Over atthe Fordham blog, Mike Petrilli (Fordham Grand Poohbah) is taking another swipe at addressing the ed reform schism that has been playing out ever since Betsy DeVos unpacked her bags in DC.
"The charter-schools movement needs to stop alienating Republicans," he says. echoing a sentiment first floated in the reformisphere by Robert Pondiscio who was concerned that the Left was driving conservatives out of the reform movement.
Conservatives and the choice movement
The problem has been there all along. Ed reform has always been a fundamentally right-tilted movement, but during a nominally Democratic liberal-branded administration, it was helpful to also sell reform as a means of creating social justice. But these days, social justice is not exactly a priority of the folks in DC, and so the ed reform movement has been convulsing as those who want to view ed reform as a means of social justice have tried to run away from Trump-DeVos, while those who see it as a means of promoting choice and the free market have found it remarkably easy to embrace the current administration (looking at you, Jeanne Allen) or at least have tried to stake out a clear conservative camp for charter-choice reform, in hopes that some day rational grown-ups will be in charge again in our nation's capital.
Which brings us back to Petrilli's argument.
He's trying to understand why EdNext's own poll showed a drop in carter support, including among GOP and GOP-lite respondents. But, Petrilli, seems to ask, shouldn't the same folks who loved Reaganism embrace school choice? Trickle down, anybody? Union-busting the flight controllers? Ignoring the problems of Reaganism and the modern mis-remembering of his legacy (does anyone think he wouldn't be drummed out of the modern hard-core GOP by the same people who claim to want his mantle), Petrilli has some ideas about recapturing GOP hearts and minds, like emphasizing how the charter movement empowers parental choice, "using the magic of competition to lift all boats," which is an apt phrase since the raise-all-boat-thinking is an excellent example of the magical thinking behind free market education ideas. Free market unicorn ponies for everyone!
Petrilli also, in one of his characteristic flashes of unvarnished honesty, points out that conservatives should love charters because charters are anti-union. Oh, and they can fire lots of people, too. Also, he would like to bring up Fordham's bullshit study about how terribly absent public school teachers are, compared to charter teachers. That study defines "chronically absent" as "misses one day of work a month" and while that's not a super-high bar to clear, the study skips over any possible explanations for the pattern (like age differences in the two workforces) in favor of just scoring this talking point.
And as a final sprinkling on top of his proposed ad campaign for charters, Petrilli also tosses no-nonsense discipline, the success sequence, and "classical" education.
Petrilli says that charter supporters who appear to be on the Left encourage the charter movement to downplay all these features, and that's a mistake.
But I say Petrilli has made some miscalculations here, and that there are good and solid reasons for conservatives not to support charter-choice programs.
Conservatives like accountability
The biggest conservative problem for charter-choice is accountability. At this point, wherever you live in this country, you are probably within earshot of a charter scandal where a school suddenly closed or someone got caught with their hand (or their family's) hand in the till or the whole thing just turned out to be a scam. And now that we've had a few years of chartering, an increasing number of folks have had this conversation:
Taxpayer: Why don't our schools have enough money for this program?
Government: Your tax dollars were taken from your local school to pay for that charter school.
Taxpayer: Well, damn. Can we at least see what the charter school did with our tax dollars?
Government: Nope. Nobody can know.
Taxpayer: But those are my tax dollars!
Government: Too bad. It's a special charter secret.
"Just hand us your hard-earned money and trust us," was never a winning pitch for public schools, but charters are even less forthcoming. Conservatives do not like being told, "We are going to take your hard-earned dollars but we will tell you absolutely nothing about how they are spent. In fact, we will go to court to keep you from finding out." And the steady drip-drip-drip of charter scandals is a clear signal that some kind of accountability measures are needed-- and yet Betsy DeVos has signaled clearly that she doesn't favor accountability and that she, in fact, likes the voucher system which has even less accountability.
Public schools are a conservative institution
Petrilli's colleague Andy Smarick has written extensively about this. Public schools are stolid, time-tested, and a foundational part of many communities. Public education is an institution that is steeped in conservative values of tradition, financial efficiency, local control, and community values. Occasionally reformsters try to fly in the face of this by hollering that teachers are a pack of wild-eyed liberals, but people know their local schools, and they know it's largely untrue (sooo many teachers voted for Trump). Reformsters have tried to make the case that schools are just awful and undermining American security but poll after poll tells us that most Americans think their local schools are okay-- more so if they have children actually in the school.
Trying to upend this kind of institution is not the act of a classical conservative.
About that parental choice thing
In community after community, it turns out that parents don't really get all that much choice. Choice looks a lot more like trying to get into college-- you make your choices and then you hope and pray that they choose you. And in the world of charters, if you have special needs or require special adaptations or are just an extra challenge, there may not be a place for you (and if we start talking vouchers, then we can start talking about whether or not you are of the correct religious faith).
Parental choice is a lovely talking point, but in many markets, that's simply not what happens. And where it does happen, it ends up looking like North Carolina, where "choice" turns out to be short for "I would like to choose that my white children don't go to school with black children." Racism and discrimination are not conservative values (I've met plenty of racist liberals and plenty of non-racist conservatives) and restoring segregation is not a worthwhile reason to support charters.
Petrilli zeros in on the idea of busting the teachers' unions, but while that may make it easier for ed-flavored businesses to run their schools, it hasn't produced any improvement in quality. Personally, I'm dying to see the rollout of New York charter advertising that boasts "No more dealing with certified teachers-- your child will be taught by the cheapest, undertrained non-expert non-educators we could find!"
Maybe it's just the conservatives I've grown up around, but an oft-overlooked quality that I think of as a conservative value is competence-- knowing what the hell you're doing, being a trained professional at your craft.
Other peoples' kids and values education
Places like the "no excuses" schools and the schools centered on the "success sequence" (get a diploma, get a job, get a spouse, get a kid-- in that order) do not strike me as the sort of schools that conservatives would put their own schools in, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that conservatives are not real big on the whole "teach children what their correct values and proper life choices should be" thing rubs them the wrong way.
You can find conservatives who will agree that Those Peoples' Children should be taught those things, but I'm not sure that translates into "Use my tax dollars to set up a second school system for those kids."
One more entitlement
If you thought it was a lousy idea to give "free" college to every 19-year-old, why would you think it's a good idea to give "free" private school to every K-12 student.
The ravages of time
Mostly what I think explains Petrilli's unwelcome poll results is time.
When Common Core was an abstract idea in think pieces, people either ignored it or thought it could be swell. But the more it took a real, palpable form, and the more people could see how it actually worked and saw what students were experiencing and heard tales of how it really played out, the less people supported it. I'll bet dollars to donuts that's what's happening to charters.
"Parents should be able to choose the school that best fits their child's needs" sounds great. But it's not what's actually happening. What's actually happening is that people are seeing money drained from their public school system to fund private schools that at best are hiding what they do with that money and at worst are wasting and stealing that money, all to support a system that isn't really providing all the choices it said it would-- and that's all before you discover that the entire charter set-up is run by people who don't answer to you, don't know you, and don't live in your community. Surprise-- you no longer have any control or say in how your education tax dollars are spent.
You can argue that all of these problems exist in the public system-- but that doesn't mean you're offering anything any better, and your not-any-better is coming at considerable cost, which folks are becoming more and more aware of. Five years ago the Trump-loving denizens of my community would complain about how local school boards were wasting their money; today more and more of them are asking when somebody is going to do something about those damn charter schools that are bleeding our local schools dry.
The Achilles heel
The conservative side of ed reform has always had the same critical weakness-- opening up the education market so that free market forces can unleash new edu-business possibilities is an act that mostly just benefits people at the top. It's great for people who are at the top, who operate these businesses. Hell, who wouldn't want to open a bunch of charter schools in NYC, serve a carefully curated fraction of the students as the public system, and still make more than the leader of the entire citywide public system?
Maybe this is the Reaganism coming back-- give the people who run these operations a chance to fill their pockets and good education will eventually trickle down to the students below. But the reality isn't living up to the hype-- it can't-- and ed reformers can't start a war or set fire to some other dumpster to distract people. There will still be plenty of conservative support for charters, bot from market-based conservatives as well as those who see charters as a solution to systemic social problems in public schools. But the support is going to erode, rather than grow.
Of course, charters could build support by becoming actual public schools rather than simply wearing the name "public" like an ill-fitting sheep suit. They could be locally controlled. They could be transparent and open in their operation. They could employ and be operated by fully-trained professional educators. They could take all students instead of creaming and skimming. And their legislative supporters could create financial structures that fully support all schools instead of trying to run multiple systems with the same money previously used to run just one system.
Those steps would build support among conservatives and liberals alike. They just wouldn't build support among the folks currently trying to push charter schools. That's the real question for those folks, the real dilemma they face-- do they want to have the freedom to impose their will and reap profits, or do they actually want charter schools, even if they don't get those schools exactly the way they wanted to.