Can We Talk about Charter-School Politics without Using the “BD Word”?

It seems like a big omission. It’s like talking about immigration policy without mentioning Trump. Or reviewing the history of impeachment without using the phrase “Talk to Rudy.” Yet in a recent piece about the politics of charter schools, two New York Times journalists left out the most important fact of all. Why?

NYT charters

We ALL want ALL kids to have awesome schools.

Here’s what we know: The New York Times article gave compelling testimony to the emotional power of the charter-school issue. As one parent and charter-school founder told the reporters,

We look at it as a burning ship going down with thousands of kids in it, and we’re trying to get kids on lifeboats.

And as another charter-school leader put it,

“It shouldn’t be about what’s better: charter schools or neighborhood schools,” he said. “It should be about what schools will help our children succeed.”

At the school’s campus in southeast Washington, where more than 90 percent of students are black, Eagle Academy seeks to provide the same resources that white, affluent children have: a swimming pool, a chef who serves fruits and vegetables and a “sensory room” modeled on private medical facilities where students can calm down.

With appeals like this, it is hard to see how anyone but a moral monster could oppose expanding charter schools. Yet as the article correctly points out, all but one of the leading Democratic 2020 candidates have turned their back on charter schools. Why? The journalists say only that

the leading Democratic candidates are backing away from charter schools, and siding with the teachers’ unions that oppose their expansion.

True enough, but the article leaves out the most important explanations for this sudden shift in Democratic Party thinking. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, it was not at all unusual for leading Democrats to support expanding charters and vouchers as recently as last year. Yet now even St. Obama has agreed that charters and other market-based “reforms” are not a “cure-all.”

We could get all complicated and talk about the long history of greater conservatism among African-American Democrats than white ones. We could talk about the changed political landscape since the teacher walk-outs of the past few years. But if we want to understand the political shift about charter schools, there is one glaring fact that we absolutely can’t leave out: Betsy DeVos has become the public face of charter schools. And that changes everything.

betsy devos dolores umbridge

The elephant in the classroom…

I don’t mean to criticize journalists for not writing the story I wanted to hear instead of the one they needed to write. In this case, however—a story about the changing politics of charter schools—it seems oddly misleading to leave out the huge obvious fact of Queen Betsy’s school-reform revolution.

What’s Wrong with Teacher Raises?

Should public-school teachers earn more? Sure. But if we’re going by the recent recommendation for a “Grand Bargain” from Hoover’s Eric Hanushek, we should pump the brakes. Because talking about increasing salaries for some teachers is ultimately not the primary conversation we should be having about America’s public schools. We’ve been talking about the history of teacher pay on the Tweeter and I’ll adapt some of the conversation here.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are tired of hearing me say it, but I’ll keep saying it anyway: Teachers are not the problem when it comes to school performance. Discussions about “merit pay” and “underperforming teachers” have long distracted attention from the main issue in America’s divided public-education system.

Historically, the first curve ball in teacher pay comes from our assumption that teachers have always received (relatively) low pay. Dr. Hanushek (and others) assume that teaching attracts high-quality candidates “for love of kids, for feeling of social purpose, or for what-have-you.”

But in the first half of the 1800s, teachers expected to make a lot of money. Famous teachers–mostly men, but some women too–would open entrepreneurial schools, usually based on some sort of proprietary method of teaching. They would try to attract tuition-paying families.

For example, the most famous teacher in the early 1800s, Joseph Lancaster, assumed that his teaching would make him rich. As he told his daughter in a letter from Boston on July 14, 1819, he would soon buy a “small estate for thee” because his teaching would make him “rich and independent.”

Lecture flyer 1

Lancaster still hoped to make a pile in 1834.

What happened? The low quality of the teaching was not the thing that drove down teacher pay. The uncomfortable historic truth is that teacher pay was driven down by the inclusion of low-income students in publicly available tuition-free schools.

Once tuition was taken out of the picture, public schools struggled to find ways to pay teachers enough. First they tried to get children to do the teaching for free. It didn’t work, because as soon as children got some teaching skills, they took paid jobs as teachers.

In the early 1800s, New York tried to solve this problem by FORCING children to teach for free until they were 21, pushing them into indentured servitude. (I know some teachers these days will say this sounds familiar…)

The problem historically has NOT been that most teachers have been willing to work for less. Rather, the problem has always been that governments—with good reason—wanted to provide education for all kids, regardless of their ability to pay.

That’s why Secretary DeVos’s recent pronouncements about public-school funding have been so grating, especially to historians.

Which gets us to Dr. Hanushek’s “Grand Bargain.” Historically, the bargain is flawed because it’s built on a faulty premise. Dr. Hanushek writes,

if the United States is to improve its schools, the available research indicates that the only feasible solution is to increase the overall effectiveness of our teachers.

That’s just not the case. Historically and today, the most obvious way to improve schools has not been to “increase the overall effectiveness of our teachers.” That’s not a bad goal, obviously, but it distracts attention from the proper conversation we should be having. Namely, the most obvious place to start–if we want to make public schools more effective–has been and will be to increase the overall affluence of our students.

When it comes down to it, the problem with Dr. Hanushek’s approach is not in the details. Rather, it is in the big picture. Too many reformers–smart ones and not-so-smart ones alike–try to tweak schools in order to make society more fair and equitable. I appreciate their goal and share it.

But schools alone cannot fix society. Schools ARE society. If we want a fair society, we cannot tweak schools, we need to heal society.

Pay teachers more? Yes, for sure. That makes sense if we want to attract and retain high-quality candidates. But if our first goal is to improve society, we should start with the more fundamental problem.

The Really Scary Thing about Queen Betsy

I know it’s too late for Halloween, but here’s something scary to think about: As Jack Schneider argued this week at the History of Education Society annual meeting, the reason Betsy DeVos flubs so many basic questions in interviews is not because she is dim. It is not because she is a tony socialite out of her depth, or as Stephen Colbert described her, “one of the garden-party guests from Get Out.” No, the reason Queen Betsy makes so many prominent mistakes is far more frightening for people who care about public education.

Given recent revelations from Trump’s White House, it’s easy to forget what used to seem shocking, but back in 2018 Queen Betsy astounded America with her vast ignorance about educational questions. A lot of commentators concluded that she embodied ineptitude.

Exhibit A was her interview with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes:

DEVOS: Well, in places where there have been — where there is — a lot of choice that’s been introduced — Florida, for example, the — studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually — the results get better, as well.

STAHL: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.

DeVOS: Michi — Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.

STAHL: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?

DEVOS: I don’t know. Overall, I — I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.

STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.

DEVOS: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this — the students are doing well and —

As Chris Cillizza commented for the Washington Post at the time,

If I was a boxing referee, I would have stopped this exchange about halfway through. If you are the secretary of education, you have to know you are going to be asked about the effects of school choice — particularly in your home state. So, if you’re going to argue that school choice has made public schools better, you had had better find a whole hell of a lot better spin that “I don’t know.”

As Stephen Colbert put it,

DeVos’s theory is that if you take money away from public schools and give it to charter schools, that will somehow help the public schools. It’s a system called . . . Stupid.

It’s tempting to dismiss Queen Betsy as merely ignorant, but Professor Schneider raised a more frightening prospect in his paper. Namely, Secretary DeVos is unaware of basic ideas about public education BECAUSE SHE DOES NOT CONSIDER THEM RELEVANT TO EDUCATION POLICY. schneider berkshire

The core of Secretary DeVos’s thinking about public education, Prof. Schneider argues, is that it should and can be dismantled. For more, you can now preorder Schneider’s latest book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.

And that’s the really scary aspect of Sec’y DeVos’s public ignorance about public education. As the leading federal official responsible of education policy, Queen Betsy does not think she needs to know the features of a doomed system. Why study the layout of deck chairs on the Titanic?

Too Much? Student Arrested for Finger Gun

Depending on where you sit, this could be a case of wildly disproportional panic by school administrators or a reasonable move to protect student safety. From the cheap seats, I can’t help but think that this case called for a different solution.

Here’s what we know: Two eighth-graders were talking in class. One asked the other which of their classmates she would kill first. The student made a pretend gun and pretended to shoot four specific students, then pretended to shoot herself.

Disturbing, for sure. Here’s the question for this morning: What would you do about it if you were the teacher or principal?

In this case, the principal called the student to his office. The student was handcuffed and arrested. She was charged with a felony for making a criminal threat. As a youthful first offender, her maximum sentence if found guilty would be a period of probation.

Was arresting the student the right move? I hate to second-guess the people who actually know her and the situation, but it seems like this should have been handled differently. Why not have counseling for both the arrested student AND the other student who prompted her with the question about shooting classmates?

I don’t take this kind of threat lightly, but it seems as if dragging this student out of school in handcuffs, then eventually allowing her back in school with everyone knowing this story will only increase the chances that this student will act on her threat.

What do you think? What would you have done if you were the principal?

Why Do Charter Schools Have the Better Stories?

You probably remember Waiting for Superman. To the chagrin of pro-public-school folks like me, the movie told a compelling story of low-income students hoping against hope to find a spot at a charter school. Now a new movie is telling another pro-charter story, a compelling one. Does the anti-charter crowd have any stories that can compete?

First, a little full disclosure: I’m not neutral about charter schools. Like a lot of public-school advocates, I have long hoped to maintain funding and oversight of schools within the public-school system. But I recognize that plenty of charter-school advocates had good ideas and good intentions. I agree that some charter schools have done great things. No matter what our disagreements about school funding and oversight, though, the politics of charter schools have devoured the reasonable policy discussions about them.

This morning, though, I’d like to ask a different question: Why do the charter-school folks seem to have all the best movies? Waiting for Superman was emotionally compelling. And Miss Virginia sounds like it is, too. The story, as I hear it told by the charter-lovers at Fordham, is one of a heroic mother struggling against all odds to save her child from an inadequate public-school system.

She works her fingers to the bone to raise money for private-school tuition, all for naught. Finally she finds a political ally to help her in her Erin-Brockovich-style campaign. As the Fordham review describes,

[Virginia] Walden joins forces with an unlikely ally—white, Harvard-educated Congressman Clifford Williams, played by Matthew Modine. While most of the black elected officials fight against Miss Virginia’s efforts to increase educational options for the children in her community, this Ivy League–educated white dude who loves long-shot legislation and golf becomes invaluable to her efforts.

Sounds like a great story. And that’s the question for today. Where are the great stories from the anti-charter-school side? Are there movies and books out there telling the tragic human tale of scam artists squeezing out tax dollars to line their own pockets? Of charter-school students left high and dry when their inadequately supervised charter schools blow town and leave them holding the bag?

It’s not like we don’t lack the material for emotional, powerful, human-scale stories explaining why we need to maintain funding and oversight in the public-school system. But where are the movies/books/memoirs? Am I just not aware of them? And if they’re not out there, why not?

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

Ed Mystery: Why Don’t More Democrats Like It?

I understand why more Democrats don’t like the Ed Department right now, governed as it is by Michigan’s Evil Queen Betsy. But I’m surprised to find out that the Ed Department has garnered only minority support during the last ten years. There’s one obvious explanation, but are there more reasons?Pew fed agencies EPA or ED

Here’s what we know: New results from Pew show us that the Ed Department is one of the federal government’s least favorite agencies, with 48% of respondents feeling favorable and 48% unfavorable.

No surprise there. Ever since Jimmy Carter instigated the department it has been the target of conservative fury. Reagan’s first appointed secretary, Terrel Bell, was given the unusual mission to dismantle the department which he headed.

More recently, conservatives such as Texas’s Rick Perry have remembered that they wanted to eliminate the Ed Department, even if he couldn’t remember the other department he wanted to get rid of.

So there’s no surprise for the department’s low favorability among GOP respondents. But why do so many Democrats dislike it? Was something happening in 2010 that led a majority of Democratic respondents to say they didn’t like the Ed Dept?

Here’s my hunch: Back in 2010, teachers and schools were still trying to cope with the strictures of the No Child Left Behind act and the unmanageable requirements NCLB mandated for high-stakes testing. By 2015, those testing requirements were tamped down. Among Democrats, at least, the popularity of the Ed Department went up (in fits and spurts) until the ascension of Queen Betsy.

Is there another explanation I’m missing?

Preachers or Principals?

It’s not really good news, I guess. Recent poll results from the Pew folks suggest that Americans don’t trust many kinds of authority figures. pew principals or preachers

There is a glimmer of hope, though. When it comes to our school culture wars, it looks like people tend to trust school leaders a little more than the trust religious or “tech” leaders.

When asked if they think tech leaders or religious leaders act unethically all or some of the time, 77% of respondents said yes for tech leaders, 69% for religious leaders. It’s not a great result, but only 52% of people thought “K-12 public-school principals” did. And only 6% thought school leaders acted unethically “all or most of the time,” compared to 12% for tech leaders and 10% for religious leaders.

So if there is any hope for bridging our divides about teaching evolution, sex ed, and real US history, it’s not likely to come from religious leaders or tech whiz-kids, in spite of the fact that they get a lion’s share of headlines.

Pew principals or preachers II

And the school principals fare even better when the questions are phrased in positive terms. A whopping 84% of respondents said they thought school principals care about others or “people like me” all, most, or some of the time.

Of all the categories (principals, police officers, military leaders, religious leaders, local officials, journalists, members of Congress, and tech leaders), school principals scored highest on this measure.

Not really a lot to celebrate, but at least people still seem to have a high regard for the people who work in public schools. We can’t help but wish that the Pewsters had asked the same questions about public-school teachers. My hunch is that they would have a much better reputation than school principals, even.

“Opportunity” Has Never Been Enough

There it is again! The sound of well-meaning reformers missing the point. This time, it came in a NYT article about college admissions at elite colleges. As I’m finding in my current research about America’s first nation-wide attempt at urban school reform, reformers tend to shoot for the wrong goal. It’s not enough only to provide an educational “opportunity” for a few extraordinary youths. By definition, that kind of thinking will only make a tiny, symbolic dent in deep-seated social inequalities.

SYSTEM Reading circle

Hmmm…why didn’t more low-income students seize the ‘opportunity’ to toe the line? From Joseph Lancaster’s notebook, c. 1803.

It wasn’t the main point of the NYT article, but Paul Tough reported that elite universities like Harvard and Stanford have recently begun aggressively recruiting students with top-notch academic credentials from non-white, non-affluent backgrounds. As Tough reported, a few years ago elite schools began doing more than dropping tuition costs for low-income students. They began sending out

semipersonalized information packets, including application-fee waivers, to thousands of high-achieving low-income students, and the packets seemed to be changing the application behaviors of the students who received them, making them more likely to apply to and attend selective colleges.

Good news, right? A good example of the ways reformers can make society more equal by improving access to educational resources, right? Well, no.

Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to recruit more students from low-income homes into fancy colleges—though according to Tough the plan didn’t really work—but these sorts of efforts repeat the same old mistake that reformers have been making about educational equality for centuries.

As I’m finding in my current research, the reformers of the early 1800s often had their hearts in the right place. They worked hard to improve the chances that more poor kids would get a chance at school. Following the ideas of Joseph Lancaster, they built schools that cities could afford. Too often, however, students didn’t thrive in the new schools’ harsh conditions.

What did students do? A few extraordinary students took advantage of the opportunity to learn to read, write, and cipher. But most students simply stayed away. As a group of Philadelphia school reformers complained in 1823,

many parents seem to be utterly regardless of the advantages which would be conferred upon their offspring, if they duly appreciated the importance, and embraced the opportunity for improving their minds by literary and religious instruction. The children of such, instead of being placed in the public schools, are wandering about the streets and wharves, becoming adepts in the arts of begging, skillful in petty thefts, and familiar with obscene and profane language.

In the minds of the reformers, creating an opportunity was enough. Never mind the fact that their schools felt like prisons to the students, or that the students felt like they weren’t really learning anything. To the reformers, simply offering poor kids a chance to endure a hostile education was enough. If the students didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, it was their own fault.

This blind spot about the nature of education reform was not limited to white reformers. African-American leaders, too, tended to think creating an opportunity was enough—even a slim and unattractive opportunity. For example, on June 2, 1823, Bishop Richard Allen from Philadelphia talked to a group of New York’s African-American students at one of the few public schools open for African Americans. Too many of them, the Bishop warned, were inexplicably unwilling to seize

the opportunity now afforded them of acquiring a sufficient education.

Why not? Because the children knew what the Bishop didn’t. They knew that the “African Free School” didn’t really provide what most of them needed. For a few of them—an extraordinary few—the limited schooling was sufficient for them to learn academic skills. For most, however, the “opportunity” was not a real opportunity at all, but rather a holding pen where they were mocked for not mastering basic academic skills on their own.

What does any of that tell us about admission to Harvard? Too often reformers think the main challenge of education reform lies in increasing opportunity for a few extraordinary individuals from low-income families. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it misses the real goal and it can in fact divert and distract attention from the real goal.

What is that real goal? Not making sure that a few low-income kids can go to Harvard, but rather making sure ALL low-income kids have the same chances at great educations as ALL high-income kids.

Access to high-quality schools should not be the result of a happy accident of birth or good fortune in a charter lottery. Low-income students deserve not just a chance at a good education, but the same chance as high-income kids.

School Policy Heralds Trump’s Defeat

Bad news for the Splitter-In-Chief: Trump’s divisiveness is cracking his electoral foundation. Could it bring him down in 2020? After all, it has already transformed school politics.

Here’s what we know: At 538, Daniel Cox examines Trump’s waning support among younger white evangelicals. We know white evangelical voters have always been one of Trump’s firmest pillars of support, but Trump’s style—especially his anti-immigrant furor—does not play as well with young white evangelicals as older ones.

white evangelical youth immigration

…will immigration antagonism split Trump’s base?

As Cox writes,

Two-thirds (66 percent) of young white evangelical Christians (age 18 to 34) say that immigrants coming to the U.S. strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, a view shared by only 32 percent of white evangelical seniors (age 65+). A majority (54 percent) of older white evangelical Christians believe that immigrants are a burden on American society.

Could Trump split his base? Could he drive away younger white evangelicals in his furious efforts to placate and mollify older white evangelicals? Hard to say. Plenty of younger white evangelicals still say they like Trump, although only a quarter of them say they like him a lot.

If school politics are any indication, though, I’d bet that Trump’s penchant for dividing people will hurt him in 2020. Why? Because his Ed Secretary has already sparked a revolution in the politics of charter schools. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, one of the reasons why charter schools have had such success is because they attracted unusual bipartisan support.

evangelical youth and trump 538

…still a lot of Trump-ism in there.

Just a few years ago, leading Democratic candidates such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke were loud and proud supporters of adding more charter schools. Now, Democrats are falling all over themselves scrambling for the exits.

There are a lot of reasons why, including a spate of teacher walk-outs and increasing accusations of charter-school segregation. The biggest single reason, though, IMHO, is Trump. Trump and his Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos have turned charter schools into a Trump thing.

Charter schools used to win support from both parties, from Arne Duncan as well as George W. Bush. They used to be one of the few areas in which both progressives and conservatives could agree, even if they did so for different reasons. The Howard Fullers out there could push charters for anti-racist reasons, even as the Walton Foundation pushed them for very different reasons.

Trump has put an end to all that. Charter schools are now political poison for Democrats.

What’s the lesson for younger white evangelicals and the 2020 election? Just this: Trump’s horse-in-a-hospital leadership style tends to divide people. It has already revolutionized charter-school politics. It seems entirely plausible that it will drive away younger white evangelicals who don’t share their elders’ anxieties about America’s future.