Even as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of America’s first charter-school law and take pride in the nearly 7,000 schools that have arisen in its aftermath, the 3 million mostly very needy kids whom those schools serve, and the stellar results being achieved by the best of those schools, we need to be mindful that success brings enemies as well as admirers.
The success of charter schools threatens the country’s traditional district-based quasi-monopoly of public education in two important ways.
First, and most obviously, in places where the charter sector’s market share has become sizable — or threatens to become sizable if more kids are enabled to attend more charter schools — it takes students, revenues, and jobs away from long-established institutions, programs, budgets, and interest groups. It’s estimated that in the Los Angeles district, for example, charters account for about half of its 200,000-pupil hemorrhage in recent years. That cuts into the district budget just as many of its least manageable expenses (e.g., retired teachers’ pensions and lifetime health benefits) are costing more.
Second, and more subtly, where charters are doing an exceptionally good job, particularly with challenging students, they embarrass district schools that do an inferior job — and they erase the argument that schools can’t do much for those kids (because . . . take your pick, they’re poor, they have disrupted families and inattentive parents, they come from tough neighborhoods, etc.). One might even say that, aside from the hundreds of thousand of children who benefit from them, the greatest contribution that charters have thus far made to American education is their demonstration that there’s really no excuse for failing to educate such kids.
Both threats figure in the renewed pushback we’re seeing in a lot of places. The NAACP board will vote this weekend on a resolution urging a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools, on grounds that they worsen segregation and erode local control. This is not a new position for the nation’s oldest civil-rights organization, but it’s gotten more support than ever before — for example, from groups such as those affiliated with Black Lives Matter — and has drawn thoughtful repudiations by the New York Times and the Washington Post as well as the Wall Street Journal. As the Post’s editorial board noted, “that the beneficiaries of [charters] are, in large part, children of color hopefully is not lost on an organization that is supposed to be looking out for the interests of minority people.”
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District is threatening, on spurious grounds, not to renew some of its highest-performing charters. The Chicago Teachers Union, in exchange for not going on strike, seems to have exacted from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team new caps on the number of charter schools that can operate in the Windy City and on the number of kids who can enroll in them. And in Massachusetts, if the hard-fought and contentious referendum to (slightly) loosen that state’s tight charter cap fails on November 8, as recent polls suggest may happen, it will be because the teachers’ union has gotten very clever at persuading suburbanites (whose districts wouldn’t even have charters) and Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren Democrats that charters are more a threat to the institution of public education than a salvation for needy kids who aren’t getting a decent education at the hands of the usual providers. Veteran charter expert David Osborne, a Massachusetts resident and a Democrat, writes:
Front and center in [the union’s] television ads is the charge that charters drain $400 million a year from our public schools. Beyond that, they label charters “corporate reform” — a Republican effort to privatize our schools.
Both arguments are nonsense. More accurately, they are lies designed to protect the jobs of mostly white, middle-class teachers and union officials at the expense of mostly poor, minority kids. You see, most charters are not unionized, so when they expand, school districts hire fewer teachers and the union shrinks.
Too many liberals buy the lies, because they assume organized labor must be in the right. The other day, Senator Elizabeth Warren even joined their ranks. Imagine: Elizabeth Warren standing in the schoolhouse door, blocking opportunity for poor, minority children.
Nowhere is the schism within the Democratic party helping charters. Among other things, pressure from Sanders and the “progressives” has pushed the party’s platform from open support for charters to all manner of new preconditions that they must satisfy. It has pushed Hillary Clinton to ease back on her own longtime support for these independently operated public schools. And Lord knows what the various rifts and cracks in the Republican party will mean for charters (and for much else, in and far beyond education policy).
So yes, let’s celebrate the remarkable track record of charter schools over the past quarter century. But don’t suppose for a moment that their future is secure.