Are You Being Told Everything About The Charter School Fight?

I promise I will write about something besides the proposed charter regulations soon. But they are important as a political matter and sign of where we are in the sector. And it’s a David and Goliath sort of thing. So, it’s interesting! I kind of want to write about this amazing compilation of life advice (and fashion) from Mr. T. that I recently found. Mr. T. and his show was SEL before it was cool.

But last week everyone was abuzz….Erica Green is writing a story on the charter regulations…Erica Green is on it…and so forth. Among insiders Erica’s widely respected. Non-ideological, a legit shoe leather reporting background, saw an urban system up close in Baltimore so appreciates both how screwed up these situations are for kids and also the challenges of changing that and that beleaguered systems are often doing the best they can – even as it’s not enough. A pro in the old school sense.

Her story came this weekend. Definitely a good overview and the kind of Times story that can still impact the narrative even in today’s media environment. Here’s a similarly good overview from U.S. News with a little less process and a little more about the policy effects.

While the story is solid, this part did jump out:

[Network for Public Education] joined dozens of others — including the National Education Association, which is the nation’s largest teachers union, and the Southern Poverty Law Center — in praising the department for “thoughtful and well-reasoned regulations.”

To a civilian reading this article this sounds like a clash of interest groups on either side. And at one level it is. But all of these groups mentioned and many if not all on the sign on letter have also received funding from the National Education Association or its affiliates. Readers should know that!

I don’t think these groups take these positions because they get money – though some seem astroturf-like. As we’ve discussed here over the years, people confuse the causal chain on those claims. People and organizations give money to groups that think like them on issues, the groups don’t start thinking that way because of the cash. Like finds like more than it creates like. I am aware of some payola like that and groups that will work for the highest bidder, but it’s relatively rare. Rather, it’s a symbiotic sort of relationship, a network with network effects, not a straight up payoff kind of thing. Still, it should be disclosed and explained because it’s important context. These groups are not just free agents who saw this issue and decided to act and lo and behold everyone else was, as well. Rather, these are networks and coalitions working together and there are broader issues in play. That’s also obviously true of team charter, as well, although the increasingly broad footprint of charters increasingly creates a different dynamic.

Anyway, readers deserve to know that kind of thing, who is working together, why, how, especially when the dynamics on these issues are an open secret in Washington. It would help explain why a public official would think nothing of just saying, go ask the interest groups about a federal regulation under consideration. These networks become hermetically sealed over time, that’s bad for policymaking – and politics.

It’s also context on observations like this from the article,

Naomi N. Shelton, the chief executive of the National Charter Collaborative, which supports charter school leaders of color, said she hoped the Education Department listened to the concerns of those who might question that judgment.

“The people who are fighting for this don’t even look like the folks who would be impacted,” Ms. Shelton said. “And the students who come to us are not students they’re even engaging with.”

And, it’s particularly germane here because the Network for Public Education crowd has made an unhinged, loud, and dishonest career arguing everyone else is on the take. Here’s Jon Chait in his newsletter, a few highlights:

Speaking of, this week I wrote about the Biden administration’s regulations on the Federal Charter Schools program, which appeared designed to strangle the program. In particular, I was astonished that the Department of Education refused even to explain the rationale to reporters, instead referring them to the Network for Public Education, a left-wing, rabidly anti-reform group that has received funding from teachers unions.

This naturally triggered another hyperbolic response from Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch, two of the Network’s founders, who are among the most influential progressive activists in the education space. Their response claims to “uncover” nefarious details about my wife’s work as an education policy analyst for a non-profit.

This is part of a years-long effort they have undertaken to create the appearance of a conflict of interest where none exists. To begin with, many journalists have spouses who work in politics or government, and whose work would be impacted in some way by changes to policy. Those roles are essentially never disclosed. Whatever you think the standard should be – and one could argue for a much stricter standard – it simply is not part of how opinion journalism operates. If there was a norm for opinion journalists to disclose whenever they opined on a subject that in some way touched on their spouse’s field, you would see an enormous number of these disclosures.

I mentioned in my column that the Network for Public Education is regularly cited in stories that do not mention its funding by teachers unions. I know by happenstance of a columnist that wrote a laudatory column about a teachers union leader whose group funds that columnist’s spouse. I don’t believe in the logic of the sins of one side justifying the other. My point is that my wife’s work is not a conflict of interest at all. But it is revealing that Ravitch and her allies have managed to sustain this fake conflict angle for years without ever having to account for a much more direct conflict of interest they are themselves undertaking. I think that does give a sense of the utter bad faith at work.

These accusations are only coherent within the world they’ve created, in which anybody who disagrees with teachers unions on policies can only be acting out of nefarious secret financial interests. The degree to which they have managed to create the illusion of an ethical issue is a measure of the delusional ideological paranoia that pervades their worldview. 

Accusations against me are not your problem, but the Democratic party allowing its education policy to be influenced by crazy people is

I will note, in the interest of transparency, I know Chait and his spouse, Robin, professionally. She’s great. She should have the newsletter! The idea she’s a charter hack is preposterous, especially given where she works now – WestEd – a group we work with at times here at Bellwether. They are not some sort of pro-charter outfit. And over the years she’s worked at places that get teachers union money and ones that don’t. Among the adults that’s how it works. Despite the simplicity hacks ascribe to them, these issues are complicated. There is a lot of good and bad on charters and many other issues.

All of this, of course, might lead you ask, well what about Bellwether, my day job? We work with charter schools for sure, and orgs that support them, and we also work with school districts, and intermediaries that support them. There is impactful work that can help improve conditions and context for kids in all those places. We also disclose all of our clients on our website, always. We don’t do that because we’re boy scouts, although transparency is embedded in our organizations’ core values, rather it’s precisely because of all this nonsense. You can look for yourself and see who we work for – and as far as I know it’s the ideologically broadest array of any organization or firm in the sector.

What’s probably more interesting is we’ve fired, and been fired by, clients because we value a variety of viewpoints around our team. We are fine with dissent and don’t squelch it even when we’re pressured to do so. Debate and expression of ideas is instrumental to progress from where we sit. And we won’t toe anyone’s party line. I don’t know that we have any reflexive or rabid charter haters, they wouldn’t fit in here for other reasons around how we do our work. But we certainly have serious charter skeptics and people who see the cost – benefits around charters and choice differently than say I do. We also have people more bullish about choice than me. That diversity exists on most questions.That’s what makes our work valuable for our clients, we’re not Kool-Aid drinkers.

Unfortunately, like many issues in American politics ed reform / anti-reform is now like a team sport.* Everyone must pick a side. And the amount of backchannel chatter about how no one can say what they actually think about this or that or how the field is now stuck Ice Nine-like around various fads or fashions is astonishing. That’s too bad, but for our purposes here reporters ought to help readers understand how it all works because it’s impacting the experience of their kids.

The story here is that even though the Biden Administration is drowning politically and Democrats are desperate to throw them life lines wherever they can given the potential consequences of the next couple of elections, on this charter question you have a genuine split in the party. It’s producers versus consumers, special interests against reformers, deregulation, all the big ones. It’s not a new story. But an important one.

*Assignment editor desk: An interesting article might be a look at the complicated relationship and politics between voucher/tax credit advocates and charter school advocates about how to balance those issues, lanes, windows of opportunity, “don’t get in my way,” all of that! Another good one would be a look at the role of school districts in chartering, authorizing and taking federal charter school dollars and then closing schools in short order or not opening them. Districts are the modal authorizer of charters.

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