The Unfair Way These Democrats Will Lose on Schools in 2020

The charter-school window is closing fast and many 2020 Democratic hopefuls will likely get hurt as it snaps shut. Part of the phenomenal success of the charter-school movement since 1991 has come from its ideological flexibility. As Queen Betsy stiffens that ideology into a sour blend of Jesus, Koch, and Trump, it looks as if Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker will all face awkward questions.

Betsy DeVos Confirmation Hearing, Washington DC, USA - 17 Jan 2017

Kneel before the charter-school Queen!!!

Like many changes in America’s culture-war landscape, this one happened fast. Since 2016, charter schools have been seen more and more as a conservative scam, a way to rob public schools of needed funding. Why? The honors should go to Queen Betsy. Her single-minded focus on increasing “choice” has made it difficult for anyone else to agree.

It wasn’t always this way. Of course, some on the left have always abhorred charter schools. But others haven’t. The unique appeal of charter schools between the 1990s and 2016 was that they appealed to everyone who thought public schools were lacking. And lots of progressive folks have always found big problems with public schools.

Exhibit A: My student-teaching mentor back in the 1990s. He was the best teacher I’ve ever seen, and he was chomping at the bit to start a charter school as soon as Missouri passed its charter law. For him, it was all about cutting red tape and getting educational resources into the hands of underserved kids. He and a small group of fellow progressives had outlined their plan for a wrap-around progressive school, one that would use truly child-centered teaching methods and provide a host of other services for families such as day care, medical care, and meals.

Beto_El_Paso_IVP_TT_PLACEHOLDER

I LOVE–erm…I mean I HATE charter schools.

Or consider activists such as Milwaukee’s Howard Fuller. Though prominent civil-rights groups such as the NAACP oppose charters, Fuller has always seen them as the best hope of low-income African American families. For families trapped in dysfunctional school districts, Fuller argues, charters and vouchers provide a desperately needed escape hatch.

In the past, then, charters and “choice” were embraced by both the left and the right. Anyone who thought the current public-school system was failing could jump on the charter-school bandwagon. For politicians who wanted to be seen as “doing something,” charter schools were the thing to do. That has changed, though, and today’s leading Democrats will find themselves hard pressed to explain their pro-charter pasts.

booker on oprah

…here’s Superman.

President Obama got out in time to avoid tough questions, but his administration pushed hard for charters. Many other Democratic politicians did the same. Beto O’Rourke now tells crowds,

We will not allow our public tax dollars to be taken from our classrooms and sent to private schools.

However, back when it was fashionable for hyper-educated dilettantes to open charter schools, his wife did just that.

Cory Booker might be in an even worse position. Backed by Facebook and Oprah, then-Mayor Booker endorsed a huge expansion of charter schools in Newark.

warren two income

What did you know and when did you know it?

And Elizabeth Warren has recently bashed charters, but until recently she was a huge supporter. Nothing exacerbated the social divides in America, Warren argued in her 2003 book The Two-Income Trap, as much as did the brutal economic and racial segregation of the public-school system. The solution? Charters, vouchers, and “choice.” As Warren argued back in 2003,

The crisis in education is not only a crisis of reading and arithmetic; it is also a crisis in middle-class family economics. At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where you live dictates where you go to school. . . . A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly.

Unfortunately for these Democratic hopefuls, the tide has turned and they will be left high and dry. It’s not fair, of course. Back when Booker, O’Rourke, and Warren touted “choice,” they had every reason to think they were on the side of the progressive angels. Thanks to Queen Betsy, however, supporting charter schools these days feels like a deal with the devil.

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Why We’re Doomed

We all knew it was going to be ugly and stupid. I’m still surprised, though, when people say these things with a straight face. Conservative pundits lump middle-of-the-roaders like me into a vast, scheming “secular Left . . . who cannot stand the presence of religion in everyday  life.” Lefties blast middle-of-the-roaders like Cory Booker into the conspiratorial Right. No wonder we can’t have a decent convo.

First, my alleged anti-religiosity. After my recent commentary about Karen Pence in the Washington Post, Ben Shapiro took to the tube-waves to rebut. At about 19:30 in this segment, he hoped to redefine Ms. Pence’s ordeal. Instead of an old-fashioned fight between religious groups, Shapiro insisted, what we’re facing now was an outright fight by powerful secular forces against traditional religion as a whole.

Shapiro argued that people like me assume that there is no legitimate traditional religion anymore. People like me, Shapiro said, see conservative religion as only

a basket of bigotries masquerading as religion.

I won’t rebut Shapiro’s rebuttal, though I will point out that SAGLRROILYBYGTH have offered much more powerful and insightful counterarguments to my Pence commentary in these pages.

The point this morning is bigger and it’s not only about my hurt feelings. It’s not even about conservatives alone. Pundits on the left tend to shoot their mouths off just as wildly. For example, though I’m not a fan of Senator Cory Booker’s (fading?) support for charter schools, I can acknowledge that he often endorses traditional progressive political positions.

Yet, as Molly Ball noted a few years back in The Atlantic,

Booker has faced a steady drumbeat of criticism from sites like Daily Kos, where a contributor asserted last year that he “would actually be much more at home in the Republican Party.” Booker’s team has grown all too familiar with the rap that he is “some sort of Manchurian candidate for the right,” as his campaign spokesman, Kevin Griffis, put it to me with a sigh.

The problem is bigger than Cory Booker or Karen Pence. It’s even bigger than Ben Shapiro. In a sensible system, pundits on both sides would rush to include as many people as they can on their team. Ben Shapiro would notice that my argument wasn’t really against traditional religion at all. Cory Booker would be welcomed into a big-tent Left and encouraging to squeeze every possible progressive drop out of his role.

That’s not what happens. Instead, as pundits on both sides try to get clicks by excoriating their natural allies, the left-right divide only gapes ever wider.

How Facebook Can Save America

It won’t be by buying new computers for schools. It won’t even be by dumping bajillions of dollars into schools. But Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that he plans to donate 99% of Facebook shares—some 45 BILLION dollars’ worth—might just make a difference if he can learn from his mistakes.

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Take my money…Please!

You’ve seen the story by now. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged oodles of their nerd-gotten gains to help low-income families. Good for them. The danger is that they will continue to misunderstand the nature of the relationship between schooling and society.

Money helps. But in the past, philanthropists in general and Zuckerberg in particular have misunderstood the basic relationships involved. As a result, big money has not made a big impact.

You may have read about Zuckerberg’s ill-fated promises in Newark. Charmed by Mayor Cory Booker, Zuckerberg pledged up to $100 million in matching funds to improve Newark schools.

As journalist Dale Russakoff described in her book The Prize, big dreams petered out into only meh results. Russakoff blamed poor communication between philanthropists, city managers, teachers, and parents. The money, she argued, did not go to the right places at the right time, because Zuckerberg and Booker took a “knight in shining armor” approach to complicated educational problems. Instead of communicating with interested locals, they hired fancy $1000-a-day education consultants. Instead of building a consensus about problems and solutions, they dictated solutions and labeled people as problems.

There is a more basic difficulty, however, that Russakoff did not address. She argued that the roll-out of the Newark plan was flawed and ill-considered. At a more foundational level, however, even the best-considered plans to fix society by fixing schools are doomed.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.

In other words, if a society is racist, dominated by a wealthy elite, and strangled by cultural divisions, a new set of textbooks, computers, or state standards will not change that. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my recent book, conservative activists repeated progressives’ attempts to reform society by reforming schools. Without the proper understanding of the ways schools function in society, such plans are doomed before they begin.

Consider the sobering example of Native American education. As a recent article in Politico described, government-run schools are a failure. And they fail despite the fact that they spend more money per student than do comparable schools.

The Facebook folks have made some worrying noises. In announcing their gift, they suggested that they were still trapped in their old, mistaken views. They seemed to be saying that society can be healed—poverty can be alleviated—if only we can make sure that all kids have good schools. It is just not that simple.

In their announcement, for instance, Zuckerberg and Chan declared that their money would help level the social playing field. As they put it,

You’ll have technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus. You’ll advance quickly in subjects that interest you most, and get as much help as you need in your most challenging areas. You’ll explore topics that aren’t even offered in schools today. Your teachers will also have better tools and data to help you achieve your goals.

Even better, students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the Internet, even if they don’t live near good schools. Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity.

Watch out! Despite their qualification that “it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life,” it sounds as if the rest of their plan depends on their assumption that the right technology can indeed do just that.

To be fair, they make smarter noises elsewhere. They have also argued, for example, that

“We need institutions that understand these issues are all connected.” . . . Only with schools, health centers, parent groups, and organizations working together, they said, “can we start to treat these inequities as connected.”

That is exactly right. Only if we understand that young people are more than just schoolchildren can we see the problem with earlier philanthropic efforts in education.

We need to be careful about the conclusions we draw. Some observers have concluded that since increased spending on schools does not lead to utopia, we don’t need to increase funding for schools. That’s not right.

Rather, we need a better analogy. Spending money on schooling is not like putting a Band-Aid on a gut wound. Rather, spending money on schooling for low-income students is like building a three-legged stool with one strong leg. Only one. Because the other two legs are harder to reach, they are usually ignored. But a three-legged stool needs three strong legs, not just one. The legs need to be improved at the same time, in the same degree, in order to make a real difference.

I’ll say it again and then I’ll be quiet: We DO need to pour money into schools.  But not ONLY into schools.  We need to address questions of poverty and structural racism.