Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why the Charter School Movement Can't Help Alienating Republicans

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.

Teacher pool

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.


  1. When is school choice a bad choice? When it enables profiteering. When it advances ideology over education. When it contributes to racial and economic segregation.

  2. You make so much sense, as always.

    Petrilli: "the magic of competition". Sorry, I don't believe in magic. I highly distrust anyone who talks as if it's real, and assume they're selling snake oil.

  3. There's a great radio program where Peter Cunningham gets into it with Eve Ewing, a Chicago Public School teachers who is writing her thesis on school closings and the accompanying charter school proliferation This program took place right at the time where community members went on a hunger strike to save Dyett High School, a traditional public school, from being closed.

    The slow death process imposed by privatizers in Chicago was / is euphemistically referred to as "phasing out."

    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

    ( 8:43 – )
    EVE EWING: "What you all (Cunningham and the MODERATOR) has been the idea of ‘school choice.’ Which is that students can choose anywhere they like around the city. They don’t have to attend a neighborhood high school, as was the case in Chicago twenty or thirty years ago. (the Dyett parent protestors want Dyett to remain open as a neighborhood school.)

    “And (here is) what we’ve gotten from there.

    “A second ago, Peter said, everybody is ‘choosing’ (their) high schools.

    “Well that is NOT exactly the case, and the numbers that have been cited about all the other charter schools (schools available for Dyett neighborhood students to transfer to) that are surrounding Dyett isreally misleading because several of those schools are not actually accessible to the students who live in the (Dyett / Bronzeville) community.

    “So for example, Mayor Emanuel mentioned King College Prep in his comments to the news media the other day. (i.e. that Dyett is not needed, in part because kids can go to King)

    “And King College Prep is a selective enrollment school. That means that, in order to quality, students have to meet a certain grade cut-off in their seventh grade scores on their standardized testing, as well as their classroom grades, and that serves a very small proportion of students who come from ALL OVER the city,

    “So (for Cunningham or Emanuel) to say that a school like that (i.e. such as king and other nearby selective charter schools) is accessible to students in Bronzeville is really deliberately misleading in a way that I find disingenuous and disappointing, as well as the number that was just cited (by Cunningham) about the 13 students remaining at Dyett as seniors (just before closure).

    “The reason that the school had only 13 students at graduation was because the incoming classes were 'phased out' year after year, after the school announced that the school would be closing in the 2012-2013 school year.

    MODERATOR: “Right, toward the end it was like … just 11 and 12, or just 12th Grade (remaining), actually.”

    EVE EWING: “Exactly!”

    MODERATOR: “So there were no students feeding into the higher grades, because they were not (allowed to be) accepted (by CPS).”

    EVE EWING: “THEY (Dyett administrators) WERE NOT ALLOWED (by CPS officials up to and including Mayor Emanuel) TO ENROLL NEW STUDENTS. Additionally, you know, the students that were present (who remained) were really encouraged to leave, and transfer to other schools.

    “And I’d like everybody to imagine if this were YOUR child, or if this were YOUR senior year in high school, or YOUR high school, what it would be like for you to be told by the district:

    ” ‘We don’t want YOU! We’re getting rid of YOU over time!’

    “And … ummm … There’s a real sincere message of a lack of value (for students) there, that’s really consistent with how the district has treated its African-American students in this community for years now.”
    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

    Holy sh#%! Eve’s totally on fire, and she’s just getting warmed up.



    The Moderator then gives Eve an opening to tear apart the whole “choice system” implemented by Arne Duncan and by his underling Peter Cunningham, and the mechanisms of how “choice” works… or rather does NOT work.

    It’s “school choice” alright. The selective charter operators “choose” their students, not the other way around.
    ( 10:49 – )
    MODERATOR: “But I wonder again if this gets to the larger issue of this … this approach, this philosophy that’s not pretty entrenched, pretty ingrained not only in Chicago, but in other cities-”

    EVE EWING: ” – of the choice -”

    MODERATOR: “That I mentioned this whole idea of doing away with boundaries.”

    EVE EWING: “Um. It is. It’s very much endemic in that, because that is an idea that works very well if you think of (choosing) a school like ‘a market’, and you think of parents like rational consumers.

    “So the idea of choice assumes that people choose schools the way they choose cereal:

    “You go the cereal aisle.

    “You see what flavor you like.

    “You see what, you know, what nutritional content is there,

    ” Then you make this choice based on your preferences, and based on the data available.

    “And there’s A LOT of research that shows that that’s ACTUALLY NOT how this works AT ALL … in TWO directions:

    “ONE: parents who are already disenfranchised from the school system — which is in Chicago, means predominantly black, and also, Latino and poor parents — are often unable to make informed choices. The district doesn’t always make it easy for them to make those decisions.

    “For example, for a lot of these charter schools, you (parents) have to come to a mandatory informational session. You have to fill out supplementary and additional levels of applications to get your children into these schools, as well as a testing (minimum test score) cut-off.

    “And (TWO): it’s also not rational form the point of view of white parents, because there’s a lot of research (that shows) that while parents will actually pull their children out of a majority students of color school, even if that school is doing well, even it it’s academically superior to a majority white school.

    “So what we’re really seeing is that this ‘choice’ is NOT ‘informed choice’ AT ALL.”


    Wow. That was great!

    In his next turn to talk, Cunningham doubles down, and rejects Ewing’s claim that the so-called “choice” system, as is, does not enable parents to become the kind of “rational consumers” necessary for a market “school choice” system to function.

    ( 12:58 – )
    CUNNINGHAM: “I tend to think that parents ARE ‘rational consumers.’ I think that they’re looking out for their kids. I think that high school students are able to travel further distances. I think that at the elementary level, obviously people are more inclined to choose schools that are close to them. But at the high school level kids travel all across the city that appeal to them, and in this case (Dyett), you have a couple of competing proposals… ”

    (Cunningham then changes topic, talking into the different charter groups vying against each other with proposals to seize and use the empty Dyett school building. He even makes some patronizing reference to the musical accomplishments of Walter Dyett (for whom the school was named), and to the accomplishments of Dyett’s students… as if Cunningham actually gives a sh%# about African-American culture.)


    Listen the whole thing.

    One more point. Cunningham continues to talk about how under-enrolled all the newly-opened Chicago-area charter schools are, with so many empty seats. The Moderator then asks him,

    ..., well, then if that’s the case, that the newly-opened charters are all full of empty seats ...


    Here’s that particular moment worth spotlighting.

    In carrying out his corporate masters’ marching orders — to help create an environment favorable to opening even more under-enrolled corporate, privately-managed charter schools and also closing down more pre-existing traditional public schools — Cunningham contradicts himself. A

    Apparently, when, in a particular city, you have dozens of charter schools that are full of empty seats ... the thing to do, according to Cunningham is to open ... yet even MORE charter schools that will also be full of empty seats.


    After saying over and over during the radio show that, all over Chicago, there are far more seats in the newly-opened charter schools than there were kids to sit in them, Cunningham now contradicts himself, and then insists that there is “a demand” to open more schools

    So there’s “demand?”

    Really? From whom? The parents or the charter operators?

    In point of fact, it’s the latter, as Cunningham claims the demand is for more privately-managed corporate charter schools?

    ( 17:11 – )
    MODERATOR: “Here, we’re talking about under-capacity, right? But I’m wondering, if there’s such under-capacity, how come we keep opening up NEW (privately managed charter) schools (which Cunningham encourages)?”

    CUNNINGHAM: “Well, I think there’s demand for new schools. There’s a demand for better schools, especially … we’ve had a lot of challenges getting our (traditional public) high schools to improve."

    (TRANSLATION: the traditional public schools are /were hopeless, so we need to open charters nearby to steal away the public schools' students, so that we can eventually close down all those traditional public schools.)

    Cunningham then goes off into an infomercial about the Noble … you guessed it .. CHARTER Schools.

    In short, the fix is in, folks, with the endgame being another New Orleans, and the complete elimination of traditional public schools in Chicago, and replacement with privately-managed charter schools.)

  6. I almost forgot the Perry Mason moment in this radio show with Cunningham.

    Here it is, as he tries to quickly gloss over how parents really have no "choice."

    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
    (quickly, garbled)
    ” … either the (students) get in (to a charter school they choose) or they don’t get in and they go somewhere else …”
    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

    He says that quickly, garbling ... but that's where he's effectively confessing that "school choice" is NOT students/ parents choosing schools, it's schools choosing students/parents.

    Here's the full context of that:
    ( 6:52 – : )
    MODERATOR: “You know, one of the things that you had mentioned, Mr. Cunningham, in your piece, was about how Dyett re-opened … it re-opened as a high school, it was originally a middle school … that it re-opened in the wrong place at the wrong time. That there was low enrollment. I believe last year, there were what? There were just 13 seniors just recently that graduated from Dyett.

    “But the argument from others is that well, these things happened because once the city, (and) the school district CPS (the un-elected board and Mayor Emanuel) had decided it was going to phase out Dyett, that it starved the school of resources, and that was one of the reasons that it sort of it saw declining enrollment.”

    (Cunningham, deliberately or not, confuses the concepts of “open enrollment” and “school choice”, which thankfully, Eve Ewing straightens out later when it’s her turn… and boy does she straighten Cunningham out!)

    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
    CUNNINGHAM: “Well. I don’t think that’s fully accurate. I mean the community, in fact, was consistently choosing other schools. By the time they city made the decision to close Dyett, 70% of the high school students in the community were choosing schools outside their community, because we live in… we have an open-enrollment system (he should have said “choice system”) for high schools in Chicago today . Every kid decides where he wants to go, applies, and … (garbled) either they get in or they don’t get in and they go somewhere else (stops garbling) … but the point is that everyone chooses high schools and they (Bronzeville high school students) were choosing schools other than Dyett.”
    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

    When you listen to the end of the above quote, notice how Cunningham quickly and under his breath quickly glosses over how, in practice, how ruthlessly selective these supposedly “public” schools in Chicago that students are allowed to apply for — the dirty secret the corporate reformers don’t want discussed:

    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
    (quickly, garbled)
    ” … either they get in or they don’t get in and they go somewhere else …”
    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

    Yeah, no kidding, Peter! What good is a "choice" if you don't get your first choice, or your second, or your third or your ... ? In this case, it's the charter schools doing the actual "choosing", screening out the most expensive, difficult, and troublesome to educate. Those kids end up and the low end charters.

  7. I don't even know where to start with this one. Let's just tackle the absolute basics.

    I'm guessing most people (including me) here support food stamps. Food stamps is a voucher program. Washington DC doesn't own farms and grocery stores; they provide money for people to buy their own food. We put limits on them on what you can buy, but where you shop is your choice.

    I'm guessing most people here (incl me) support Medicare and Medicaid. But only radical socialists preach government ownership of hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Instead, we provide a public insurance policy that can be taken to private doctors and hospitals for services. It's not a gold plated plan (I know that from personal experience), but it provides a base level of access to those who can't otherwise afford it. The care is provided privately though, and in the case of Medicare, many of the insurance plans are private too. Seniors choose from public or private options which will take the voucher.

    Neither of these are perfect analogies for education, but they're not fatally flawed either. Education is more complex than food, likely less complex than health care. Like those 2 cases, there is reason for government to pay for education; there is no reason for government to actually provide it. Like Medicare, there is no reason robust public and private systems (both taking the same ADA money) can not succeed. Medicare's public option does not view Blue Cross's presence as a threat; they are simply another option. Yet, for some reason, the local public schools do view charter schools as a threat. That makes me suspect the threat is based on entrenched special interests (unions and others) in government run schools. There is no basic reason those two system could not work as partners; and yet they both choose not to.

    If anything, education can benefit from vouchers far more than health care. If you have clogged arteries, you need angioplasty. If you have lung cancer, you need radiation. You may get a second opinion about how much radiation vs chemo, or how soon to get your heart surgery, but for more medical problems, the basic need is clear and largely beyond debate.

    Some education is like that: can Johnny read, do basic arithmetic, make his letters, etc. But beyond that, education very quickly starts to contain embedded values. Many of you here probably agree with those secular, progressive values, so you may not even notice them. But many parents do not share that point of view. One set of values (embedded in standards and curriculum) must prevail, and if you're on the losing end, tough luck. You don't want your 8 year old to explore his sexual identity? Too bad; you're just a prude. Want your 15 year old to read Shakespeare instead of Maya Angelou? Too bad; you're a white racist. I'm not making these things up; these are the battles being fought all over the country today. Locking parents into education diametrically opposed to their political or religious views is morally wrong. You who are secular-progressives wouldn't want your children locked in a Christian school; similarly, many Christian parents object to their children being locked in a secular-progressive school. Unlike health care, education IS values.

    I will end with the same comment I've made dozens of times before. I do not look at charters/vouchers from the perspective of "all students", I look at it from the perspective of "a student." If a student could do better in a private school, and the private school is willing to take him, I see no reason to imperil that student's success. Locking away that child's potential in a school that is failing him is simply immoral.