Why Charter School Proponents Have Lost Many of the Democrats Who Once Supported Them

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By Jeff Bryant, a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm. Produced by Our Schools;, a project of the Independent Media Institute

The politics of charter schools have changed, and bipartisan support for these publicly funded, privately controlled schools has reached a turning point. A sure sign of the change came from Democrats in the House Appropriations Committee who have proposed a deep cut in federal charter school grants that would lower funding to $400 million, $40 million below current levels and $100 million less than what the Trump administration has proposed. Democrats are also calling for better oversight of charter schools that got federal funding and then closed.

This is a startling turn of events, as for years, Democrats have enthusiastically joined Republicans in providing federal grants to create new charter schools and expand existing ones.

In explaining this change in the politics of charter schools, pundits and reporters will likely point to two factors: the unpopularity of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, an ardent charter school proponent, and teachers’ unions that can exert influence in the Democratic Party. But if the tide is truly turning on bipartisan support for charter schools, it is the charter industry itself that is most to blame.

Dems Divide on Charters

For years, support for charter schools has been the norm in the Democratic Party.

The Obama administration dramatically expanded federal support for charter schools with the avid support of Democrats in Congress. A slew of Democratic governors, from Andrew Cuomo in New York to former Governor of California Jerry Brown, have been charter champions.

Candidates in the Democratic Party presidential primary who’ve been highly supportive of charter schools include Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. Other Democratic presidential contenders who are newer on the scene such as Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke have connections to charter schools or their supporters.

Even in the first year of the Trump administration, as Democrats rejected the education budget put forth by U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos, they voted with Republicans for the Trump administration’s increase in funding for the charter school grant program.

But the divergence in charter school politics was certainly visible in 2018 elections when Democrats flipped seven governor seats and brought into office new leaders who expressed strong skepticism of these schools. In races for seats in the U.S. House and in state legislatures, the largely uncontested playing field charter school proponents have enjoyed in nearly two decades of elections was thick with formidable opponents who campaigned against an open-wallet policy for charters.

The growing divide over charter schools in the Democratic Party is a reflection of what’s happening among voters. A recent Gallup survey showedsupport for charters among Democrats eroding from 61 percent in 2012 to 48 percent, while Republican support remained steady at 62 percent over the same five years.

Now candidates in the Democratic presidential primary are taking cautious approaches to talking about charters. When CNN correspondent Jake Tapper recently asked Booker whether he was “part of the charter school movement,” Booker declined to answer the question directly, responding instead that he is for “solutions.” Tapper replied, “It seems you’re reluctant to say you’re part of the public charter school movement.”

What Happened?

Serious analysts of charter school politics can point to multiple factors that are changing alignments.

The drumbeat of reports revealing corruption, fraud, and blatant profiteering in the charter school industry has certainly penetrated the conversation.

News outlets reportthe legislation proposed by House Democrats was influenced by a recent analysis which found that as much as $1 billion in federal money was wasted on charter schools that never opened or that closed because of fraud, mismanagement, other issues. That analysis, which I coauthored with Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, urged the department of education to follow through with recommendations from a 2018 federal audit of charters, a recommendation House Democrats have also taken up.

Concerns over widespread charter school corruption have mushroomed as news of scandals have become near-daily occurrences across the country, including from Arizona, Florida, California,Georgia, Nevada, and New Mexico.

Also, teachers who recently walked off the job to protest unchecked charter expansion in Los Angeles, Oakland, West Virginia, and Jefferson County, Kentucky, have helped to shift the politics of charter schools by pointing out that charters, as they are currently conceived and operated in most places, now pose an existential threat to public school systems.

The politics of charter schools have also changed in the African American community. Urban communities of color that were supposed to be the intended beneficiaries of charter schools have now become intense battlegrounds where expansions of these schools are increasingly strongly contested. When prominent civil rights groups including the national NAACP, the Movement for Black Lives, the Journey for Justice Alliance, and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools and for stronger oversight of these schools, it signaled to Democrats that two of the party’s strongest factions, labor and civil rights groups, have come together on resistance to school privatization.

Charter Schools’ Pogo Moment

But the charter school industry’s worst enemy is undoubtedly itself.

When the whole idea of creating a charter school to serve as a laboratory of innovation for educating special needs students transformed into a movement, and then an industry, the goal changed from a collective effort of local citizens to educate children to become a scourge of low-quality institutions devouring the common good for the sake of its own growth.

While stories of corrupt and low-quality charter schools have become routine in local and national news, the charter industry has continued to argue that government regulation and the ineptness of charter authorizers are the only problems and that there could not possibly be anything wrong with charters themselves.

As numerous research reports continue to reveal charter schools increase segregationof students on the basis of race, income, and ability, the charter industry responded by denying and then ignoring the problem.

“What was once billed as a model for the improvement of traditionally governed public schools,” writes the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, “has become a troubled parallel system of privately managed schools with, in many places, patterns of waste, fraud, and segregation.”

In that piece, Strauss includes a lengthy analysis by Burris asking whether charter schools can be rehabilitated and reconnected to their original mission. Her conclusion—after weighing the frequency and seriousness of scandals, the persistent evidence of discrimination and segregation, and the depletion of public school funding—is “a resounding no.”

The fact there are numerous charter schools that do wonderful work will continue to provide fodder for charter fans to refute Burris’ argument. But charter schools will be an increasingly contentious political issue—and deservedly so. In her piece, Strauss points to an observation I made in 2013, that charter school enthusiasts who had concerns about creating good schools had come to a Pogo moment when their search for an enemy had led “to a mirror.” Clearly, six years ago they liked what they saw. Now they’re paying the political consequences for that.

To learn more about school privatization, check out Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, a free ebook published by the Independent Media Institute.

Click here to read a selection of Who Controls Our Schools? published on AlterNet, or here to access the complete text.

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17 comments

  1. Michael Fiorillo

    In a perverse way, we can thank Trump for this turn of events, since it’s hard to square charter supporters’ talk about “miracle schools” and “the civil rights movement of our time” with their cashing checks from De Vos.

    Prior to this turn of events, I can’t begin to tell you how many debates I’ve had with obtuse liberals who were vehicles and vectors for corporate ed reform propaganda, and whose entire views on education were verbatim talking points from the so-called reformers, often gleaned from places like PBS and NPR…

    Reply
    1. Robert Valiant

      US public education reform has always been about capturing as much as possible of the 60% to 70% of all education spending dollars, state and federal (roughly equivalent to on-books military spending), represented by teacher salaries+benefits. It’s a huge sum of money that has been shielded from “market competition,” “innovation,” and speculative investment – and that’s what capitalism is about.

      Neo-liberal, “standards-based” publicly funded/private profit “charter schools” are just scientific management analogs of McDonald’s restaurants. People seem to love to eat there, but who is ever going to claim a giant box of fries is good for you?

      Public education administrators, consultants, and bureaucrats (I was all of those) proved to be useful idiots in the education reform scam for a quarter of a century.

      Reply
        1. Robert Valiant

          Capitalism is one system within which business can be conducted. Business ≠ capitalism. The business of public education is the instruction of children, or at least it should be.

          Reply
          1. Norb

            What needs to take root in people’s minds is that Education ≠ Commerce. But then again, when ones life is consumed by the notion of making money, the world is open to all sorts of abuse.

            The relentlessness of capitalist ideology is what is destroying the world. It is like a multi- headed Hydra.

            Reply
          2. Virginia Bucci

            The countries of Scandinavia and the Netherlands are decidedly capitalist, but manage the ed conundrum within their socialist democracies rather well. Sweden took a detour into US/UK-style privatized alternatives and saw their PISA scores plummet over a decade; they’re backpedaling. Netherlands is very interesting as a country that has long (125 yrs) had private alternatives—2/3 their students attend them today. But it’s a very different style of “private.” Profits are verboten, as are individual owners. Schools are created ground-up by local families—all are hand-held through implementation by natl dept of ed reps, & inspected annually w/results published publicly. All these “private” schools are held, like the publics, to the natl stds & assessments; per-pupil allotment is uniform natlly [w/some COL adjustments], & all teachers must be paid according to the natlly-negotiated union scale.

            Reply
      1. Procopius

        How do these “reformers” continue to talk about “competition?” In what ways is education a “market?” Do they even know what a “market” is? Same goes for so many fields. When you only have two or three suppliers and entry is restricted either by government regulation or enormous capital requirements, how do you have competition? How do you have competition in treating cancer? In caring for heart attacks? In public transportation? The pretense is absurd and I don’t know why opponents of these neoliberal myths are not more straightforward about it.

        Reply
  2. Denis Drew

    I’ve always said that I don’t know why schools that have lower paid, higher turn over teachers should be better.

    Reply
    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Because one of the unspoken motivations of so-called reform is the de-skilling of the workforce, turning it into one with high churn, as elsewhere.

      Reply
  3. Joe Well

    To expand on the “segregation” issue, a big issue is that charter schools have siphoned community energy away from improving and integrating public schools.

    We have a real issue whereby discrimination in hiring (or euphemistically, “lack of diversity”) ends up getting baked into schools for decades because teachers can’t move between districts, they are tied to a single district for their entire careers once they achieve tenure. So if a district was not hiring “people of color” or other groups in the 1990s, they will continue to have a staff that is unrepresentative of their communities they serve well into the 2030s and possibly beyond. Also, the issue is not just race and ethnicity. Invisibly to the statistics, the white people in working class communities may not be represented, either: the staff end up coming from the more affluent suburbs. It’s not uncommon for a school system’s staff to have less than 25% of its members from the municipality it serves.

    We desperately need state and federal-level solutions to that conundrum. It will take a lot of activism to achieve those solutions. But many people simply lobbied for charter schools to “solve” this problem by creating new openings for diverse school staff, but as you can see above, they tended to make problems worse. Often, the staff ended up being almost as unrepresentative of the local populations as the public schools, and that’s on top of the enormous challenges in creating and maintaining schools which led to poorer student outcomes. And of course, the student bodies were segregated in the process.

    We need to openly acknowledge that a lot of people are desperately unhappy with the public schools status quo but also that the public school model is the best one and any solution has to be achieved within the public schools, including public school teacher and staff unions.

    Reply
  4. Anon

    It seems Charter schools have become another method for Divide & Conquer. The desire to get one’s child into the “best” K-12 school pits parent against parent. Even the Gifted & Talented education (GATE) programs alone seem to be creating animosity among parents in my local school district.

    A fair opportunity for a good education for all the nations children will require better funding for facilities, teachers, and related programs (food, housing, health, etc.). It is money well spent: smarter, healthy children make for better citizens. (And it’s a good trade-off from battleships; where waste & fraud abound.)

    Reply
      1. Anon

        Actually, some greater portion of money spent on education needs to go to programs to help solve student nutrition, after school activity, and other early interventions.

        Reply
  5. Paul Hirschman

    Charters are but one aspect of the effort to privatize public education. Bush and Obama, and their allies, sought to make the $600 billion spent on public education every year available to all sorts private education adventures. The one thing all these so-called education “reforms” had and have in common is that charter folks get public money upfront, to be used as a private income stream. Accountability was/is mostly absent–a first cousin of shadow banking–and children, their families and communities are left adrift when the charters go belly-up. It is one of the great neo-liberal market reforms that people like Brad DeLong argued would make the use of public dollars more efficient. It was a scam just as the S&L debacle was a scam in the 1980s. The only folks who did not lose were the guys who took the money upfront. Sound familiar? Obama, Bush, Cuomo, and the leadership of both parties generally owe US taxpayers billions of dollars of scammed money. Give public assets to private parties who promise to make gobs of money and improvements for cities, states, and public institutions. Really what person with any experience in the real world could believe such tripe? “Other Peoples’Money” chapter ONE!!!!

    Reply
  6. tongorad

    I teach at a public school in San Antonio, TX.For the first time in 40 years, my school district had enrollment decreases this year, due in part to the rapid expansion of charter schools in San Antonio.

    San Antonio Express News: Federal money to fuel charter expansion, including IDEA’s big San Antonio plans

    Texas Tribune: Charter Schools Could Get a Windfall in 2019

    Houston Chronicle: IDEA, KIPP Texas charter schools awarded federal grants totaling $200M

    Reply

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