Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic presidential candidates are rejecting the Obama administration’s embrace of charter schools, and media observers aren’t taking kindly to it. “Minority Voters Chafe as Democratic Candidates Abandon Charter Schools,” blared a recent New York Times headline (11/26/19). “The front-runners for the presidential nomination are moving away from the charter school movement, and black and Latino families ask why their concerns are lost,” read the subhead.
The article itself was slightly more nuanced, reporting that the shift away from charters has left “some black and Latino families feeling betrayed”; buried deep within, the reporters note that “there is no consensus on charter schools among families of color.” (Black and Latino voters support charter schools at higher rates than do whites, but less than 50% view them positively; the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on new charter schools.) But the article also relied heavily on uncontested quotes from charter school founders and leaders, who accuse Democrats who would stop funding new charters of having “a lack of respect for black voters in the party” and “writing off years, if not generations, of kids.”
The pro-charter side was also given the floor a week earlier when the Times published an op-ed by Cory Booker (11/18/19) headlined, “Stop Being Dogmatic About Public Charter Schools.” (We could find no recent evidence of any pro-public school op-ed published in the paper in support of this “dogma.”)
Warren’s plan in particular has come under media fire, as the most recent education plan to be released (Sanders released a similar plan in May), and coming shortly after her brief surge to the top of the polls. In addition to a quadrupling of funding for Title I schools that serve primarily low-income families, tackling segregation, and increasing funding for schools serving students with disabilities, Warren is proposing an end to federal funding for new charters, a ban on for-profit charters, and holding charters to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools. It’s this smaller charter-focused piece of her plan that has gotten the most attention.
US News & World Report (10/29/19) helpfully framed the plan for readers: “Warren Embraces Teachers Unions Over Charter Schools.” The natural counterpart to “charter schools” here, of course, would be “public schools,” but the right likes to cast teachers’ unions as a “special interest” scapegoat for the failures of the country’s underfunded education system, and journalists have long been happy (or lazy) enough to adopt the rhetoric (Extra!, 9/10). The opening paragraph likewise took on pro-charter catch phrases, pitting “school choice supporters” against “teachers unions”—as if teachers are against educational opportunity.
In the Washington Post, which published three opinion pieces attacking Warren’s plan, the editorial board (10/28/19) vilified teachers’ unions repeatedly: Warren “took a page from the union playbook”; she put forth a “union-pleasing plan”; the plan “seems aimed more at winning the support of the powerful teachers unions than in advancing policies that would help improve student learning”; Warren did this because “the teachers unions wield outsize influence in the Democratic Party, and they revile the mostly non-unionized charter sector.”
Claiming to simply be defending poor parents and children is a hallmark of such pieces; “Children Are the Losers in Elizabeth Warren’s Plan for Charter Schools” was the headline of that Post editorial. When Sanders released his plan back in May, the Post was similarly on high alert (5/27/19), accusing him of “the most enduring—and unforgivable—civil rights offense in our country today”: “the consigning of so many poor, often minority children to failing schools.”
Washington Post education columnist (and longtime charter booster) Jay Mathews (11/2/19) used a single mother of four and school voucher supporter, Nikia, to frame his objection to Warren’s education plan. (“Vouchers?” you ask, scratching your head? Bizarrely, Mathews couldn’t seem to find a more recent or relevant example—he interviewed Nikia in 2005, before charters had become the school privatization vehicle of choice.) He patronizingly counseled Warren to “ask parents like Nikia” about her charter proposal. “I lack the space to discuss the many issues in Warren’s new education plan, but I think its charter school provisions overlook the needs of low-income parents,” he opined.
Likewise, according to a Wall Street Journal op-ed (11/15/19), Warren’s “plan would trap low-income minority students in unsafe, poor-performing schools, denying them the opportunity to learn.”
But it’s precisely the rest of the plan that gives the lie to the idea that Warren is the one overlooking low-income families’ educational needs. Mathews—unlike the Post editorial board or the Journal—does acknowledge Warren’s bigger investment plan, but he dismisses it as impractical:
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Unfortunately, it is likely to take many years, if ever, for Congress to provide such record sums. Children of parents such as Nikia need good schools now. The best charter organizations appear to be supplying some of those schools. Why should their growth be curtailed?
The Times piece struck a similar note, quoting a self-described “single mom with two jobs and five hustles” who says of her children: “They’re brilliant; they’re curious. It’s not fair. Why shouldn’t I have a choice?”
It’s a classic charter (and voucher) argument that manages to paint the policy as having only the best interests of the poor at heart, even as it promotes inequality by offering access to a few lifeboats rather than repairing the ship.
Problematic charter-funded data peppers these articles; the Times piece claimed the waitlists for charter schools are “swelling into the hundreds of thousands,” linking without comment to a charter-funded study from 2014 that critics have pointed out suffers from an abundance of methodological problems. The Post and Journal both point to a “Stanford University study” (by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes) that finds urban charters outperform public schools in math and reading, which likewise uses flawed and biased methods. (Neither note that CREDO is housed in the right-wing Hoover Institute, and funded by pro-charter organizations like the Walton Foundation.)
In fact, overall, charters have proved to offer no better education than public schools; some charters do quite well, and many do quite poorly, just like public schools. Nor do they provide any special benefit for students of color; a 2003 study from the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found that “for students from the same racial/ethnic backgrounds, reading and mathematics performance in charter schools did not differ from that in other public schools.”
But charters, which are exempted from most oversight and regulations governing public schools, have proved to be excellent vehicles for fraud, waste and abuse. A 2014 report by the Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education found charter operators using public funds for personal gain, mismanaging public funds and schools, illegally inflating enrollment to boost revenue, and putting children in danger, among other things.
The Network for Public Education found in 2019 that “hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funds have been awarded to charter schools that never opened or opened and then shut down.” As Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss (6/24/19)—who provides a rare space for criticism of charters in the paper—noted a few months after her initial coverage of the report, that may have been an underestimation of the waste, which could exceed $1 billion.
And Juan Gonzalez in the New York Daily News (5/6/10) documented how charter schools have become a favorite investment vehicle for hedge funds—thanks to a federal tax break that allows them to double their money in seven years.
In the Journal op-ed, the writers argue that despite an “avalanche of cash” poured into Madison, Wisconsin, public schools, racial disparities are the worst in the state, while the villainous “teachers union is thriving” and working to “limit school choice.” The piece neglected to note that white Madison students do quite well—it’s just the 6.5% of the population that’s black that suffers—and not just in the schools, but in the criminal justice system, housing, employment and healthcare. So the problem isn’t the funding, the unions, or the limits on school choice: It’s the systemic racism, which the education plans released by both Warren and Sanders explicitly attempt to remedy.