Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the ethicist, tells us that “justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217) Because public education is systemic and schools are operated according to the law, it is possible to ensure that public schools protect the rights and serve the needs of all children, while charter schools are designed to serve the choices of individual families.
Charter schools were set up according to a theory of social entrepreneurship—the idea that if you give individuals enough freedom, they will experiment and innovate and do a better job of meeting the needs of particular students one school at a time. Of course, our nation’s public schools have never fully embodied the principle of justice; like all core social institutions they have reflected the injustices and biases of the society they represent. But over the generations, as our society has begun to acknowledge racial and ethnic biases and realized that disabled people ought to be made full participants in our society, our representatives have passed laws and regulations to protect the rights of children formerly left out of the blessings promised in our nation’s principles. Our representatives in Congress passed Title I as part of the War on Poverty in 1965 to supplement investment in the public schools that serve concentrations of our nation’s poorest children. In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to help public schools pay for expert teachers to support the needs of disabled children. And the courts have protected the rights of immigrant children—even undocumented students—in the public schools. Further, in accordance with the principles of equity embedded in many state constitutions, courts in a number of states have been able to demand legislative remedies to support services for children previously left out or left behind. Justice in our nation’s public schools is, by definition, a work in progress, dependent on good leadership in the context of our nation’s ideals.
In this year’s race for President, the candidates competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination have consistently demonstrated a realization that social entrepreneurship in education—embodied in Race to the Top, for example—has not fulfilled our society’s definition of justice and inclusion. Privately operated charter schools—like their cousins, tuition vouchers for private schools—provide escapes from the public system that continues to serve over 50 million of our nation’s children. But not all of the escapes have been academically adequate; many have ripped off the public investment; and the existence of the charter sector has imperiled the public school districts from which the charter schools suck money. In many cases the growth of a charter school sector has left the public schools serving masses of poor children and immigrant children without essential operating funds.
Democrats have eschewed vouchers but for two decades have sought to, sort of, compromise—by claiming that privately operated charter schools are not really fully private because they are publicly funded. But they have at the same time been watching the damage to America’s public school districts and begun noticing that promised leaps in charter school academic achievement as measured by test scores have not materialized. The consensus on education policy now recognized by the majority of Democrats who ran for President this year—apart from devoted charter school supporters like Michael Benett and Cory Booker—is that justice for our children can best be realized by fully funding the public schools and working to intensify the effort to come closer to equity in public school investment across rich and poor districts.
Achieving equity in today’s alarmingly unequal society is an enormous challenge. In a stunning editorial last May, the NY Times editorial board declared: “Our urban areas are laced by invisible but increasingly impermeable boundaries separating enclaves of wealth and privilege from the gaptoothed blocks of aging buildings and vacant lots where jobs are scarce and where life is hard and, all too often short. Cities continue to create vast amounts of wealth, but the distribution of those gains resembles the New York skyline: A handful of super-tall buildings, and everyone else in the shade… Our cities are broken because affluent Americans have been segregating themselves from the poor, and our best hope for building a fairer, stronger nation is to break down those barriers.”
Joe Biden’s education plan recognizes how our society’s shocking inequity affects the public schools. He proposes to address long-standing funding injustices: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well. Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will first be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few. Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.’” Biden also pledges to, “Make sure children with disabilities have the support to succeed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act… promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education required by the bill. Currently, the federal government only covers roughly 14% of this cost, failing to live up to our commitment. The Biden Administration will fully fund this obligation within ten years. We must ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed.”
Last weekend, POLITICO’s Nicole Gaudiano questioned what she views as, perhaps, the political liability of Biden’s inattention to charter schools. Gaudiano blames the teachers unions, raising the tired old arch-conservative cliche that politicians who want to support traditional public education are mere captives of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. It is part of the long Republican cliche about the danger of unions in general and a remnant of Michelle Rhee’s screed that we have to put students first and protect our society from people who support adult interests. I suspect this sort of thinking also derives from some old biases we ought to have put behind us a long time ago—that teachers like child care workers are servants who ought to be working purely for the love of children without selfishly hoping to make a living.
Gaudiano explains that Biden may lose Black voters who want escapes from public schools and looks at the history of Democratic politicians supporting charter schools. She blames Biden’s support on the unions: “Charter schools have received support from presidents from both parties in recent years, including Bill Clinton’s push for the federal law to support startups. Obama is credited with launching the first federal program to replicate and expand high-performing charters. But the schools have always been a flashpoint, especially with powerful teachers unions who cast charters as competition for precious dollars for traditional public schools.”
It is interesting that Gaudiano quotes policy advocates from organizations known for prominently supporting the growth of the charter sector and of school privatization, but no organization working to build stronger investment in the public schools. She quotes Margaret Fortune of the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools; Michael Petrilli of “the conservative Fordham Institute,” Charles Barone of “the pro-charter group Education Reform Now,” Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the neoliberal Andrew Rotherham of Bellweather Education Partners.
Explaining that Black and Hispanic voters are likely to support charter schools, Gaudiano defines the future of charter schools as a matter of racial politics. She seems unaware that in 2016, the national NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, passed a resolution, “calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools at least until such time as: charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability 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 the 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 may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”
The Movement for Black Lives supported the NAACP’s resolution, and the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) has strongly advocated for urban public school districts where the needs of public schools and poor children are often ill-served by the expansion of the charter school sector. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the Journey for Justice Alliance as “a national network of grass roots community organizations in 24 cities… with more than 52,000 members across the United States.”
Strauss published a statement from Jitu Brown, J4J’s national director, explaining J4J’s support for the NAACP’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools: “To criticize the call by the NAACP, Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance for a moratorium on charter expansion and for the end of school privatization is to be tone deaf to the voices of the people directly impacted — and it is to ignore growing proof that corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children… We at the Journey for Justice Alliance are not anti-charter ideologues. Many of our members send their children to both traditional public and charter schools. We applaud charters that are truly centers of innovation and believe we should learn from them. Unfortunately, far too many are, in the words of esteemed scholar Charles Payne from the University of Chicago, ‘mediocre interventions that are only accepted because of the race of the children served.’… We called for a moratorium on school privatization because of the realities on the ground. They include: Most charter operators can find a way to get rid of students they don’t want, yet most of these schools don’t perform any better… Charters, as a component of the school privatization movement, have contributed to the national decline in the number of black teachers… Charters, which overwhelmingly serve black and Latino children, have increased segregation… The privatization movement uses deceptive language when promoting the growth of charter expansion. The notion of “parents voting with their feet” is often false. Look at what happened to Dyett High School in Chicago. In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase among high schools of students going to college in Chicago and the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. In 2011, it won the ESPN RISE UP Award, outperforming hundreds of schools across the country and winning a $4 million renovation to its athletic facilities. The next year, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett and open new charter schools.”
The Network for Public Education has published a series of in-depth investigations of fraud, instability, and mismanagement across the charter school sector. Broken Promises tracks the trend of sudden charter school closures leaving students stranded—sometimes mid-school-year—without a school. Charters and Consequences investigates fraud and corruption as tiny local California school districts collect state tax dollars to pad their own operating budgets by running shoddy storefront charter schools out of strip malls to draw students and these students’ state funding out of large urban districts. Finally the Network for Public Education has investigated the federal Charter Schools Program (here and here). These reports document the U.S. Department of Education’s failure to oversee its own Charter Schools Program due to lack of a rigorous process for selecting qualified applicants and the utter absence of good record keeping and oversight. The Charter Schools Program has seeded the startup or expansion of 40 percent of the nation’s charter schools but failed to oversee their operation—wasting tax dollars when more than a third of the schools it seeded never opened or quickly shut down.
It is too frequently assumed that when students leave a public school district to attend a charter school it is a financial wash for the school district: the student leaves; the student no longer needs services; the school district no longer has to pay to educate that student. Therefore, the assumption is that the school district suffers no financial penalty when charter schools are opened within its boundaries. Two years ago, In the Public Interest hired the political economist Gordon Lafer to investigate the contention that the growth of the charter school sector has been fiscally neutral for public school districts. Instead Lafer documented that one school district alone, the Oakland Unified School District in California, loses a net amount of $57.3 million each year to the charter schools located within its boundaries.
Lafer explains how charter schools serve as a parasite on the public school districts where they operate: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”
It is not only Joe Biden who seeks to turn the nation’s attention in this presidential election year to the critical need for equity in America’s public schools that serve 50 million of our children and adolescents. This year’s Democratic Party Platform declares the following principles regarding our public schools as the Party’s educational priority: “As Democrats, we believe that education is a critical public good—not a commodity—and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every child, everywhere, is able to receive a world-class education that enables them to lead meaningful lives, no matter their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability status, language status, immigration or citizenship status, household income, or ZIP code… Our public schools are bedrock community institutions, and yet our educators are underpaid, our classrooms are overstuffed, and our school buildings have been neglected, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color… Democrats believe we can and must do better for our children, our educators, and our country. We are committed to making the investments our students and teachers need to build equity and safeguard humanity in our educational system and guarantee that every child can receive a great education.”