How Populism Is Rewriting The Charter School Narrative

Jeff Bryant

In a political season that’s been dominated by populism it should come as no surprise that a grassroots uprising is having an effect on education policy as well.

Two recent events showcase exactly how the populist fervor in the nation is redrawing the education policy landscape. More specifically, that fervor is rewriting the story of the rollout of charter schools in our communities that’s been enabled by laissez-faire lawmakers,and the generosity of the Obama administration and wealthy private foundations.

Both events – one which reflects a national response to the populist uprising, and the other, an example of the uprising itself – reveal how a grassroots rebellion against unregulated charter schools is shaking the foundations of the education policy establishment’s narrative about these schools.

NAACP Calls For A Charter School Moratorium

First, university professor Julian Vasquez Heilig broke the story on his personal blog last week that the national NAACP has called for a nationwide “moratorium on the proliferation of privately managed charter schools.”

The NAACP resolution, which passed at the national convention in July but will not be official until the National Board meeting later this Fall, cites numerous problems posed by charter schools including their tendencies to increase segregation, impose “punitive and exclusionary” discipline policies on students, and foster financial corruption and conflicts of interest. (Disclosure: Heilig is a colleague of mine at The Progressive.)

Around the same time Heilig made his revelation, The Atlantic reported another prominent civil rights group, the Movement for Black Lives – a coalition of over 50 black-led organizations aligned with Black Lives Matter – also is calling for a moratorium on charter schools.

Other civil rights voices soon joined in support of the moratorium.

Journey for Justice – an alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 21 cities across the country – declares in a statement that its constituency of largely African-American local activists is “demanding the end of unwarranted expansion of charter schools.” Another voice for civil rights, the Internet-based collective known as Educolor, also issued a general statement in support of the MBL platform.

At the Hechinger Report, Andre Perry, a university professor and one of the early advocates for charter schools in New Orleans, explains why “the Black Lives Matter movement has to take on charter schools.” Perry writes, “Many of the theories and practices many of us are fighting against in the criminal justice arena are still openly embraced by many charter schools.” Specifically, he cites the tendencies of charters to practice “no excuse” models of education that enforce strict behavior codes and produce high rates of out-of-schools suspensions.

Nashville Defeats Charter School Dark Money

While the reputation of charter schools took a hit at the national level, those schools and what they’ve come to represent in communities were also rejected at the local level in a school board election in Nashville.

A year and a half ago, I reported firsthand from Nashville on how local schools in the district were under assault by the twin forces of a right-wing agenda driven by the Koch Brothers and a collusion of business interests and private foundations intent on privatizing the schools. In my article for Salon, I explained how three school board members – Will Pinkston, Jill Speering, and Amy Frogge – had determined to represent the will of their voters, rather than the interests of big money, and resist the onslaught of charters.

“It’s immoral to force this kind of change on people who don’t want it,” Pinkston told me in my interview with him. “It also diminishes the odds of success.”

In last week’s board election, the three incumbents plus an open seat were targeted for takeover by the wealthy interests behind charter schools. As local blogger TC Weber explains, charter advocacy groups and the local Chamber of Commerce invested many hundreds of thousands of dollars to knock off their opponents and elect a pro-charter majority to the board.

One of the pro-charter interests is Stand for Children, which classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene identifies as an “AstroTurf organization” backed by rich foundations and wealthy individuals connected to the investment industry. SFC’s involvement included over $700,000 to pay for campaign mailers and phone-banking and direct orchestration of volunteer and paid canvassers, which likely violates federal election law.

Despite the outpouring of cash and influence, as a Knoxville news outlet reports, the big money behind charter schools lost. “After spending a small fortune, all four candidates [charter advocates] backed in the Metro Nashville school board election and a handful of state GOP primary challengers lost their races.”

The results of the Nashville election reverberated to the national scene where education historian Diane Ravitch, on her popular personal blog, called it, “A great lesson about how parents can beat Dark Money.”

Rewriting The Narrative

The way pro-charter advocates have responded to these two events is telling.

Regarding the civil rights groups’ calls for a charter moratorium, the pro-charter response has been a hissy-fit driven by fiery rhetoric and few facts.

Shaffar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, a Washington D.C.-based charter advocacy financed by hedge funds, issued a statement declaring the NAACP resolution a “disservice to communities of color.”

In a nationally televised newscast, Steve Perry, founder and operator of a charter school chain, lashed out at Hilary Shelton, the Washington bureau director of the NAACP, for being a sellout to the teachers’ unions and for abandoning children of color.

The contention that the NAACP has sold out to teachers’ unions holds little water since that organization has been a recipient of generous donations from pro-charter advocates as well. And any argument that curbing charters is a de facto blow to black and brown school kids is more a rhetorical trope than a factual counter to the evidence NAACP cites, showing where charters undermine communities of color.

Regarding the defeat of big money-backed pro-charter candidates in Nashville, the usual outlets for charter industry advocacy – Democrats for Education Reform and the media outlets Education Post and The 74 – have been totally silent.

These responses are telling because the charter industry has heretofore been such masterful communicators.

Advocates for these schools have long understood most people don’t understand what the schools are. Even when presidential candidates in the recent Democratic Party primary ventured to express an opinion about charters, they horribly botched it.

So for years, the powerful charter school industry has been filling the void of understanding about charters with clever language meant to define what these schools are and what their purpose is.

The schools, we’ve been told, are “public,” even though they really aren’t. They’re supposed to outperform traditional public schools, but that turns out not to be true either. Even when the charter industry has tried to cut the data even finer to prove some charters outperform public schools, the claims turn out to be grossly overstated.

We’ve also been told charter schools are a “civil rights cause.” Now it turns out even that’s not quite the case.

Of course, charter school propagandists still have plenty of rhetorical arrows in their quiver. But what’s abundantly clear is that while they’ve been completely free to write the charter school narrative in their own words, now the people are telling their version of the story. And the ending is no doubt going to look way different.

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