Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has been a staunch advocate for the expansion of charter schools and of school choice, so the media looked to him when President-elect Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos — a pro-charter and pro-voucher philanthropist — to be his education secretary.
Booker stayed silent at first. But he finally offered a statement regarding Trump’s pick on Wednesday. Booker told The 74, an education news website, “I greet Ms. DeVos’s nomination with a healthy skepticism, and I have serious early concerns.”
Booker’s statement raises the question of how other reform-minded Democrats will approach a new political landscape under Secretary DeVos. Facing an administration that threatens to entirely gut public education, some of them may have to more clearly separate their vision for charter schools from DeVos’ free-market vision for Detroit.
Under the Obama administration, federal funding for charter schools increased by $125.2 million. The former education secretary, Arne Duncan, who left his position last year, was a fierce supporter of charter schools. Last summer, Duncan wrote, “High-performing charters are one more proof positive that, as President Obama says, ‘the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.’”
But even Duncan’s qualifier of “high-performing” acknowledges that not all charter schools are serving low-income kids well. In its last year, the Education Department and education policy experts have been more willing to talk about how poverty affects schools and acknowledge that well-prepared, passionate teachers are just one factor in how much a child benefits from public education.
How rhetoric has shifted against charter schools
During the 2016 presidential race, there was evidence of tension between liberal education reformers, teachers unions, and union allies. When 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke at an annual conference held by the National Education Association — the biggest labor union in the United States —the crowd booed at a brief mention of charter schools. But for the most part, Clinton embraced rhetoric that favored teachers unions, which are major contributors to liberal groups and Democratic campaigns.
Clinton even made some anti-charter statements, earlier in her campaign. When journalist Roland Martin asked about the expansion of charter schools and vouchers on during a town hall last November, Clinton said that the majority of charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”
These tensions were exposed yet again when the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter school growth and said that the moratorium would end when expansion didn’t result in “de facto segregation.” The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), another teachers union, supported the NAACP’s resolution.
Charter school leaders, including civil rights activist Howard Fuller, stood in opposition. Fuller said, “You’ve got thousands and thousands of poor black parents whose children are so much better off because these schools exist.”
“The losers in an education marketplace are going to be the most disadvantaged kids.”
National teachers unions oppose charter school expansion because they argue charter schools drain traditional public schools of funding and have limited oversight. Many traditional public school teachers are also uncomfortable with non-unionized schools, since only about seven percent of charter schools have unions.
Now that a DeVos pick is galvanizing opposition to the expansion of charter schools and vouchers, where does that leave charter schools with progressive missions, charters that do not fiercely oppose oversight, and charters that argue schools should not be for-profit or online-only? DeVos’ record in Detroit — which reformers and teachers unions alike agree is abysmal — might provide progressive charter advocates with an opportunity to separate themselves from failing online charter schools, charter schools with zero tolerance policies, and for-profit charter schools.
Will teachers unions and charter advocates work together?
Halley Potter — a fellow at The Century Foundation whose work focuses on charter schools, school integration, and preschool equity — said this is an opportune moment for charter school supporters to explain how non-profit, accountable charter operators can provide better access and results for disadvantaged students than a private voucher model would.
“If you take those public funds and use them instead for a private school voucher model, you are giving up that key public accountability,” Potter said. “I do think it would be in the interest of teacher unions to make a strong case for keeping public money in public institutions and also thinking about stepping up the work of unionizing charter schools.”
Potter added that lack the voucher model exacerbates issues of access and influence in education. It may appear that families have a lot of choices, but the reality differs significantly depending on how advantaged a family is.
“It’s likely the losers in an education marketplace are going to be the most disadvantaged kids and families that don’t have the same access to information, time, and resources needed to find the best school options,” Potter said. “So in that respect, we may see folks on the left who have been resistant to charter schools in a lot of ways realizing it’s not a unified sector, that accountability matters, and that what goes on in inside the school matters.”
Both of these issues — lack of oversight and transparency over public funds, and greater inequities in public education — should unify many charter school advocates and teachers unions, Potter said. Faced with the possibility of a greater threat — vouchers that benefit private schools — teachers unions could do more to embrace charter schools that meet the accountability standards they advocate for. Potter has seen this more on the local union level than the national union level, she said.
The AFT has made many anti-charter statements when addressing the expansion of charters, but occasionally acknowledges that charters are not uniformly the same. AFT President Randi Weingarten has advocated for the unionization of charter schools, namely through AFT’s Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, and through her work at the AFT-affiliated United Federation of Teachers. AFT represents 227 charter schools in 16 states.
“You can be pro-charter and still be critical of things that charters ought not to be doing” said Weingarten in a conference call with reporters last year.
Weingarten has also written in the Huffington Post that charter schools moved away from their original purpose as “innovation incubators,” as former AFT president Al Shanker originally envisioned them. (Shanker turned against the idea of charters in the early 1990s.) Weingarten wrote that “many charters cherry-pick their students, leaving cash-strapped public schools with higher populations of students with special or high needs.”
Many charter schools do appear to push out students with disabilities, and many others lack oversight and are mismanaged. An audit in the U.S. Department of Education from the Office of Inspector General found 22 out of 33 charter schools in the review had internal control weaknesses related to their relationships with charter management organizations; in some cases, there were instances of waste, fraud, and abuse.
Success Academy is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for possible discrimination against students with disabilities. A New York Times investigation of the Success Academy charter school network found 16 students were placed on a “got to go” list. Nine of the students eventually withdrew from the school.
“The Betsy DeVos nomination has provided the opportunity to expose the dismal record of many charter schools.”
But where does that framing leave charter schools that have progressive missions and aren’t attempting to dodge federal and state oversight? Although some of the AFT’s language on charters has been more measured, its anti-charter rhetoric is pretty high profile. NEA also has charter school members, but it takes a similar approach to addressing charter school expansion and has opposed state efforts to expand the number of charter schools.
In a statement to ThinkProgress on AFT’s approach to talking about charter schools, Weingarten said the AFT is addressing charter school teachers’ frustrations, such as job security and high teacher turnover. Weingarten said, “The Betsy DeVos nomination has provided the opportunity to expose the dismal record of many charter schools, especially the unaccountable for-profits in Michigan, especially in Detroit, that she vigorously promoted.”
She gave examples of charter schools that are high-achieving and unionized, such as Ben Franklin High School and Morris Jeff Community Schools in New Orleans. “All schools funded with public taxpayer dollars must be held accountable and be transparent and must be child centered — not motivated by profit or other ideology,” Weingarten said.
Charter school educators and advocates are ‘homeless’
Conor Williams, founding director of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group at the think tank New America, is skeptical that teachers unions will be motivated enough to publicly discern between high-performing charters with progressive missions and failing charters that are doing everything to avoid proper oversight. Opposing all charters, or at least appearing to by not highlighting good charters more often, broadens the coalition that opposes various education reform efforts, Williams said.
“It strikes me as likely that [unions] will continue to lump in all different types of school choice programs as approximately identical, if only because that has been a winning strategy for them for a while,” Williams said.
“You’re going to want to distance yourself from it, but have nowhere to really go.”
Although the unions have nothing to gain from working with a DeVos-led Education Department, reformers on the left are in between a rock and a hard place. Teachers unions don’t necessarily have the incentive to work with charter schools more often, and key pro-charter Democratic allies are about to leave office.
“They’re all in kind of a homeless spot now, where they don’t have the Obama, Duncan, [current Education Secretary] John King, representation in their own political wing anymore,” Williams said. “DeVos is not necessarily interested in the way you’re doing their mission here in DC, where it is dominated by progressives who run schools and teaching schools because they care about equity for kids. Expansion of voucher programs, expansion of choice for the purpose of busting collective bargaining — you’re going to want to distance yourself from it, but have nowhere to really go.”
In a speech at The Center for American Progress, one of those departing allies, King, called on educators and policymakers to “reject false dichotomies and disparaging rhetoric,” even as they disagree on tactics.
“Let’s also resist a false choice between allowing public charter schools and supporting traditional public schools,” King said. “Our primary concern shouldn’t be the management structure of schools; it should be whether they serve all students well.”