without upsetting social hierarchies.

tyack cuban tinkering

….makes it hard to plead ignorance.

It’s just not that simple. We know what works: Schools that are well-connected to the communities they serve, with adequate resources to know every student and provide incremental improvements for every student. We need enthusiastic, invested teachers, parents, and students. We need schools that treat families as community members, not customers or clients or guinea pigs.

Should schools always be “reforming”?—changing the way we do things for the better? Of course! But too often, outside “reformers” assume that they have found a single, simple improvement that will revolutionize school and society without demanding a significant investment.

So maybe it’s worth reprinting the list of reminders for school reformers. It’s not new and it’s not original. It has been around for two hundred years now. Yet we never seem to be able to profit from its hard-won lessons. So here it is: For those who think that charter schools, Teach For America, new union leadership, improved teacher pay, or high-stakes testing will provide a cheap shortcut to the hard work of school and social improvement, here are a few reminders from the past two centuries of school-reform plans:

  • Teachers are often part of the problem, but they are always most of the solution.
  • One change to schools will—by itself—never heal social issues such as poverty and inequality.
  • Any school reform that promises big results without big investments will probably disappoint.
  • Low-income families deserve a high-quality education, not a “chance” for a high-quality education.
  • And maybe the hardest one of all for ed-reform newbies to accept: Schools alone can’t fix society; schools are society.

Dang, Bill…

You knew it was coming. Still, the venom expressed yesterday by leading Democratic 2020 candidates was surprising.

de blasio at nea

Haters gonna hate…

Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York, for example, took the party’s new anti-charter vibe to an extreme. Maybe trying to distinguish himself in the crowded field, Hizzoner seemed to want to come off as the most passionate voice for public education and teachers.

Sure, all the candidates now oppose spending too much public money on charter schools, but de Blasio cranked it up a notch. As he put it,

I am sick and tired of these efforts to privatize public education. I know we’re not supposed to be saying ‘hate’ — our teachers taught us not to — but I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.

Moreover, Mayor De Blasio tried to set up a clear us-vs-them distinction on the issue of charter schools. As we’ve seen, there has already been a party realignment on the issue of charter schools. De Blasio wanted to make it a litmus test. “Too many Republicans,” he said,

but also too many Democrats, have been cozy with the charter schools. Let’s be blunt about it. We need to hold our own party accountable, too. And no one should ask for your support, or no one should be the Democratic nominee, unless they’re willing to stand up to Wall Street and the rich people behind the charter school movement once and for all.

Will it work? Will de Blasio’s big-city public-school credentials make him a winner with Democrats?

I doubt it. Time will tell, but I don’t think we’ll see the anti-charter movement take more than a secondary role in the primary campaign. Democratic primary voters will want a “public-education” candidate, but I don’t think they’ll make it as much of a leading issue as de Blasio seems to hope.

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.

Why Is There a Racial Divide about Charter Schools?

It is an uncomfortable issue for progressive white people to talk about. As the Democratic Party swings hard against charter schools, the racial divide is becoming painfully obvious. Black and Latinx Democrats support charter schools at much higher rates than white ones do. So what gives? Are suburban whites being insensitive to urban concerns? Probably. But there is another obvious point that needs to be included in the discussion.support-for-charter-scools by raceIf you haven’t heard it already, you will soon. White Democrats who oppose charter schools will be accused of racial insensitivity, at best. As the Washington Post’s editors put it,

It’s easy to oppose charters if you are well-off and live in a suburb with good schools.

The racial divide in the Democratic Party on the issue of charter schools has been and will be painted as a simple urban/suburban divide. And there’s some important truth to that. However, we’d be silly if we didn’t also recognize the context.

Namely, for the past thirty years, on certain issues, Black Democrats have often been far more conservative than white ones. As just one example, take the issue of abortion rights. In 2018, just over three quarters (76%) of all Democrats supported legal abortion rights “in all or most cases.” Just under one quarter (21%) wanted abortion illegal “in all or most cases.”

party and abortion 2018

No surprise here…

African American voters, however, tended to be much more conservative about abortion rights. Only 60% of African Americans supported legal abortion rights, compared to 38% who opposed them.

What does this mean? Not all that much, of course. Not all African-American voters are Democrats, though many are. And on plenty of other issues African-American Democrats do not skew more conservative than white Democrats.race and abortion 2018

When it comes to charter schools, however, we should remember that racial divisions within the Democratic Party are the norm, not an anomaly. If the issue of charter schools is shifting—AND IT IS—from one with bipartisan support to one with solely conservative support, we should not be surprised to find more conservative Democrats sticking with it. On many issues, including LGBTQ rights and abortion rights, non-white Democrats have always been more conservative than whites.

The racial divide about charter schools is just joining a party divide already in progress.

From the Archives: School a la Carte

In newspapers from the early 1800s, they are everywhere. Individual proprietors advertised their services to the population of cities. Parents and children could slap together as much education as they could afford, with rates published up front. It might sound like a purely private, market-driven system, but the fine print shows it wasn’t that simple.

a la carte education

From Freedom’s Journal (New York), October 17, 1828

In this case the school was for African-American kids in Philadelphia, c. 1828. As I’ve argued recently in the Washington Post, I think conservatives who dream of injecting more market forces into public education don’t really understand how things worked back when the market WAS in control. As I dig through the newspapers and records of African-American schools in the early 1800s, it is obvious that tuition payments alone could not provide the schools kids needed.

Sure, some families likely thrived with schools like these, but even these “private” academies relied on public funding. As you can see in this advertisement, Philadelphia’s Academy didn’t survive on tuition alone. It also received

liberal patronage from a generous public.

Over time, that patronage evolved into reliable, secure tax funding. Then and only then were schools able to flourish, for both white and black students. When people these days yearn for public schools that don’t rely entirely on tax funding, they don’t seem to realize what they are asking for.

In the bad old days of early public schooling, schools like the Morris’ Alley Academy were forced to cobble together funding from all over the place. I think if Gloucester and Jones could sit down with DeVos and Friedman, they would set them straight.

It’s Really All Over for Charter Schools

Although some smart people apparently didn’t see it coming, the writing has been on the wall for charter schools for about two years now. The final nail in its coffin might have come yesterday when former President Barack Obama endorsed a mea culpa from the “ed-reform” movement.obama tweet

As SAGLRROILLYBYGTH are sick of hearing, the remarkable success of charter schools resulted, in large part, from the diverse political coalition that backed them. Conservative evangelicals liked the idea of a refuge from the supposedly secularized public schools. White segregationists hoped charters could stave off school integration. Urban African-American activists liked the notion of a better option for low-income youth. Secular free-marketeers wanted to break the monopoly of the teachers’ unions. Ambitious young overachievers liked the idea of entrepreneurship in education, instead of slogging up the teacher-career ladder.

To be sure, the so-called “reform” movement wasn’t only about charter schools. It also included a heavy emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing. The goal was to make sure lazy teachers and underresourced schools could no longer ignore children who didn’t sparkle. Reformers dreamed of displacing the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and making sure no child was left behind.

All laudable goals, and all goals that attracted support from across the political spectrum. Until, that is, Hurricane Betsy swept into town. As we’ve discussed in these pages, Secretary DeVos’s reign as educational Trumpist has changed the nature of the ed-reform discussion. Instead of a broad movement open to both Democrats and Republicans, charter schools and the rest of the “reform” movement have now become the signature ed policy of Trump-wingers.

Democrats have fallen over one another rushing for the exits. Leading 2020 contenders such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke all have significant histories as charter supporters and they’re all scrambling to find ways to deny it.

Yesterday, when St. Obama tweeted his agreement with a recent Atlantic article, the handwriting on the wall received its final punctuation. As President Obama wrote,

This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all. As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address the broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.

By throwing his enormous party prestige into the mix, President Obama has surely spelled the doom of charter-schools and other “reform” measures among the Democratic Party. And when any reform becomes the signature issue of only one political party, it is surely doomed to deadlock, decline, and defeat.