We can't let charter schools become a wedge issue

Updated: Apr 18, 2019

There is a political war being waged over charter schools and a survey and recent article by Jay Greene and Frederick Hess in EducationNext has something fascinating to say about it. There’s been some quibbling about the survey methodology, which is based on campaign donations made by employees of organizations that received grants from the Gates and Walton foundations. And it’s been pointed out that the current administration is so toxic that donations to Democrats in the 2018 midterms may not indicate meaningful bias towards anything other than restoring normalcy. But the aggregate numbers in the survey are compelling and support the authors’ main argument: the ugliest part of the charter school battle is being waged on the blue side of the partisan divide. It’s an “intramural brawl.”

Broadly speaking, Republicans have been continuously supportive of charter schools. Competition is, after all, in their collective DNA. Most Democrats appreciate market dynamism, too—even Elizabeth Warren defiantly declared herself a capitalist in an interview a few days ago. But Democrats have never been in agreement on the application of capitalist principles to public welfare sectors of the economy and now, two plus years into the Trump administration, with the thrill of the blue wave still fresh, and the taste of blood in the water, many self-styled progressives are cruising for a fight in the schoolyard. And, as Republicans have been fairly silent on education issues, that fight is being taken to all Democrats who have supported the education reform movement of the last two decades.

That fight has gone well beyond snark and now threatens to become a political wedge issue that could undo the Democrats as well as a movement that, despite significant warts, has much to recommend it. American parents enroll over 3 million of their children in charter schools. Thousands of educators have sweated bullets and made extraordinary personal sacrifices to start schools to provide a public education option that families might otherwise only find in a private school. The majority of these folks will not be pleased with insinuations that they are not “true Democrats.”

Excessive and misguided passion is not the sole province of one side of this equation. Charter advocacy during the Obama years had a distinctive maximalist odor about it as well. Who can forget the nonstop barrage of TV ads in NYC implying that Mayor deBlasio was a racist because of his spats with the city’s largest charter network? Flawed species that humans are, it just seems too hard for many of us not to crow after dunking on the opponent. Those who think this is the path to forging an enduring political movement have rocks in their heads.

We can and should have honest and heated arguments about everything from the role of corporate and philanthropic money to what constitutes educational accountability at a time when our planet is in environmental peril. And we should have visionary talks about creating a school system for all that draws from the strengths of the chartering idea, and what kind of policies would encourage the best practices and prevent the worst. And we absolutely should, as Debbie Meier suggests, move toward a schooling that both practices and teaches democracy.

To that last point—to the schools that practice and teach democracy—nowhere have I seen more evidence of living, breathing examples than in the independent charter schools I’ve visited from Jackson Heights, Queens to the edge of the Navajo Nation in Arizona. I’ve seen flat leadership models that empower teachers in a way labor visionaries have dreamed of. I’ve seen student-run social justice projects including voter registration drives in places where minority voting rights were being attacked. I’ve talked to young people who take a solar-powered water purification system installed in an old school bus to people off the grid whose water is contaminated by arsenic and uranium. So put that into your progressive pipe and smoke it! Better yet, let’s all put that into our collective progressive pipe and smoke it. And let’s not allow charter schools to be the next wedge issue. That would be a tremendous mistake.

Steve Zimmerman is the Executive Director of The Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools.



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