Consistency, it turns out, can be inconvenient on the campaign trail.
It’s hardly shocking news, then, that Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has suddenly become a critic of public charter schools — despite a long and well-documented history as a leading advocate of charters. After all, she is now in debt to the two major teachers unions for their early endorsements, and their leaders loathe any challenge to the traditional public school establishment.
So it was that last week, at a South Carolina political forum moderated by journalist Roland Martin, Clinton unleashed a broad (and false) criticism: “Most charter schools… don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help… they need.”
Clinton’s argument is not only misleading, but it also puts at risk the level of enthusiasm she generates among black voters, whom she needs to turn out in huge numbers. Doesn’t she know that black voters are staunch charter school supporters?
First, let’s look at Clinton’s claim about charter schools and selective enrollment. Education headlines have been dominated of late by stories about a handful of high-profile charter schools that aggressively push out children with serious academic or disciplinary problems. But it’s unfair — and flat out wrong — to paint all charter schools with the excesses of a few. According to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the 2012-13 academic year, the percentage of students attending high-poverty schools — where more than 75 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunches — was higher for public charter students (36 percent) than for students at traditional public schools (23 percent).
The NCES has also found little to no difference between charters and traditionals in the percentage of students with an “individual education plan” because of special needs or disability or in the percentage of students with limited proficiency in English. Clinton should know that if she’s going to talk knowledgeably about K-12 education.
Here’s something else she should know: About 28 percent of charter school students are black, according to NCES, and about 29 percent are Latino. About 35 percent are white. As more urban systems convert traditional public schools to public charters, the number of children of color is likely to rise.
That’s no surprise. Black and brown parents have figured out that the traditional public school model is failing too many of their children, whose graduation rates and test scores lag behind those of their white peers.
Those parents often lack the financial resources to buy a house in a neighborhood with high-performing schools; the traditional public school district boundaries — and the rules that preserve them — are a barrier to their aspirations. So they want other choices.
Polls show that charter schools rank high on the list. In October, the Black Alliance for Educational Options released a survey of black voters in four states — Alabama, Louisiana, New Jersey and Tennessee. Majorities in each state favor charters. Roland Martin teamed up with TV One, where he hosts a black-oriented news show, to sponsor a similar poll earlier this year. It showed that more than 70 percent of black voters support charter schools.
In bending to the talking points of the teachers unions, Clinton risks a campaign that seems out of date, and behind the curve, on a critical issue. She should talk to Shavar Jeffries, who heads Democrats for Education Reform. An attorney dedicated to improving a dysfunctional K-12 education system, Jeffries also happens to be black. He told me he is a steadfast supporter of the innovative strategies for reforming schools that have been pioneered by President Obama’s administration, and he wants to see those policies continued.
“To backtrack on that legacy would signal to black and brown communities in particular that the special interests of a few are more important than the educational needs of our children… We hope that’s not the signal Secretary Clinton intends to send,” he says.
Not so long ago, Clinton would have stood up to those special interests determined to block progress for millions of school children. In her 1996 book, “It Takes a Village,” she wrote: “I favor promoting choice among public schools, much as (President Clinton’s) Charter Schools Initiative encourages. Federal funding is needed to break through bureaucratic attitudes that block change and frustrate students and parents, driving some to leave public schools.”
Clinton ought to go back to the future — and revive her advocacy for public charter schools.