What New Challenges To The Charter School Industry Reveal

Jeff Bryant

Marking a 25th anniversary, charter schools and the industry that’s become synonymous with these schools expected big things in 2016, with the help of continued growth and funding, recent legislation lifting regulations and opening up new markets, and a mostly favorable regard for these schools among the public.

But as school year 2016-17 rolls out, the charter industry finds it faces formidable new challenges from many unexpected corners, including prominent civil rights groups, grassroots organizers, and an increasingly skeptical Democratic party.

What happened?

A new omnibus report helps answer that question by explaining what made charter schools an instant public relations hit, how they were able to fly under the radar of public scrutiny for so long, and why challenges to the sector are arising now.

This new period of contention and public questioning offers the charter industry an opportunity to reconsider and retool, not it’s PR apparatus, but its very mission and its tolerance for much needed regulation. But that change of course seems doubtful given the industry’s past.

Losing Civil Rights Advocates

Among the many challenges to the charter school industry is the clear loss of its support among many organizations representing African Americans.

As Education Week reports, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, recently ratified its previous call for a moratorium on new charter schools.

Recall, this summer my colleague at The Progressive magazine, university professor Julian Vasquez Heilig, broke the story on his personal blog that the national group proposed the moratorium, which would need to be ratified at the organization’s National Board meeting in October.

Shortly after Vasquez Heilig’s story broke, other prominent civil rights organizations issued similar statements about charter schools. The Movement for Black Lives – a coalition of over 50 black-led organizations aligned with Black Lives Matter – and Journey for Justice – an alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 21 cities across the country – also demanded the end of charter schools expansions.

So between this summer’s news and now, there was ample time for individuals and organizations that promote charter schools – often with the statement that they constitute “the civil rights cause of our time” – to consider where they may have gone wrong.

But that’s simply not how the charter school industry and it’s amply funded advocacy complex work. Instead, the many think tanks, PR shops, and lobbyists promoting these privately managed schools pushed every lever they have not only to condemn the moratorium but also to discredit the NAACP and these other groups.

Responding With Invective

One prominent proponent of charters branded the proposed moratorium as the “new Jim Crow,” according to Politico. He recommended charter school advocates combat these civil rights groups by recruiting celebrity supporters of charters, such as the rapper Pitbull, “to lift [charters] up.”

Charter proponents ignored the argument put forth by civil rights groups that, as an Education Week reporter put it, expanding charters means “black families and communities are losing control of their public schools.” They accused the NAACP and other civil right proponents of trying to end charters as an option for black families, which as university professor Yohuru Williams writes for Huffington Post, is not true. “They do not claim that all charters are bad,” he points out, “but declare that the unchecked proliferation of such schools represents a real danger to communities of color.”

Bowing to the influence of the powerful charter industry PR machine, the editorial boards of the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal issued scathing critiques of the NAACP, saying the organization “should do its homework,” that it’s “misguided,” and that it’s guilty of “leaving black children behind,” respectively.

Now that the NAACP has ratified its call for a charter moratorium, charter proponents are continuing the barrage of invective and unfounded assertions rather than taking stock of their opposition’s arguments.

Editors of the Wall Street Journal called the NAACP’s action “a disgrace.” An editorial for Forbes said the NAACP “turns its back” on black families. A post in one of the charter industry’s numerous media outlets declared, “The NAACP was founded by white people, and it still isn’t looking out for black families.”

But the outlandish rhetoric coming from charter proponents does little to change minds and instead reveals a movement that seems incapable of handling reasonable criticism and any option other than total supremacy.

Alienating Democrats

On another front, charter industry proponents find they face stiffer opposition than anticipated in Massachusetts where a ballot initiative in November, called Question 2, calls for lifting the cap on the number of charters allowed in the state.

As the Boston Globe reports, a recent poll “has the ballot measure failing by 11 points overall.” What’s startling is the margin of opposition among Democrats, where Question 2 is failing by 64 to 30 percent.

In another sign of weakening support for Question 2 among Democrats, a different poll taken in April found 45 percent of the Democrats supporting charter expansion and 34 percent against. When the poll was conducted again in September, just 29 percent of Democrats were in support and 54 percent opposed.

“Massachusetts’ 23-year-old charter school experiment has long enjoyed bipartisan support,” the Globe reporter observes, but that bipartisanship support seems to be a thing of the past.

As the reporter explains, “Prominent Democrats like US Senator Elizabeth Warren and [Boston] Mayor Martin J. Walsh have come out in opposition to Question 2,” but opposition among Democrats runs much deeper than that.

In August, the Massachusetts Democratic party voted to oppose Question 2, and more than 200 communities have gone on record to oppose the referendum.

While the Globe reporter states support for charter expansion remains strong in the black community – without citing any polling data to verify that – the waning support for these schools among civil rights groups at the national level would seem to contradict that assertion.

Of course, Question 2 may still pass, especially because of the tremendous amount of money coming from charter proponents outside the state to support the referendum. But the damage to the image of the charter industry resulting from this campaign will no doubt linger for years.

Who Controls Our Public Schools’

What the increasing number of challenges to the charter school industry reveal again and again is that support for these schools was never based on a strong foundation to begin with.

As the new report “Who Controls Our Public Schools: The Privatization of American Public Education” from the Independent Media Institute explains, “Rapid growth of charters did not come after wide debate and consensus. Instead, a privatized K-12 industry has taken root in forty-two states and Washington, D.C., and is expanding, despite many controversial premises and a track record raising serious questions about its academics, business models, and anti-democratic impacts.”

The report presents a comprehensive survey of the abundant news accounts and prominent studies documenting the origins of the modern charter industry, its incredibly successful public relations and marketing effort, and the significant problems it leaves in its wake, including widespread financial fraud and abuse, dubious academic results, and a weakening of democratic control of local schools. [Disclosure: I consulted on the report and am listed in its Acknowledgements.]

In recounting the history of charters, the report reveals how a cause originally supported by education reform advocates, including the leader of a national teachers’ union, was hijacked by libertarian ideology, advocates for big business, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who view the public education system as a playground for exerting their influence and ideas.

The report describes how the incredibly successful campaign behind charters – that relied on branding public schools as “failures” and pitched the private sector as the only source for solutions – was supported by “a powerful political, legal, and marketing infrastructure.”

The report authors argue charters have come to represent a force that “preempts traditional local control of public schools” and spends “hundreds of millions of dollars to promote itself … finance electoral campaigns up and down the political ladder and hire publicists who spread misinformation, aggressively lobby, and paint charter opponents as part of the problem they are solving.”

Perhaps most startling about the report is the repeated references to how the expansion of charters, and the many problems associated with them, was enabled by poor reporting from major media outlets and by government officials’ inability or reluctance to exert oversight of these schools.

“Lawmakers and mainstream media typically did not question the assumptions of the charter proponents,” the report continues, “especially when wealthy executives, who donate to campaigns, bemoaned public schools, praised charters, and demanded action.”

This “attack on traditional schools has been accepted by many state legislatures, which, in turn, have severed the oversight of neighborhood schools from locally elected school boards,” the report finds. “When state and federal lawmakers sanctioned charters, they typically did not discuss or anticipate that introducing the profit motive and deregulation would foster a business model encouraging financial corruption and self-dealing.”

Instead of calibrating regulation to address the problems spread by charters, the report explains, “efforts by auditors and some education regulators to produce greater accountability have been resisted … That hands-off approach by the education regulators is not an accident, but rather it is overwhelming evidence of the industry’s vast money, power, and influence.”

Despite calls for moratoriums and regulatory scrutiny of charters, charter movement leaders “keep sticking with the self-serving talking point that less transparency and accountability is a key to creating transformational schools,” the report asserts.

Thus, what we see in the charter industry today, the report explains, “was assembled one piece at a time, and with the help of compliant legislators and governors in state after state, a parallel world of rules and exemptions governing charter schools.”

Echoing the calls coming from prominent civil rights groups, the report urges that “state and federal governments should impose a national moratorium on the rapid growth of charters until the industry’s antidemocratic features and corruption-prone business models can be assessed and altered.”

Among the report’s many other recommendations are the imposition of new requirements and standards to make charter operations more accountable and transparent and a restoration of local school board oversight.

“Not only have charters consistently overpromised on the academic deliverables, but they have also introduced a business model into a noncommercial public arena that encourages nepotism, self-dealing, and self-enrichment based on diverting taxpayer funds and government-backed revenues,” the report concludes.

“Americans are beginning to catch on,” the report suggests. So should the charter school industry.

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