Why the New Push for Charter Schools Should Anger Progressives

Jeff Bryant

A new push by supporters of charter schools to promote their “education reform” agenda and vilify opponents should anger progressives. Those who mention the flaws and failures of charters are now being accused of “classic whataboutism.”

Specifically, David Leonhardt, in the opinion pages of the New York Times, draws a false equivalency in the debate on charter schools and accuses “the political left” of “fact-twisting” when they question the academic record of charter schools and their impact on communities.

“Both sides are to blame,” he says, in a debate over education policy that should be “more around facts than fixed beliefs.”

Leonhardt’s claims are akin to the way establishment Democrats admonish progressives for their support of universal healthcare and living wages, accusing them of being blinded by ideology and divorced from facts when they support these policies championed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

When it comes to education, this kind of false equivalency is dangerously misleading, as it obscures the longstanding effort by establishment Democrats to boost private operators of charter schools, avoids inconvenient truths about these schools and conceals its ideological agenda.

And rather than offering a reasoned argument for charters, Leonhardt and other proponents of these schools are attempting to recast their failed agenda as a success.

Where Are the Facts?

As Leonhardt calls for a more “fact based… nuanced” discussion about the supposed superiority of charter schools, one thing he fails to marshal for his argument is, well, facts.

As New York City parent and public school advocate Leonie Haimson writes on her personal blog, the “reams of rigorous research” supporting charter schools Leonhardt claims to exist are generally a no show in his article. Of the four links to charter studies Leonhardt provides, “three have nothing to do with charter schools, nor are they peer-reviewed studies.”

Because most studies of charter schools show they generally do no better in terms of academic achievement than public schools, Leonhardt’s main point seems to be, “Initially, charters’ overall results were no better than average. But they are now.”

His evidence of this is not clear since he doesn’t even bother to link to a research document. But likely what he means to refer to is a single study on the impact of charter schools in urban communities that contends charter schools generally helped students increase reading and math scores in these systems. But reviews of the study have cast doubt on its findings due to the researchers’ questionable methodology and the exaggerated way the results of the study were reported.

While it’s fair to weigh the evidence of charter schools’ impact on academic achievement against evidence that finds otherwise, Leonhardt chooses to ignore any controversy over the evidence at all, and claims, preposterously, he is the one being fact-based and non-ideological.

One non-controversial fact Leonhardt does bring up is the high propensity of charters to use overly-harsh disciplinary policies. His description of the student walkout over extreme discipline rules in a New Orleans charter school is not an isolated situation. Charter schools suspend students more often than public schools do, and the “no excuses” practices many of these schools employ can have negative effects on students.

But more revealing of Leonhardt’s ideological agenda to promote charter schools is what’s left unsaid in his piece.

See No Evil

Ironically, the very next day after Leonhardt’s piece ran, an enormous charter school scandal came crashing to the ground on the opposite coast.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, an operator of a charter school chain in the city, who also served on the district’s school board, had to resign after pleading guilty to using his publicly funded charter school, including its employees (even the low-wage custodians), as a source of funding for his school board campaign and then lying about it.

The day after, in Pennsylvania, a former head of an online charter school in the state was sentenced to serve 20 months in prison for conspiring to defraud the IRS, siphoning $8 million from the charter school he created to spend on houses, a plane and other luxuries.

Revelations of these legal and ethical violations on the part of operators in the charter school industry are a near daily occurrence.

Yet proponents of charter schools refuse to acknowledge any problems posed by having publicly funded school operations left completely unregulated, bereft of transparency, and accountable only to the very narrow range of test scores they can produce through intense test prep, selective enrollment, and pushing out of low performers.

The Bigger Picture

In his Times piece, Leonhardt refers to his previous op-ed in which he extols the success of the New Orleans reform effort that turned that city into a practically all-charter school district.

He notes that after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana took over the system and hired charter school management groups to operate nearly all of the schools. He cites statistical evidence of academic progress compared to students before the storm, based on research provided by an academician who has been given a $10 million, five-year grant from the Trump administration’s department of education to lead a new federal research and development center on programs favoring charter schools.

Yet findings that charter schools have yielded achievement gains for students in New Orleans still remain questionable. Over 20,000 children in New Orleans remain in D- and F-rated schools, based on state rankings, and schools are on a three-year slide, dropping 65 percent from 2014 to 2017. Most of the top-ranked schools are more than 50 percent white despite the fact 85 percent of our public-school children are African-American. And black students are far less likely to be taught by credentialed teachers, to attend schools ranked A or B, and to have access to advanced courses.

So evidence that charter schools have yielded academic gains n New Orleans or anywhere else are muddled at best. Nevertheless, establishment Democrats like Leonhardt argue charter school skeptics are the ones driven by ideology and twisting of facts.

There’s a reason for the desperate arguments promoted by Leonhardt and other charter school proponents.

Just as the general public supports progressive proposals for universal health care and minimum wage, surveys find that Americans have increased confidence in public schools while support for charter schools has dropped by double digit percentages among Democrats and Republicans.

Now there’s some facts for you.

 

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