President Donald Trump's adamant promotion of "school choice," and his selection of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, put Democratic advocates for charter schools in a bind. Some Dems are now scrambling to keep the well-polished luster of the charter school brand unblemished.
Their latest tactic is to carefully distinguish charters from the system of school vouchers Trump and DeVos favor. Dems serve their cause poorly, however, when they make mistaken claims about how the charter industry actually works in most communities, and underplay how these schools harm public education.
The latest misfire comes from David Leonhardt's op-ed in Monday's New York Times, in which he takes on DeVos and her preference for vouchers, yet also denigrates charter skeptics as people who need to get "an open mind."
It's a precarious tightrope Leonhardt attempts to walk, and he stumbles quite badly.
First, A Little Background
First, it's important to understand the source of the school choice schism in the Democratic party goes back 25 years, Jeffrey Henig explains in Education Week, when proponents of school choice came up with two different ways to achieve their goals: school vouchers and charter schools.
While conservatives favored vouchers, which were a creation of free-market economist Milton Friedman, political centrists and some left-leaning people became infatuated with charters because they were birthed by "business-oriented moderates and technocrats" who became the predominant force in the Democratic party during Bill Clinton's presidential administration.
Around the turn of the century, these two strains of school choice advocacy united after pro-voucher forces, largely funded by the Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame), encountered a series of stinging defeats at the ballot box and a rising tide of anti-voucher sentiment among the general public.
Voucher advocates welcomed their union with charter school fans because it gave their cause a bipartisan aura and some support from the civil rights community. "Charter proponents… welcomed the political and philanthropic support of the pro-voucher forces," Henig writes, because they needed rightwing leverage and money to undermine opposition coming from teachers' unions and public school advocates.
For conservatives, the bipartisan unification for school choice established the slippery slope to potentially privatize public education. Moderate and lefty supporters of charter schools, on the other hand, got a Faustian bargain that gave them credibility as "education reformers" and the favor of Wall Street investors, in exchange for colluding with the right wing.
With Trump and DeVos, the bargain Democrats made on charter schools has come due.
What Leonhardt Gets Wrong
So what's a charter-loving Democrat to do? Based on what Leonhardt writes for the Times, many are choosing to re-up their support for charters with false claims and deceptive rhetoric.
Leonhardt begins his column by calling attention to a new study showing the voucher program in the District of Columbia has had a negative impact on student achievement – a worthwhile news item to note, for sure. But it becomes quickly apparent that he brings the subject up not to lambast DeVos, but to miscast charter school skeptics as actors in a "caricature" debate over the fate of public education.
That's a convenient strawman which leads him to state there are those who "conflate vouchers… with charter schools," but he cites no credible sources to substantiate his belief that critics of DeVos and school choice are incapable of distinguishing between charters and vouchers.
Most concerning about Leonhardt's column, though, is the many misleading statements he makes about how charter schools actually operate and what their impact is.
He cites a few credible studies showing positive impacts of charter schools on student achievement, but he doesn't appear to have read credible reports that have found otherwise.
For instance, the most rigorous and most expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found no overall positive effect for charter schools.
A recent study of charter schools in Texas found charters overall have no positive impact on test scores and have a negative impact on earnings later in life.
Leohardt then piles on one misleading statement after another.
His assertion that "charter-school systems are subject to rigorous evaluation and oversight" is counter-factual to reports from the charter industry itself that show only about 3 percent of charter schools are closed for under-performing, and even those that are closed have operated an average of 6.2 years.
In Ohio, only one of 10 charter school students attend a school rated high performing.
In Michigan, charter schools score worse on national assessments, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” than their traditional public-school counterparts, yet their numbers continue to expand every year.
In Louisiana, charter-school students perform worse than public schools on eighth-grade reading and math tests by enormous margins – 2 to 3 standard deviations.
And if you want to find out how charter schools spend the money they get from taxpayers, your job isn't easy. Neither the federal government nor the states have created a place taxpayers can go to see how much in taxes these schools get and what they do with the cash, including what happens to real estate the schools purchase with the public’s money.
Leohnardt's next howler is his assertion that "Local officials decide which charters can open and expand." Actually, most often state boards or independent charter-granting entities make the decisions to open and close charters, not local officials.
If you're a local official in most states – including Arizona, Florida, California, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, – you have no idea if a charter school will pop up in your district and no control over what kind of students the charter will appeal to and how the charter will impact your budget.
In most states – including Florida, Tennessee, California, Illinois, Colorado, and Alabama – local officials who deny a charter application or seek to close a charter are frequently overruled by appointed boards set up by state officials whose political campaigns have been well supported by the charter school industry or its wealthy promoters.
The lack of local control in charter school governance is endemic, and is by design. In its rankings of state legal statues governing charter schools, the charter industry lists "the existence of independent and/or multiple authorizers," not local control, as a chief determiner of whether a state gets a top grade or not.
Leonhardt is wrong on this point as well: "Many charters are open to all comers."
I'm sure Leonhardt can find an inclusive charter here or there, but the fact remains there are no regulatory or statutory requirements that prevent a charter school operator from saying to a family, "Your child isn't a good fit for our school," and any attempt to put those requirements onto charters would be fought tooth-and-nail by the charter industry and its powerful lobby.
Who Really Needs "An Open Mind"
Lastly, Leonhardt offers a "political compromise" of "fewer vouchers, more charters," and he accuses anyone unwilling to take that deal of not having "an open mind."
But expanding charters comes at a considerable cost to taxpayers as many of these schools continue to fleece the public coffers while traditional public schools lose vital resources.
According to the latest accounting of charter school fraud, waste, and mismanagement, conducted by the Center for Popular Democracy, public funding of charter schools has grown to $40 billion annually while oversight of these schools has languished. CPD has identified over $223 million in public fund misuse by charters but argues this is merely "the tip of the iceberg." The total estimated loss may top $2.1 billion, CPD calculates.
Maybe that's a subject Leonhardt can open his mind to.