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?

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.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Charters, charters, charters…and Jesus. Another week of school politics ‘n’ religion; top stories from around the interwebs:

How football re-shaped religion in public schools, at Dallas News.

God is still alive and kicking (and throwing, and running, and maybe even tackling) on American school football fields, a lively Christian faith born on the gridiron and ministered to by coaches, not pastors.

The (latest) crisis in evangelical Christianity, at The Atlantic.

evangelical Christians should acknowledge the profound damage that’s being done to their movement by its braided political relationship—its love affair, to bring us back to the words of Ralph Reed—with a president who is an ethical and moral wreck.

Alaska state university system facing huge cuts, at IHE.

AltSchool dies. At Fortune.

the era seems to be passing when reasonable people will believe that just because someone made a bunch of money helping commercialize a revolutionary information-searching algorithm that they have a chance in hell of reforming education—or some other unrelated field.

Not getting it: Pundits keep missing the point on charter schools and the 2020 race.

Miss the Democratic candidates’ forum at NEA? You can watch the whole thing at PBS.

Charter-school advocates in NYC acknowledge the problem, at NYT.

“The stereotypes of the sector — there’s a reality behind them,” Mr. Buery said, referring to criticism of how charters handle discipline, race and politics. “It’s up to us to demonstrate, visibly, that we are better than the stereotype and striving to be better than what we are.”

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.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The view from 1804 is still pretty bleak, but things in 2019 don’t look all that cheery, either. Here are some of the news stories we found when we crawled up out of the archives this week:

Will the real conservative please stand up? Prof. Patrick Deneen reviews George Will’s new book at WaPo.

Animated by a conservative skepticism of the belief in sufficient human knowledge to control circumstance, and a pessimism about the capacity of human beings to consistently act from noble intentions (or that such noble intentions are likely to lead to noble ends), Will calls for a minimalist state allowing for maximal expression of “spontaneous order.” . . . Nowhere to be found in the 538 pages of text is a discussion of conservative commitments to the unborn, the threats posed by the advance of the sexual liberation movement, and commitments to religious liberty. It is as if the book was written in 1944…

A billionaire offers a new way to give teachers a raise, at Forbes.

An interview with historian Darren Dochuk about his new book, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, at R&P.

Amid jungles of derricks and refining fires, risk-filled labor and violent swings of fortune, oil-patch Christians embrace a cataclysmic view of the here and now and of life beyond, as well as a dependency on an all-powerful being who gives and takes and tests his people but is always there.

Why are radical creationists so upset about men in heels? Here at ILYBYGTH.

Ken Ham drag school

It’s not Darwin they’re worried about, it’s “Sparkle Leigh.”

Can a professor teach a class about conservative thought? Portland State says no, at IHE.

How did Teach For America get tied up with charter schools? An expose at Propublica. HT: MM

Liberty U. cuts divinity program, at IHE.

Did anyone think we were done with all this? Trump, Falwell, Cohen, and the “Pool Boy,” at NYT.

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.

…and boom goes the dynamite. At MH.

Three photographs have been seen by the Herald, however. They are images not of Falwell, of but his wife in various stages of undress. It is not known who took the photographs or when they were taken, and the Herald was not given the photographs and therefore, has not been able to authenticate them independently. Two of the photographs appear to have been taken at the Falwells’ farm in Virginia, and a third at the Cheeca Lodge.

Curmudgucrat Peter Greene tells arrogant ed-reformers what they’ve always needed to hear:

We told you so. . . . Before you launch your next bright idea to reform education, talk to actual professional educators first. You don’t have to talk just to teachers. But talk to teachers (and not just ones that have been carefully vetted to be sure they’re aligned with your values). Every dollar and hour wasted, every fruitless crappy reform idea of the last twenty-some years could have been avoided if people had listened to actual teachers. There’s the lesson that everyone, even exceptionally smart and respectable former Presidents, needs to learn.

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.

The Only Percentage that Matters in Charter-School Politics

It seems like it should be a pretty straightforward equation, right? If charter schools are better for more students, they should be supported. If not, not. As today’s battle in California makes clear, though, those numbers and calculations are never as simple as they appear. For one thing, there has always been a huge hidden absolute value in educational politics that wonks tend to ignore. By paying attention to that hidden number, politicians will have a clearer path forward.

CAcharterrallyMarch13-320x215

Justice, yes. But how?

The racial politics of charter schools in California has gotten confusing. A basket of bills to limit charter growth has stalled. They seemed like a slam dunk at first. They were supported by the state NAACP and introduced by an influential member of the state’s California Legislative Black Caucus. Recently, however, three local NAACP chapters came out against the charter limits.

It has become extremely unclear if the African-American community in California supports or opposes charter expansion. Why?

Both sides can point to powerful statistics. African-American leaders who oppose charter expansion can cite the 2016 national NAACP anti-charter resolution. Charter schools, the NAACP charged, lack transparency; they divert funds from public schools; they expel and suspend African-American students at unfair rates; and they promote a

de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

For their part, charter supporters can point to their own powerful data. From Brookings, for example:

there is a subset of charter schools serving overwhelmingly black and poor students in large cities using a so-called “no excuses” education model in which students have experienced dramatically higher achievement than comparable students attending regular public schools.

And from CREDO at Stanford:

Black charter students in poverty have 36 more days of learning in reading and 43 more days of learning in math than their counterparts in TPS [Traditional Public Schools].

So are charter schools good for low-income African-American and Latinx kids or not?

credo increasesThe numbers and calculations can mask the most important statistic of all. Parents don’t wonder if 15% of local students will attend charters or public schools. They don’t fret if only 72% of children in their district are meeting reading or math goals, or if 81% of students are graduating from high school. No, for families dealing with crappy local schools, there is only one percentage to worry about: What kind of education is available for 100% of my kid?

This hidden number is the most important and explosive educational statistic of all. People who support charter expansion can’t wait for someday. They can’t trust sclerotic school boards to change things overnight. They need a better school today, and they need it to have room for their kids.

This 100%ism explains why support for charter schools differs by race among members of the Democratic Party. White Democrats tend to oppose charters at higher rates than do African-Americans or Latinx ones. Moreover, support for charters has dropped fast among white Democrats, but not among non-whites. This fact led the editors of the Washington Post mistakenly to chide leading 2020 Democratic politicians to support more charters. As the WaPo editors concluded,

We hope candidates keep in mind the polls that consistently show support for charters among black and Hispanic voters. It’s easy to oppose charters if you are well-off and live in a suburb with good schools. We hope we will also hear from candidates who know about the value of charters from their experiences — including as a mayor who used them to begin to turn around a failing district, as a partner in an administration that promoted charters, as a schools superintendent who made a place for charters.

support-for-charter-scools by raceThere’s a better way.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we agree wholeheartedly with parents’ rights to demand better public schools today, not someday. We support students’ rights to have a high-quality education in their own neighborhoods, surrounded by their friends and support networks. Most of all, we agree with the idea of doing what works to help students become better people and better scholars, instead of merely doing what has always been done before.

But none of that means we should ignore the equally desperate problems of charter schools. School districts have other options besides charters to turn to. Most notably, magnet and specialty programs within traditional public-school districts can accomplish the same things as charter schools, while still allowing transparency and public oversight over the schools and without draining funding from the public-school system.

There is no simple answer to racism, segregation, and poverty. But taking money out of the public-school system is not the way to start. Instead, politicians need to remain aware of the most important statistic in education and find a way to provide families with good schools right now for 100% of their kids. They just don’t need to do it with charters alone.

Betsy DeVos Has Saved Public Education

No one expected it. When Queen Betsy first took her position, her Dolores-Umbridge-style floundering was painful to watch and frightening for those of us who care about public education. Two years in, however, it is plain as day: DeVos’s sheer terribleness has forced a political realignment on the issue of charter schools. Charter schools used to be seen by both parties as the next great hope for public education. Now they are seen as a GOP stalking horse.

We’re used to it by now, but think back to DeVos’s shockingly inept interview on 60 Minutes in 2018. She evinced scant understanding or even interest in key educational issues. As Chris Cillizza wrote at the time,

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 —

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.”

And here’s Colbert’s take:

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.

Before the DeVos era, politicians and pundits of both major parties tended to embrace charter schools as our most promising school-reform idea. No longer. Democratic 2020 hopefuls are scrambling to distance themselves from charter schools. Those who have the closest ties to the charter movement, like Senator Cory Booker, have the most work to do. As The (charter-loving) Economist put it,

Mr Booker is trying to navigate these treacherous waters. His proposed education manifesto for 2020 is to increase funding for educating special-needs children and to pay teachers more. These proposals are fine. Yet Mr Booker is the only candidate with a serious educational achievement under his belt—and the essential ingredients of that turnaround are not what he is promising now. His campaign replies that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for education reform.

It’s not only about charter schools. Other market-y style education reforms have become similarly tainted with DeVosite. Teach For America, another reform plan long despised by progressives but embraced by both major parties, has come under increasing fire. California is considering ditching the program and cities such as Houston already have.

betsy devos dolores umbridge

All Hufflepuffed up.

In a way, it’s a shame. The smart answer when it comes to TFA, charter schools, or any other reform plan is always “It depends.” Some charter schools have offered great educations to low-income students. Some TFA teachers have done great jobs, and sacrificed a lot to do it.

Because of Queen Betsy’s Trumpish cloud, however, charter schools have reached Chernobyl-level toxicity for Democratic politicians. And that means the idea of charter schools will no longer carry the day as it has done for the past thirty years. In the long run, that’s good news for public education as a whole.