Charter School Question Cracks the Political Prism, Here and Nationally

Democrats supported charter schools in December 2015 when President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, of which the federal Charter Schools Program was a part.EXPAND
Democrats supported charter schools in December 2015 when President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, of which the federal Charter Schools Program was a part.
Amanda Lucidon / Official White House Photo
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It’s too soon to say for sure, but at least so far it doesn’t look as if impeachment will push the 2020 presidential vote tally very far in either direction. But impeachment still seems to push every other story off the table, including one, school reform, that may offer a better window on where and who we all are today.

Look at Dallas. Here in the last five years, battles over the city’s public school system have split the political diamond in whole new ways, forcing us to reexamine long-held assumptions about who’s a liberal, who’s conservative and what those words even mean anymore.

As I discussed here Monday, the school system has been the main battleground for the only truly intense local efforts we’ve seen aimed at achieving social justice. The alignment of forces in those wars, however, has been a plague of conundrums.

How in the world did we wind up with the teachers unions, always before a consistent, loyal bastion of Democratic Party liberalism in Texas, lined up solidly on the side of the status quo like George Wallace in the schoolhouse door?

And where in the world did we get all of these young, Republican-seeming white people fighting to rescue black and Hispanic children from what they call the kindergarten-to-prison pipeline? It’s a deeply disturbing jumble, as if somebody has vandalized our front-yard nativity scene.

When Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren rolled out her education plan earlier this month, she shocked some people in the school reform debate by proposing a tough cutback on federal funding for charter schools and other measures that would inhibit their growth. Taken as a big, warm bear hug by the teachers unions, her proposal was a slap in the face for some black charter school advocates.

When Warren spoke a week ago at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black school in Atlanta, digital banners above her proclaimed, “Value the work of black women.” But Warren choked out only her first few words before nearly being booed off the stage — not the sort of reception a good liberal expects.

Afterward Warren met with the protesters. Sarah Carpenter, head of a school choice advocacy group, said to ABC News, “I told (Warren), ‘You got to talk to real people on the ground.’”

But where is the ground, and who are the real people? Charter schools — publicly funded schools independent of the major school districts — were the centerpiece of education reforms championed by President Barack Obama and his first secretary of education, Arne Duncan. Obama saw them specifically as lifesavers thrown to minority children trapped inside big, failing public school systems.

Since early Obama days, the major national teachers unions have been at war against charters, which are seldom unionized. The unions also have opposed what they call “high-stakes testing” in the big public school districts that are unionized. In those districts, as in Dallas, test scores and other student outcomes like college readiness have been used to determine teacher pay and even dismissal. The unions want to preserve older systems that base pay scales and job security strictly on tenure.

The real-world experience with charters, meanwhile, has been decidedly mixed. Some, like New York’s Success Academy, the KIPP schools and Boston’s Codman Academy, have been overwhelmingly successful.

At Uplift Education, the biggest free charter school system in North Texas, 95.6% of its 655 graduates last year were minority, 75.4% were from economically disadvantaged families and 6.6% were special education students, according to Texas Education Agency reports. Uplift reports that for the last 10 years, 100% of its graduates have been admitted to college.

But many other charter schools have fallen on a scale of failure somewhere between dismal and abject. Some have even been bad enough to qualify for ridicule on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show, like the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology in Philadelphia, where the school lunchroom also served as an illegal nightclub on weekends.

And let us not forget our own local spectacular charter school implosion of three years ago, Prime Prep. Operated by former Dallas Cowboys star Deion Sanders, Prime Prep served mainly as proof of the proverb about a fool and his money.

These are all factors that people with the luxury of choice can debate at their leisure. The thing we talked about here Monday, however, was the plight of people who have no choice. They are born to places that have been fenced off from the mainstream society and economy by official government policy at least since the federal red-lining maps of the 1930s and '40s, sometimes since the end of Reconstruction.

We spoke here Monday about two ZIP codes in southern Dallas that have the highest percentage of all ZIP codes in Texas of adults over 18 currently incarcerated in state prisons. All of the other indicators of social obliteration are there — poverty, illiteracy and especially failure to complete a high school education.

These are the places the school reform advocates are talking about when they speak of the kindergarten-to-prison pipeline. The numbers here are bleak and terribly inexorable. You could almost go into the maternity wards and rubber stamp the foreheads of the infants born from these ZIP codes, “PRISON BOUND, YEAR 2038.”

Charter school advocates accuse presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren of trading her soul for a union endorsement on charter schools.EXPAND
Charter school advocates accuse presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren of trading her soul for a union endorsement on charter schools.
United States Senate

Decade after decade, these children have been processed through the Dallas public school system. No one is saying the school system sends them to prison. No one is saying the teachers send them to prison. But the school system and the teachers have not saved them from prison. And in this very libertarian country where we guard jealously against government intrusion into our private lives, the schoolroom may offer the best window we can get into these lost and wasted lives.

In these parts of the city, the charter schools offer many parents a gamble worth taking. Not a sure thing. Far from a perfect thing. But the only sure thing offered by the public school system in these ZIP codes over the years has been ruin — illiteracy, prison, a criminal record and serial incarceration, a life spent standing around barrel fires on vacant lots trying not to get sent back to prison. What parent wouldn’t take a gamble on something better than that?

The charter school issue, however, refuses to behave like a traditional race question or a litmus test for liberal and conservative. Of the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, who are all white, all are somewhere between opposed and lukewarm on charters.

Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg all have either promised to curb charters or have expressed skepticism.

Among three black candidates positioned down the list, California Sen. Kamala Harris has openly opposed charters and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s support for them has become so nuanced that it’s hard to read it as true support.

The only black candidate who enthusiastically supports charters is New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Booker wrote recently in The New York Times, “As Democrats, we can’t continue to fall into the trap of dismissing good ideas because they don’t fit into neat ideological boxes or don’t personally affect some of the louder, more privileged voices in the party.”

The full-time professional advocates for charter schools were quick to jump on Warren’s anti-charter education plan as proof she had traded her soul for a union endorsement. Amy Wilkins of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told The New York Times, “The thing that's stunning about this is she is sort of portraying herself in so many of her other policies as taking on a David and Goliath fight, standing against all the big forces that control the little guys.

“And with this she did a total flip and is lining herself up with the biggest donor to the Democratic Party, teachers unions, and kicking poor kids to the curb.”

On the union side, it looks different. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Times most of the Democratic candidates are dubious about charters because they “looked at the evidence, which shows that charters are not a panacea for what people said they were started for.”

And certainly charter schools are not a panacea. Neither is hand-washing, an apple a day or frequent Bible reading. Nothing is a panacea. When did that become a reasonable test?

In the very toughest ZIP codes, on the other hand, the public schools serve as something like the opposite of a panacea. Maybe they don’t actively throw children to the sharks, but the schools don’t stick their hands down there and help the children get up out of that shark-infested water, either.

I don’t know that school reform as a national issue is capable of achieving significant critical mass. The comfortable suburban middle class has its own quite successful system of charter schools, called suburban school districts, and so it has little to get excited about here.

Comfortable liberals also are susceptible to the union line that charters and merit pay systems are part of a sinister Wall Street plot to privatize public education. I have yet to hear anybody explain to me why Wall Street would want to privatize public education. There’s got to be an easier way to make money.

And then there is the question of why those Republican-seeming activists are so committed to reform. When I ask them, I sometimes get answers having to do with religious principles, which, I admit, not proudly, makes me start looking for an exit.

There is only one thing I think I see for sure in all of this: The school reform question shows us that we don’t know who the liberals and the conservatives are anymore, which I think sort of means we don’t know who we are. Good to know?

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