Last week that nation’s largest labor union, the National Education Association (NEA), passed an important new policy statement on charter schools. In the test-driven climate created by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, annual standardized tests came to be seen as the yardstick by which all schools should be judged—and that included the privatized alternatives including charters and the private and parochial schools that accept publicly funded tuition vouchers. It has become clearer over the years that charters and vouchers have created serious problems for children, for public school districts, and for the communities where the charters are situated and privatization is occurring, except that until quite recently we’ve continued to look only at the test scores and conclude that schools that produce high scores are worth funding and low scoring schools ought to be punished. We have just looked right past the other problems.
Now people are having to pay attention to the injustices caused by school privatization, what economists call the negative externalities—what the rest of us are likely to call collateral damage. NEA names some of these problems in the introduction to the new policy statement: “The explosive growth of charters has been driven, in part, by deliberate and well-funded efforts to ensure that charters are exempt from the basic safeguards and standards that apply to public schools.” These efforts, according to NEA, “mirror efforts to privatize other public institutions for profit.”
And, efforts to privatize have particularly targeted the most vulnerable communities: “Charters have grown the most in school districts that were already struggling to meet students’ needs due to longstanding systemic and ingrained patterns of institutional neglect, racial and ethnic segregation, inequitable school funding, and disparities in staff, programs and services. The result has been the creation of separate, largely unaccountable, privately managed charter school systems in those districts that undermine support and funding of local public schools. Such separate and unequal education systems are disproportionately located in, and harm, students and communities of color by depriving both of the high quality public education system that should be their right… The growth of separate and unequal systems of charter schools that are not subject to the same basic safeguards and standards that apply to public schools threatens our students and our public education system.”
NEA proposes a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools unless two criteria are met. First there ought to be no more private authorizers, the kind of organizations that have too frequently been bought off by the big charter management companies or powerful local interests looking for profits from public tax dollars. (This last editorial comment is this blog’s commentary, not the NEA’s.) NEA says charter schools should be district-sponsored: “Public charter schools should be authorized by a public school district only if the charter is both necessary to meet the needs of students in the district and will meet those needs in a manner that improves the local public school system… in compliance with: i) open meetings and public records law; ii) prohibitions against for-profit operation or profiteering as enforced by conflict of interest, financial disclosure and auditing requirements; and iii) the same civil rights, including federal and state laws and protections for students with disabilities, employment, health, labor, safety, staff qualification and certification requirements as other public schools… Those basic safeguards and standards protect public education as a public good that is not to be commodified for profit.”
Second, NEA directly addresses the collateral damage that is now recognized to have devastated Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and other urban school districts: “(C)harter schools may be authorized or expanded only after a district has assessed the impact of the proposed charter school on local public school resources, programs and services, including the district’s operating and capital expenses, appropriate facility availability, the likelihood that the charter will prompt cutbacks or closures in local public schools, and consideration of whether other improvements in either educational program or school management (ranging from reduced class sizes to community or magnet schools) would better serve the district’s needs. The district must also consider the impact of the charter on the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic composition of schools and neighborhoods and on equitable access to quality services for all district students, including students with special needs and English language learners.”
What the members of the National Education Association are demanding here is a stop to the promotion of an expensive experiment that lets a few students with striving parents escape and leaves the rest behind in schools from which school privatization has sucked desperately needed resources. No more lifeboat strategy for a few. NEA wants to make its motto real: “Great Public Schools for Every Child.” That is, after all, what our society’s public education system was invented to strive for.
With its new policy statement, NEA joins our nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, which, last October, passed a resolution demanding a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until: “charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability of standards as public schools; public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system; charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate; and (charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations my be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”
Julian Vasquez Heilig, the California civil rights advocate and professor of education, reminds us that other civil rights organizations—the Journey for Justice Alliance and the Movement for Black Lives—joined the NAACP in calling for a moratorium on new charters until such conditions are instituted. Vasquez Heilig also shares the history of NEA’s new resolution: “Last summer the leadership of the National Education Association faced an uprising of sorts from grassroots educators demanding that more critical questions be asked about transparency and accountability for charter schools. In response, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia convened a twenty-one member task force on Charter Schools last September, charging members to ‘fundamentally rethink what NEA policy should be on charter schools.’ This past week, the task force delivered their policy statement to a representative assembly at the NEA, and it was overwhelmingly voted into policy by educators from across the United States.”
Vasquez Heilig adds his own sense of the history of charter schools: “Market-based education reformers would also have us believe that education reform has been a ‘mainstream’ movement over the past twenty years… But goals for charters are far from mainstream; they have been strongly influenced by neoliberal ideals for privatization and private control of education in the United States. Over the past year civil rights organizations, grassroots educators, and citizen supporters of public schools organized to push back against this direction of charter schools, and to demand a reassessment.”
The problems addressed in all these resolutions are clearly documented in studies by Bruce Baker, the Rutgers school finance expert; Gordon Lafer, the economist who studied the impact of charters in Los Angeles, and researchers at Roosevelt University who studied Chicago. Bruce Baker summarizes the overall problem we’ve ignored by judging charter schools merely by comparing test scores of children in those schools with the scores of their public school counterparts: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide…. Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.” Baker criticizes the way charters operate in too many cities: “One might characterize this as a parasitic rather than portfolio model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools….”
In a fine column last week for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant wonders why it has taken so long to articulate the injustice of school privatization and to incorporate these issues into our political conversation. Bryant queries the motives of Democrats who continue to try to have it both ways—opposing Betsy DeVos’s pleas for privatization through vouchers while at the same time neglecting to oppose poorly regulated charter schools: “Faced with disastrous Donald Trump, labor and civil rights advocates are rallying in common cause behind health care for all, a living wage for every worker, a tax system where the wealthy pay their fair share, tuition-free college, and an end to senseless, never-ending wars. Here’s another rallying point labor and civil rights agree on: A moratorium on charter schools. This week, the nation’s largest labor union, the National Education Association, broke from its cautious regard of charter schools to pass a new policy statement that declares charter schools are a ‘failed experiment’ that has led to a ‘separate and unequal’ sector of schools that are not subject to the same ‘safeguards and standards’ of public schools… The NEA’s action echoes a resolution passed earlier this year by the national NAACP calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charters and for stronger oversight of these schools… Democrats who continue to support charter school expansions under current circumstances risk muddying the waters at a time when there should be clear differences with what Trump-DeVos want. A moratorium on charter schools draws a a bright line between a political regime intent on serving the privileged and a Democratic party that seeks to uphold labor and civil rights. Democrats should step across that line.”