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At a campaign rally in Atlanta for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a day after the fifth presidential debate in November, dozens of charter school supporters interrupted Warren’s speech to protest the presidential candidate’s plan to curb charter school growth. The New York Times reported that the protesters were members of the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, an alliance of black and Latino education leaders, who toted signs that read “Charter schools = self-determination,” and “Black Democrats want charters!”
Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, a black lawmaker and Warren surrogate, threw the presidential candidate a life preserver. “We are grateful for your activism and your voice and you are welcome here,” Pressley told the activists. But she also made it very clear that Warren’s voice would not be silenced.
It was, once again, an example of black leaders rushing to the rescue. Oddly enough, the charter activists and Pressley were both coming to the defense of white-led causes that could stand more vigorous feedback from black people. Because Democrats have to earn the black vote in black cities, the black community has leverage to demand that our concerns be addressed.
Warren needs to learn from black voices — but the charter school movement is not ours to defend.
Organizations such as the charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools have orchestrated statewide campaigns using dark money to influence state ballots to increase the number of charter schools, hiding who’s actually behind the movement. The Associated Press reported in December of 2018 that an advocacy group that received $1.5 million from the Walton Family Foundation, one of the biggest funders of education reform, paid for 150, mostly black parents from Memphis to travel to Cincinnati two years prior to protest at a meeting of the NAACP. The parents sought to lobby against an NAACP proposal — which the organization passed despite the protests — to call for a moratorium on charter schools. They denied that the Walton Family Foundation asked them to carry out the protest.
This political season, black people cannot afford to be human shields for white leaders who don’t have the legitimacy to enter black communities on their own.
Democrats vying for the presidency have mostly backed off from endorsing charter schools, a reversal of the party position, which has largely supported these publicly financed, independently run schools since the Clinton administration. Warren and her Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, two leading candidates who represent the progressive wing of the party, have been the most aggressive in their proposals to curb the growth of charter schools. Warren’s proposed legislation would eliminate the Federal Charter School Program, which provides financial resources to start charter schools. And, if elected, she has promised to ban for-profit charter schools outright. Sanders would freeze all federal funding to charters. The Democratic Party now poses the biggest existential threat to the charter school sector.
This reversal of position by Democrats is a sign that members of the party are listening to black communities.
After more than 25 years of charter development, it’s almost cliché to say that the research is mixed on charter schools’ academic benefits as measured by standardized test scores. At best, advocates can say there are specific charter networks that generate higher academic outcomes. There are exceptionally good and bad charter schools, just as there are exceptionally good and bad non-charter public schools, which isn’t saying much about the efficacy of chartering as a solution. If we are to embrace charter schools politically, they better bring additional benefits to black communities. And this is something charters have failed to do.
Over the course of more than two decades, charter school expansion resulted in a significant loss in black-held jobs and a reduction in black political power in several black-majority cities. Black teachers were fired en masse in New Orleans, Washington, and Newark, N.J., decimating the black middle class there.
Hundreds of millions of dollars directed towards electing pro-charter candidates ultimately empowered Republicans in many states. The pro-charter group Students First realized that its funding of Republican candidates had backfired. The association of the charter cause with the Republic party lead to the defeat of pro-charter proposals. Democratic voters showed they will not support movements that bolster the Republican Party — the same party that refuses to check Trump’s blatant racism. Democrats who support the idea of charter schools should make it clear to Republicans that they will not tolerate a charter system that offers improved academic performance for some black students only by harming the communities in which those students live.
However, Democrat reformers developed a bad habit of accepting this Faustian bargain, and staying silent in red states on issues like jail expansion, cuts to higher education and attacks on organized labor because dissent ran the risk of slowing the proliferation of charters. Yes, black families want and need choice, but the current charter school movement is too tightly braided with Republican causes; a defense of one is a defense of the other. To embrace charter schools in 2020 is to embrace Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump and other Republicans who stand to gain more politically from charter support than black communities have gained in jobs and educational benefits. Black kids lose when Democratic educational reformers act like Republicans.
The black community is split on charter schools, which have a 46 percent approval rating among black and brown parents, according to a poll conducted by the pro-reform magazine EducationNext. Maybe black people are divided because black leaders are too. For years black charter leaders have battled for support from a philanthropic apparatus that favored their white peers.
The funders of charter schools continuously put black parents and teachers in the position of fighting against their own interests. White-led philanthropy and education groups will eventually abandon public policy experiments when it is no longer popular, politically expedient or, in some cases, lucrative. For-profit charters are in education ostensibly for the money. Some black charter leaders feel they must defend the schools because black children attend them. But we don’t need to fall into that trap. We can defend black children and workers without defending charter schools. Black people need systemic change. We can’t allow the cry for charters to drown out the demands for school financing reform, better work conditions, higher teacher pay, universal pre-K, free college, teachers’ training and recruitment programs, stronger labor protections and workforce housing initiatives.
The fight for charters is not about self-determination; it’s clearly about the sector’s survival. If we are going to bat for something, it should be something that gives us a hell of a lot more than a slow walk to first base.
We must stop cleaning up the political messes the charter school sector has created for Democrats and black communities. Black charter leaders certainly have a role to play in this election: They should continue to defend black lives. This time, let the charter lobby deal — on its own — with the mess it has made.
This column about the charter school movement was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.