Why Democratic Candidates for President Need to Stop Waffling About Charter Schools

On Monday morning, Diane Ravitch sent around what I believe is an urgently important post from Michigan’s Nancy Flanagan.  Flanagan, a retired, National Board Certified Michigan public school teacher and 1993 Michigan Teacher of the Year, previously blogged regularly at Education Week.  She now blogs personally at Teacher in a Strange Land.

In the post Ravitch highlights this week, Flanagan regrets that Democrats running for President continue to waffle about charter schools and too few people are holding them to account on this issue.  At a recent gathering with women discussing politics in her community, Flanagan tried to protest when someone supported Cory Booker’s candidacy: “I interrupted the happy talk: ‘His record on education is terrible. He’s an avowed charter school supporter who nearly destroyed the Newark Public Schools.  He’s a big fan of school choice, even vouchers.’ I looked around the table at a lot of blank faces.  One voice spoke up: ‘So? Why is that so bad?'”

Flanagan explains her own strong opposition to charter schools: “I believe charter schools have done untold damage to public education, and I’ve had twenty years to observe the public money/private management ideology establish itself in Michigan. First, a scattering of alternative-idea boutique schools, another ‘choice’ for picky parents. Then go after the low-hanging fruit, the schools in deep poverty—and then the healthier districts. There is now agreement with an idea once unthinkable in America: corporations have a ‘right’ to advertise and sell education, using our tax dollars.” (emphasis in the original)

Why are so many people complacent when it comes to considering the complex issues around charter schools? Flanagan believes: “Our citizenry is trained in consumerism—promoting education as just another choice to be made was easy, like FedEx or Blackwater instead of the USPS or the US Military.  Got a problem with the local public school? Don’t invest your time and money in fixing what’s already there.  Pick a new school. It’s the American way.”

Flanagan challenges such consumerist complacency: “Let’s invest more in fully public education…. Let’s acknowledge the places where (public schools have) crumbled and rebuild them, instead of abandoning them.  Let’s work toward more economically and ethnically diverse schools, making them places where building an informed citizenry and developing individual talents—not test scores—are our highest goals”

Reading Flanagan’s column caused me to consider what I would say if somebody asked me why it matters so much that the Democrats running for President refuse to take a courageous stand.

I’d begin by explaining that by waffling—trying to have it both ways about the issue of school privatization—the candidates are refusing to provide strong leadership.  A strong leader would demand that citizens consider all the reasons for protecting America’s most important civic institution.

Here are my seven reasons for believing Democrats running for President ought to express strong support for public schools and opposition to charter schools:

First:   The scale of the provision of K-12 education across our nation can best be achieved by the systemic, public provision of schools.  Rewarding social entrepreneurship in the startup of one charter school at a time cannot possibly serve the needs of the mass of our children and adolescents. In a new, September 2019 enrollment summary, the National Center for Education Statistics reports: “Between around 2000 and 2016, traditional public school, public charter school, and homeschool enrollment increased, while private school enrollment decreased… Traditional public school enrollment increased to 47.3 million (1 percent increase), charter school enrollment grew to 3.0 million students (from 0.4 million), and the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled to 1.7 million. Private school enrollment fell 4 percent, to 5.8 million students.”

Second:   Public schools are our society’s most important civic institution. Public schools are not perfect, but they are the optimal way for our very complex society to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all children. While our society has not fully realized justice for every child in the public schools, it is by striving systemically to improve access and opportunity in the public schools that we have the best chance of securing the rights of all children.

Third:   Charter schools are parasites sucking essential dollars from the public school districts where they are located. The political economist Gordon Lafer explains that the expansion of charter schools cannot possibly be revenue neutral for the host school district losing students to charter schools: “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.”

Fourth:   While some predicted the expansion of charter schools would improve academic achievement on a broad scale, children in traditional public schools and charter schools perform about the same.  According to the new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Academic Performance: In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools.”

Fifth:   Opposing for-profit charter schools misses the point.  In most states, charter schools themselves must be nonprofits, but the nonprofit boards of directors of these schools may hire a for-profit management company to operate the school. Two of the most notorious examples of the ripoffs of tax dollars in nonprofit (managed-for-profit) charter schools were in my state, Ohio. The late David Brennan, the father of Ohio charter schools, set up sweeps contracts with the nonprofit schools managed by his for-profit White Hat Management Company.  The boards of these schools—frequently people with ties to Brennan and his operations—turned over to White Hat Management more than 90 percent of the dollars awarded by the state to the nonprofit charters. These were secret deals. Neither the public nor the members of the nonprofit charter school boards of directors could know how the money was spent; nor did they know how much profit Brennan’s for-profit raked off the top. Then there was Bill Lager, the founder of Ohio’s infamous Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—technically a nonprofit.  All management of the online charter school and the design and provision of its curriculum were turned over to Lager’s privately owned, for-profit companies—Altair Management and IQ Innovations. ECOT was shut down in 2018 for charging the state for thousands of students who were not really enrolled. The state of Ohio is still in court trying to recover even a tiny percentage of Lager’s lavish profits.

Sixth:   Malfeasance, corruption, and poor performance plague charter schools across the states. Because charter schools were established by state law across the 45 states where charters operate, and because much of the state charter school enabling legislation featured innovation and experimentation and neglected oversight, the scandals fill local newspapers. The Network for Public Education tracks the myriad examples of outrageous fraud and mismanagement by charter schools.  Because neoliberal ideologues and the entrepreneurs in the for-profit charter management companies regularly donate generously to the political coffers of state legislators—the very people responsible for passing laws to regulate this out-of-control sector, adequate oversight has proven impossible.

Seventh:   The federal Charter Schools Program should be shut down immediately. Here is a brief review of the Network for Public Education’s findings in last spring’s Asleep at the Wheel report.  A series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated the federal Charter Schools Program (part of the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education) as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start up or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools across the country. The CSP has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants. The Network for Public Education found that the CSP has spent over a $1 billion on schools that never opened or were opened and subsequently shut down: “The CSP’s own analysis from 2006-2014 of its direct and state pass-through funded programs found that nearly one out of three awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015.”

Last June in The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner defined the political philosophy known as neoliberalism and showed how this kind of thinking has driven privatization across many sectors previously operated, for the public good, by government: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

For three decades, neoliberalism has reigned in education policy. The introduction of the neoliberal ideal of competition—supposedly to drive school improvement—through vouchers for private school tuition and in the expansion of charter schools has become acceptable to members of both political parties.

The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains elegantly and precisely what is wrong with neoliberal thinking in general. I think his words apply directly to what has been happening as charter schools have been expanded to more and more states. The candidates running for President who prefer to waffle on the advisability of school privatization via charter schools ought to consider Barber’s analysis:

“Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Profound Reflections on the Danger of Charterization and Privatization

Nancy Flanagan is a Nationally Board-Certified, Michigan school music teacher, retired after a 30-year career, and a fine columnist at Education Week.  In her newest column, Advanced-Stage Charter Syndrome: What ‘Maturity’ Means to the Charter Movement, Flanagan reflects on her own enchantment more than twenty years ago with the idea of helping to form a charter arts school, the lessons she and colleagues learned that caused them to abandon their dream, and how she now realizes that the collapse of the Detroit School District is bound together with the growth of charters.  Flanagan’s column traces her sobering journey over twenty-five years as a teacher who has come deeply to understand the importance of “the public” in public education.

“I am well-acquainted with early-stage charterism,” she writes. “The exciting idea that public education can be tailored to individual children, instead of ‘factory model’ learning.  The noble goal of giving a select group of children whose education would otherwise be unexceptional or dismal a fresh start…. No more red tape and stultifying restrictions—let freedom and flexibility reign!”

Charters may be publicly paid for, but they are always privately managed; they are an example of the privatization of public services.  In a number of instances the courts have deemed them private institutions.  Here is what Flanagan has learned in Michigan, (where today 80 percent of charter schools operate for-profit): “Well, I am here to testify that all the good intentions in the world cannot override the conversion of a long-established public good into a profit-making commodity.”  “I no longer believe that there is a magic legislative formula that will allow ‘good’ charters to exist harmoniously with public schools. I now understand that the end game of unfettered charterism is—and probably always has been—privatization and exclusivity. I live in a state where I am surrounded by hard evidence, gathered over time, of this principle.”

Flanagan continues: “A handful of high-functioning charter schools, spread over a large city or entire state, may be shining gems that do little to upset the ecology of public education…”  But “(I)n its advanced stages, charterism becomes predatory and cancerous. Building safe, functional environments for children whose (underfunded) public schools are chaotic morphs into clever ways to use public money to build edufiefdoms and line pockets.  Next—local, genuinely public, efficient, and serviceable education ecologies are impacted: Funding is reduced. Schools that were once filled and thriving must be shuttered. Programming is slashed. Democratically elected school boards are forced to pit popular programs and advocacy groups against one another….  Maybe charterism is just another expression of who we are becoming, as a nation.”

The late British historian Tony Judt examined the broader implications of widespread privatization in Ill Fares the Land, a short and profound reflection, published in 2010, on economic and cultural trends on both sides of the Atlantic.  Judt summarizes what has happened: “What did trust, cooperation, progressive taxation and the interventionist state bequeath to western societies in the decades following 1945?  The short answer is, in varying degrees, security, prosperity, social services and greater equality. We have grown accustomed in recent years to the assertion that the price paid for these benefits—in economic inefficiency, insufficient innovation, stifled entrepreneurship, public debt and a loss of private initiative—was too high.  Most of these criticisms are demonstrably false.  Measured by the quality and quantity of the social legislation passed in the U S between 1932 and 1971, America was unquestionably one of those ‘good societies’; but few would wish to claim that the USA lacked initiative or entrepreneurship in those high, halcyon years of the American Century.”(p. 72)  “Meanwhile, if we had to identify just one general consequence of the intellectual shift that marked the last third of the 20th century, it would surely be the worship of the private sector and, in particular, the cult of privatization…”(p. 107)

Judt summarizes the mythology that justifies privatizing public functions: “Why privatize? Because, in an age of budgetary constraints, privatization appears to save money… Meanwhile, by entering the private sector, the operation in question becomes more efficient thanks to the workings of the profit motive…” (p. 107)  Judt rejects these so-called benefits as a mirage: “What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. Contrary to economic theory and popular myth, privatization is inefficient.  Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss…. For just this reason, such public goods were inherently unattractive to private buyers unless offered at a steep discount.” (p.109)  Judt concludes: “The outcome has been the worst sort of ‘mixed economy’; the individual enterprise indefinitely underwritten by public funds.” (p. 111)

It is instructive to consider Judt’s warnings in the context of public schools—rejected as inefficient by advocates of privatization because of their dependence on well paid labor. Less regulated charters, we are told,  can avoid the unions which protect salaries, benefits and due process.  And charters can cut costs by experimenting with substituting computers for teachers for part of the day. And what about political pressure mounted in Albany that drove through a state law requiring New York City to provide charter schools free space or pay their rental fees in private facilities?

Judt explains how widespread privatization undermines citizens’ sense of public responsibility: “The result is an eviscerated society… This reduction of ‘society’ to a thin membrane of interactions between private individuals is presented today as the ambition of libertarians and free marketeers… There is nothing mysterious about this process: it was well described by Edmund Burke in his critique of the French Revolution.  Any society, he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, which destroys the fabric of the state, must soon be ‘disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality.’ By eviscerating public services and reducing them to a network of farmed-out private providers, we have begun to dismantle the fabric of the state. As for the dust and powder of individuality: it resembles nothing so much as Hobbes’s war of all against all, in which life for many people has once again become solitary, poor and more than a little nasty.” (pp. 118-119)

Ultimately there is also the ethical issue of winners and losers in a competitive environment.  Nancy Flanagan learned this as her first lesson about school choice.  She and her fellow teachers dreamed of creating an educational experiment when they imagined a charter, but the parents with whom they discussed the plan were instead seeking an elite environment for their own children: “We were thinking about teaching and learning in new ways.  The parents were thinking about screening and selecting the kids who would be their children’s classmates—a real perk since it wouldn’t cost them a penny in private school tuition.”  The teachers, writes Flanagan, gave up on the idea of a charter because of inevitable considerations about who the school would serve.

In his more philosophical analysis of privatization, Judt also reflects on the incapacity of markets to consider ethical concerns and other important human values: “(M)arkets have a natural disposition to favor needs and wants that can be reduced to commercial criteria or economic measurement.  If you can sell it or buy it, then it is quantifiable and we can assess its contribution to (quantitative) measures of collective well-being.  But what of those goods which humans have always valued but which do not lend themselves to quantification?  What of well-being?  What of fairness or equity (in its original sense)? What of exclusion, opportunity—or its absence—or lost hope?…  As the reader may observe, I am using words like ‘wealth’ or ‘better off’ in ways that take them well beyond their current, strictly material application. To do this on a broader scale—to recast our public conversation—seems to me the only realistic way to begin to bring about change. If we do not talk differently, we shall not think differently. In the beginning was the word.”  (pp. 169-171)