President Obama Was The Worst Thing To Happen To Charter Schools

OK, sorry, I don’t actually think President Obama was the worst thing to happen to charter schools. Apologies for the clickbait. Race to the Top was much less about charter schools than the rhetoric about it (charters were a small number of points) but his administration championed some innovative policies on charters, especially around replication of high quality schools. It also just helped having a Democratic president who championed them in the White House, charter politics being what they are among Democrats.

I would argue, though, that Obama’s election was the worst thing to happen to charter school advocacy and politics. That’s not because of anything he did, but rather because of what many others, especially beyond his administration, didn’t.

If you think back to those heady days of 2008 and 2009 you’ll remember the rhetoric. Arne Duncan was becoming Secretary of Education, that was a sign reformers had “won.” There was a whole book basically arguing reformers had cornered the teachers’ unions. People were giddy.

The result, unfortunately, was a pretty substantial pullback in support for advocacy, ideas and issues work. The fight is won the argument went. Or, more modestly, market share will make the politics irreversible if not irrelevant. Yet as we’ve seen again and again that’s not how education works. In some fields once you’ve accomplished something you redeploy resources and move onto something else. But in politics – and education change is about politics – sustaining wins matters. Especially sustaining wins where the broader public interest is succeeding against organized special interests. In that way charter school policy is no different than gun control, environmental regulation, or tax policy.

Instead of sustaining and continuing to push, though, charter advocates, many lacking support for this work and having no choice, ceded the public space. Sure, there were some films and a bit of excitement but by the time “Won’t Back Down” came out, with a legit star heavy cast, people were already running the other way.

It’s in no small part why even as charters were systematically improving – for instance the difference between the 2009 CREDO analysis and the 2013 CREDO analysis – the narrative that they were not very good was taking hold among elites. Today while urban charter schools substantially outperform for the very students most chronically underserved by public education, they’re under real attack – and at the very moment the country is having a national reckoning on race.

(It’s also hard to miss that a lot of charter networks are responding better to Covid than public school districts, public school superintendents privately acknowledge this and pine for more flexibility to respond to this complicated challenge.)

While reformers were toasting each other in the late 00s and first part of this decade the teachers unions, in no small part thanks to the instincts and political skill of Karen Lewis in Chicago, came storming back. Politics is fluid. It’s easy to forget now, but AFT President Randi Weingarten was conceding that sometimes tenure protections are too onerous and giving speeches at the Press Club on the unions willingness to reform. Lewis rejected the idea that the choice was reform like that or being runover and offered a third option, fight. One union president told me at the time, “I got emails when they authorized the strike vote beating the drum on this.” The members want to know, “why aren’t we doing this, why aren’t we fighting?”

Well they are now. At a time when pension dollars are eating up one in four classroom dollars in Los Angeles you can hardly find a funder with the fortitude to address the retirement problem and charter schools are actually being blamed for the fiscal problem instead – and this is accepted uncritically by the country’s media elites. That’s a failure to engage in the debate and it’s hard to argue that Weingarten’s AFT and the NEA haven’t played a reasonably poor hand very well since Janus.

In places like LA and Denver after bruising political fights at the school board level the reform community kind of moved on. The opponents didn’t go anywhere and the pendulum swung. What’s surprising is that a movement/coalition/group/whatever the reform community is that did so well for a while with a set of strategies sort of declared mission accomplished and walked away from them or at least pumped the brakes.

Meanwhile it’s hard to miss how elite-focused the charter political strategy is. You regularly hear “well we know so and so” in response to questions about where the political power to protect charters will come from in the new administration. That’s not a durable strategy. For the most part elites respond to political circumstances not the other way around. The charter community has missed numerous opportunities to build ties with the CBC and other institutional groups to broaden support and change circumstances.

So it’s not a big surprise charters are looking at the political risk they are. Investing in growing an entirely new sector of public schools that disrupt incumbent players without also investing in an enormous political strategy to support that is like building a really expensive house and then not bothering to insure it.

There is a happy scenario here where Biden leads, moderate Democrats protect charters, Republican pressure keeps the issue bipartisan, and all of today’s handwringing looks like waste of energy. But there is a less hopeful one where it’s more defense than offense despite a pretty favorable political map for charters. Charter supporters should be happy to take yes for an answer, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Over at his new blog Jed Wallace has been talking to a variety of folks about advocacy and advocacy strategies. It’s not too late for charters to right this ship – and they enjoy broad support pretty much everywhere outside of Twitter, the teachers unions, and the nation’s ed schools. And most importantly among the people they’re most intended to help in the first place. But the day is not young either.

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