Monday, March 14, 2016

Bernie's Charter Lesson

No, not a lesson for Bernie. A lesson from Bernie for the rest of us.

Lots of folks have been trying hard to parse exactly what Bernie Sanders at that Ohio town meeting that gave so much hope and joy to DFER. Does he stand up for public education? Does he think charters are swell? Having poked through his statements on the subject, I'm inclined to conclude what is, really, the obvious-- Sanders doesn't really know or understand much about modern charter schools.

This is not a huge surprise. The modern charter industry has spent millions and millions of dollars to make sure that the public does not really understand charter schools. Sanders's offhand comment is a reminder to the rest of us that those charter efforts have been very successful.

This is easy to forget. Like advocates involved in any issue, public school advocates spend so much time staring straight at the face of reformsterism that we can forget that many ordinary folks are not all that up-to-date on the issues. If we're not careful, we run the risk of being that crazy person in the room hollering, "But look!! It's hoorrrrrrible!!" while our audience turns in genuine confusion to say, "What? That little spider in the corner?"

Bernie Sanders is no dummy, and he doesn't live with his head in the sand. But charter schools and public ed and the rest of the mess have not been on his radar all that much and so, presumably, his knowledge of some issues comes from the ether, the background chatter, the conventional wisdom. And charter school promoters have done a good job of getting their message into the ether. If Sanders doesn't get it, neither do a whole lot of other people.

That is the charter lesson from Bernie-- we public education advocates still got some 'splainin' to do.

I wish I had a direct line to Sanders. I wish my union hadn't squandered an opportunity to build some bridges to his campaign. Both he and the other folks who don't know the charter school score need to get some basic stuff.

Why charter schools are not public schools.

Here's the shortest, simplest list of talking points I can craft.

1) Charter schools use public tax dollars, but are not accountable for how those dollars are spent. 

Charters don't have to tell how they spend public tax dollars. Not a cent of it. In fact, they have gone to court to defend their right to stay unaccountable to elected officials.

2) Charter schools are run by unelected persons who are unaccountable to the voters.

Charter school boards are not elected. Charter corporation executives may not even live in the community where the schools operate. Charter boards do not have to open their meetings to the public-- ever. If you are a parent with a child in the charter, your only "voice" is to pull the child out. If you are a taxpayer without a child, you have no voice at all.

3) Charter schools do not have to accept all students.

The most basic promise of public schools in the US is that they must take every child in their community. Charters do not have any such requirement. Besides pushing students out, charters can use targeted advertisement and demanding application processes that push away the less desirable students.

4) Charter schools are business-centered, not child-centered.

Charter advocates will claim that only a small percentage of charters are for-profits, but a noon-profit charter is just a charter that doesn't have to share its profits with shareholders. Yes, teachers and educators in public schools make money from working there. But if a teacher wants a raise, she must bargain for it with elected representatives of the taxpayers. Because of 1 and 2 above, charter leaders can give themselves as much of a raise as they like. For charter operators, every dollar spent on a child's education is one less dollar they get to pocket.

The Lesson

Charter schools are not public schools. Many members of the public do not get this. In fact, many members of the public have looked this truth right in the eyes and walked on, thinking, "Well, that can't be right. I must just not fully understand things." And charter pushers just keep putting the word "public" in front of "charter schools," because if the word's there, it must be true, right?

We do need to educate Sanders, but we need to educate a whole lot of other folks as well. We don't need to explain anything complicated or confusing. The lesson is pretty simple.

Charter schools are not public schools.

Charter schools are not public schools.

Charter schools are not public schools.


  1. The moderator at the Town Hall claimed that 80% of African Americans support charters. I'm not accusing Bernie of pandering, but I wonder if he isn't being shrewd -- if a charter school could pass the Bernie test, it would be an extremely rare charter school indeed. And if it could, we'd still have the fact that dual, parallel systems can't possibly be as cheap as one system -- a problem given the finite resources, etc.
    But can Bernie say he supports charters that ARE accountable to the public -- and count on those same African-Americans to not know the difference....
    In other words, maybe it isn't Bernie that is ignorant. Just a thought....

  2. Thank you for shedding light on these business-model schools. When profit is the bottom line and accountability is not required, families lose out.

  3. What does it mean when all our presidential candidates are so in the dark about k-12 education in this country? Why is k-12 education ignored when it is so deeply connected to all the problems and solutions this country is grappling with? I saw Bernie struggle with his answer and he was, despite his uncertainty, trying to stay true to his convictions about equal access, etc. I think you could get to Bernie, as could Diane Ravitch. I think he would listen and agree with you. I think the children of this country deserve better ----- sincere consideration and not political pandering. I hope you can try to get his ear.

  4. Did you see the Atlantic article about this? Yikes! Yes, we need to do more educating.

  5. This also worries me:

    "Sanders said it could help Vermont shift from yearly tests to a new performance-based assessment that allow students to show they have mastered the coursework. Leahy was also swayed by this provision.

    “I am especially pleased with the bill’s innovative assessment and accountability demonstration authority provision, which will allow Vermont to adopt competency and performance based assessments that prove far more than how well a student can perform on a test on one given day,” Leahy said.

    Sanders said this reflects Vermont’s desire to emphasize growth in year-to-year learning.

    These new testing options coordinate well with Vermont’s efforts to develop personalized learning plans for every student in grades 7-12."

  6. It would be great if some entity could take these 4 statements and produce a nice laminated poster that could distributed.

  7. I think part of the problem is that education is not monolithic in this country. It varies from state to state. In my state, Wisconsin, most of our charter schools are public charters that are run by public school districts and ARE responsible to elected school boards and to the taxpayers. They do have relaxed rules but they are still accountable. I know that it is starting to change here with our current legislature and there will be more "independent" charter schools in the near future. But I think it is difficult for anyone to speak for education in the US when it is so varied from place to place.

    1. Linda,

      I have been pointing this out for years. The fact that is is ignored on these blogs has lead me to believe that public control is not central to the objections folks have to charter schools. They would be equally happy to close the Walton Rural Life Charter School, run by the Newton Public School District (All charter schools in Kansas are run by the public school district) as they would be to close The Community Roots Charter School in NYC, run by a non-profit that is trying to create a truly integrated educational opportunity for children in one of the very most segregated public school systems in the country.

  8. The rapper, Killer Mike, tweeted Bernie and Sanders showed up in person resulting in several good you tube videos of their conversation. Perhaps you, as an education blogger could do the same? I continue searching for some means of getting k-12 on his radar.