It was only a week ago that Hillary Clinton sat down with journalist Roland Martin and laid out her criticisms of charter schools — that they don’t enroll the “hardest-to-teach” students and, even “if they do, they don’t keep them.”
Said in the midst of a presidential campaign that has seen little discussion of K-12 education issues (a recent poll of swing state voters found that two-thirds said they hadn’t heard any talk of education), Clinton’s critiques ricocheted through the ed policy chattering class at the speed of light.
Critics rushed to call her a flip flopper, noting her previous passionate support of charters. Fans rushed to applaud her assessment, proclaiming she was just telling the truth. Pundits calculated the political ramifications, while noting her recent high-profile endorsements from the teachers unions.
But now it seems the Democratic presidential hopeful is rushing to respond to the backlash, take back control of the charter narrative and clarify her position.
Late last week, Clinton policy advisor Ann O’Leary published a lengthy data-driven post on Medium trumpeting that, yes, Clinton does support charter schools but that her critiques about equity hold true. O’Leary writes that Clinton has long supported charter schools and their potential to transform students lives; in fact, as Clinton has suggested, traditional public schools should be able to distill and implement best practices derived from charter schools.
“Hillary Clinton has been a strong supporter of both public charter schools and an unflinching advocate for traditional public schools, their teachers and their students. She knows that all public schools play a role in providing pathways for every child to live up to their potential. This isn’t anything new. She’s been saying it for decades.”
But in carefully clarifying Clinton’s recent remarks, O’Leary says the candidate believes that charter schools should be held accountable and shut down when they are not working.
“Ensuring accountability and transparency is hard work. But those concerned about leaving students in failing traditional schools should be just as concerned about leaving kids in failing charter schools. This may seem obvious, but the evidence for accountability is clear: closing charter schools for poor performance contributes to improved student outcomes.”
O’Leary then pivots to Clinton’s case that charters benefit from selective enrollment, leaving public schools “often in a no-win situation because they do, thankfully, take everybody.” She cites a recent report from the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools which found that on average special education students made up 10.42 percent of total enrollment in charter schools compared to 12.55 percent of the total enrollment in traditional public schools. She continues that there is no “widely-accepted” answer for this enrollment gap.
“Some of the disparity may be attributable to charters counseling out students with disabilities,” she wrote. “However, some of the disparity may be the result of parents of students with disabilities wanting to enroll their child in a known program in the traditional public school or keep their child in a consistent environment. In that case, you may be less likely to choose a charter in the first instance or move them to a charter in the second.”
O’Leary’s lengthy policy argument, augmented by charts and citations, hit the web only a couple days after Clinton sat down for a roundtable discussion with members of the American Federation of Teachers.
The union recently released excerpts from that conversation, and again, she confronts charters head-on. When asked by an Ohio charter school educator how she would hold charter schools to the same standards as public schools and foster more collaboration between the two groups, Clinton repeats her calls for increased accountability: “They have to be held to high standards, and if they are working like the one you work at, why aren’t there more using the model that you have pioneered?” Clinton says. “And so, from my perspective, again, I want to go to the research. What are the good models and where are they found, and how do you do more of what works instead of reinventing the wheel all the time?”
In the week since Clinton spoke with Martin, education allies have rallied around her. In a call with reporters on Monday, Weingarten reportedly defended the presidential candidate from criticism surrounding her charter statements, arguing that Clinton can both support charters while criticizing certain aspects of the charter school movement. But critics have pounced, alleging that her anti-charter rhetoric is further evidence that Clinton is paying back teachers unions for their early and influential endorsement. (Clinton has stopped just short of saying the expansion of charter schools hurts traditional public schools). “Clinton’s script on charters might as well be written by AFT President Randi Weingarten,” read a New York Post editorial under the headline, “Hillary Clinton’s bought-and-paid-for betrayal of charter schools.”
Her new, carefully-calibrated commentary on both charter schools and test-based accountability is unlikely to squash that kind of criticism. In fact, it may actually add fuel to the fire that she is trying to pander both to the unions and pro-charter civil rights groups.
In an interview with The Seventy Four conducted a couple days after he interviewed Clinton, Martin himself underscored what he saw as contradictory statements: “She was in a sense trying to have it both ways and walk a fine line. What I mean by both ways: She was trying to certainly agree with those of us who believe in charters…she has already been in support of charters…but at the same time she was trying to recognize the support that she has from teachers unions. She was trying to walk that very fine line.”