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Photo Credit: Getty Images
June 25, 2017
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I spent some time earlier this month walking the halls of D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center for the National Charter Schools Conference. It was a diverse crowd: thousands of education leaders from Hawaii to Massachusetts engaged in myriad conversations about charter school instruction, staffing, financing, and more. Folks were excited to be in the capital and eager to learn more about how shifting federal priorities could influence the charter school movement.
One thing stood out, however. With a few exceptions, the closer attendees worked to kids and schools, the more skeptical they were of President Trump. Teachers, principals, charter school operators were almost uniformly pessimistic about the current administration — particularly the president’s budget proposal. By contrast, the conference’s wonks, consultants, and advocates were, by and large, much more open-minded about Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who addressed the conference on the third day.
(The 74: DeVos Urges Charter Advocates to Embrace Wider View of School Choice, Warns Them Not to Become ‘The Man’)
The dichotomy was striking, and, to be honest, could be a bad sign for the charter movement’s future.
See, to call American education politics of the past 20 years screwy is a heavy understatement. Even as political polarization has advanced across the board, the fault lines in education have remained stably cross-partisan. For instance, arch-conservatives like former senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) sometimes found common cause with reliably liberal groups like the National Education Association, while the late senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) was able to work with former president George W. Bush to craft, draft, and pass No Child Left Behind.
Why? One big reason: Education isn’t even vaguely a determinative political issue for most voters (especially at the national level). That gives policymakers room to be politically idiosyncratic. If a congresswoman (or a presidential candidate, etc.) can count on support from the Republican base so long as she hews to the party line on immigration, foreign policy, taxes, and so forth, she can experiment with coalition-building when it comes to schools.
Naturally, many education reformers haven’t noticed the upside of being outside of the top tiers of American political wars. It doesn’t feel right that education, so central to our present and future community and prosperity, should be something that matters far less to the median U.S. voter than whether or not the country builds a wall on its southern border. There’s got to be a way to make kids, teachers, and schools central to American politics, right?
So far, no one’s really found a way.
People who thought Arne Duncan was a starting power forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1980s have strong opinions on DeVos’s platform of policy ideas.
But in this, as in so many other things, President Trump’s blundering assaults on normal presidential behavior may have unexpectedly shifted the political terrain. Mostly unintentionally, he and his administration have managed to elevate education to a position of relatively rare prominence. Since her awkward, fumbling confirmation hearing, and aided by a string of embarrassing gaffes, Secretary DeVos has become one of the administration’s most prominent faces. She has Americans who didn’t think about education policy for more than 10 minutes last year thinking about privatization of the public education system. People who thought Arne Duncan was a starting power forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1980s have strong opinions on DeVos’s platform of policy ideas.
There you go: Education is hot! It matters! We’re having a national debate about American schools! Unfortunately for reformers, Trump and DeVos are the ones driving it.
See, DeVos appears to have only one major education idea. She is passionate about expanding school choice policies. Sure, she seems to be engaged in reducing the federal government’s involvement in directly protecting the civil rights of underserved students, among other common Republican projects, but the engineering of more private alternatives to public schools appears to be her passion. Every major speech elaborates that position or distorts other education issues to fit that lens.
On the merits, the “school choice as panacea” platform has little to recommend it. Voucher programs have not historically proved to work better for the kids they serve. States with lightly regulated charter school sectors (especially those that include many online charter schools) tend to get similarly ineffective results.
The school choice policy toolkit isn’t entirely hopeless. Schools in states with significant charter oversight (especially when it includes meaningful school accountability) tend to produce strong student achievement. That’s why high-performing charter schools have long been the linchpin for the reform movement’s transpartisan character. They generally offer historically marginalized communities a genuine chance at choosing a high-quality education for their children. They are why so many progressives support school choice: With oversight, it can be an enormous boon for these families.
That gets at the split at the conference — and why it could be such an inauspicious sign for charter schools in general. DeVos’s embrace of school choice for its own sake, divorced of evidence that it’s working, represents a significant shift. Insofar as she becomes the prime spokesperson for education reformers, she could significantly narrow the coalition.
Consider this relatively likely scenario: the Trump administration moves forward with its regularly reiterated plans to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and begins proceedings to close the border to Muslims. Meanwhile, his Department of Education announces plans to establish a large federal grants competition with billions of dollars available to states who expand their charter school sectors … Progressive education reformers eager to have more high-quality school options available for these kids would clearly be tempted to support such a proposal. And yet, any engagement on this would also be a tacit normalization of the extraordinary damage that Trump’s immigration proposals are likely to do to U.S. politics, governance and civil society. Civil rights organizations sympathetic to education reform would be understandably confused to find progressive allies denouncing Trump’s radical immigration policies while assisting his administration’s work on education.
Lamentably, we’re living out something like that hypothetical today. By reducing education reform to a univocal movement focused on the expansion of school choice, the Trump administration is straining the old education reform alliance.
Because if you’re a charter school policy wonk, you’re cheered by the administration’s proposed increase in the federal charter schools program. You tend to be in this work for intellectual reasons that triangulate off of your political leanings, which don’t necessarily involve the grinding work of being in and around classrooms on the wrong side of a host of American structural inequities.
You’re often a fan of charters because they’re a successful subset of school choice, and then you gather the shine of their success to take an optimistic view of vouchers. Critically, this theoretical interest makes you less attuned to the practical ways that voucher programs can threaten charter operators (private competition for public dollars strains districts and public charter budgets). Your primary opponents have long been ideological foes (unions, districts, etc.), and while you may be uncomfortable with Trump and/or DeVos, you can sublimate some of that anxiety beneath your eagerness to win more of the long-standing fights you’ve waged against those other foes.
But, see, if you work with 1) kids and 2) school budgets, you are more likely to 1) be skeptical of ethno-nationalist rhetoric about immigrant children and kids of color, and 2) feel the hypothetical pinch of Trump’s weak education budget proposal. If you work at the front lines of education reform, you’re deeply aware of the obstacles that kids from low-income families face. Trumpian and Republican rhetoric attacking these families’ work ethic or patriotism doesn’t wash.
Over and over at the conference, I heard charter school educators explain how worried they were over the Trump administration’s approach to immigration, its theory of action for supporting choice, and more. Over and over, I heard charter supporters who don’t work near the school or classroom level try to convince these educators to ignore their broader concerns and “do what’s right for kids.”
Devoid of context, it’s a reasonable sentiment. Trouble is, “what’s right for kids” goes well beyond using high-quality charter schools to provide evidentiary cover for the expansion of school vouchers. In an environment of political uncertainty, outsize child poverty rates, mass deportations, and growing xenophobia, a reform movement diluted to mean nothing but school choice is simply too thin to satisfy kids’ needs.