One of the teachers’ unions just endorsed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Does that mean she is pro-teacher? Pro public school? Pro-union, even?
The answers to these questions are neither an emphatic yes or no. The ambiguity comes from the fact that the charter school movement would never have gotten the start it did, were it not for the complete support of the Clintons. The Clinton Foundation website takes an unapologetic and self-congratulatory look at the Clintons’ history supporting charters.
Taking a look at the damage charters have wreaked on public education and the teaching profession, for a variety of reasons and in a myriad of ways, this announcement is more a reflection of the leadership of the AFT than it is of the Clintons. At least, until earlier this year, there was never any doubt both Clintons were neoliberal. The union? Not so much and, given, the huge hit teachers have taken in just the last seven years, it is quite a puzzling and premature choice so early in campaign 2016.
I highly recommend reading The Atlantic article curated below in its entirety, as it provides not only the early history of the birth of the charter movement, but an excellent report on its status today, and its effectiveness overall.
Have Charter Schools Fulfilled Their Promise of Reforming American Education? – The Atlantic
The Verdict on Charter Schools?The charter movement turns 25 next year, but whether it’s fulfilling the mission early advocates had envisioned is far from clear.
A few years ago, Pablo Alba was called to the principal’s office to meet with me,an aging white guy he’d never met before. A lanky sophomore, Alba volunteered little beyond a cautious glance upward as he plunked down before me, but he instantly perked up when I asked him about the typical freshman experience at San Francisco’s City Arts and Technology High School. I was conducting research on local organizing and what makes potent charter schools like City Arts work, and I wanted to hear about the student experience. “You make a lot of friends, it’s small,” Alba said, allowing a slight grin.
Alba, who had struggled at the conventional middle school he had previously attended, would thrive at City Arts over the next three years, thanks largely to the young teachers who tirelessly engaged their classes of restless teens. This small campus—which sits atop a knoll overlooking a sea of weathered, two-story flats—offers a relatively rare opportunity for blue-collar families: a shot at college for their kids.
The charter-school movement now serves roughly 2.3 million students nationwide at more than 6,000 campuses—schools that are primarily funded by taxpayers but free from the bureaucracy and tangled union rules typically found at regular public schools. But the movement, which enjoyed a vibrant growth spurt and turns 25 next year, no longer seems to espouse the same grassroots values that it once did. Charter-school management firms like Green Dot in Los Angeles and the Knowledge Is Power Project (KIPP) out of Houston—many of which were founded by dissident parents or educators—and large private donors now orchestrate key sectors of the movement. Many charter schools fail to push learning curves any higher than conventional schools do, a widely circulated (albeit controversial) Stanford University study suggested earlier this year.
Politically, the movement continues to gain strength. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, received campaign funding last year from hedge-fund managerswho awarded $4.4 million total to pro-charter candidates across the state, according to The Huffington Post. Similarly, The Los Angeles Timeshas reportedthat the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, and the housing developer Eli Broad (both Democrats) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this past spring for eachLos Angeles school-board candidate in support of charters.
But politics aside, when do charter schools lift students? What lessons do charter educators provide that could inspire traditional educators? Is this aging movement, first spurred by grassroots activists, drifting into middle-age regularity—losing its appeal among parents and its inventive edge among educators?
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The charter-school movement began with a simple idea that traces back to a rather odd set of political bedfellows.
Albert Shanker, the late head of the American Federation of Teachers, spoke in 1988 to a gaggle of Minnesota policy thinkers, pitching what he defined as an easy way of liberating inventive teachers from the burdens of staid classroom routines, bland textbooks, and cumbersome union contracts. Shanker trumpeted the idea of granting charters to creative teachers, a concept that had already been floated in policy circles.
Ember Reichgott, then a 34 year-old state senator, listened keenly to Shanker’s pitch. “As a good Democrat I wanted to create new opportunities—innovative possibilities,” Reichgott, who wrote the country’s first charter-school law, later told me. But she aimed her efforts way beyond the union chief’s proposal, instead striving to charter entire schools in which principals controlled their budgets and hired and fired their own teachers.
Labor leaders struck back at Reichgott’s 1991 bill, painting it as a radical plan that had the potential to send public dollars to renegade schools with little public oversight. Abandoned by many of her fellow Democrats, Reichgott said she ultimately compromised on provisions limiting the number of new charter schools in Minnesota to six. Moreover, their establishment was contingent on whether the founding teachers could gain approval from local school boards and the state education commissioner, who at that time happened to be the teachers union’s former chief lobbyist.
Upon hearing of Reichgott’s near-defeat, Shanker penned a rather sardonic letterto his fellow charter enthusiasts: “The Minnesota bill seems to be traveling to other states,” he wrote. “I still see the baby in it, but the bath water has covered it up.”
The idea proved quite portable, soon finding its way into California, where another Democratic lawmaker, Gary Hart, further expanded the scope of this charter-school experiment. Hart said his number-one goal in 1992 was “to stop vouchers”—taxpayer-funded checks for parents that could be used to pay for private-school tuition. “I viewed charters as an alternative,” he recalled as I interviewed him in a Sacramento cafe.
Thanks in part to support from Republicans, Hart’s bill was passed, authorizing up to 100 charters statewide. He said he predicted they would yield “a little boutique reform, an R-and-D effort just like Shanker was talking about.” Still, Hart worried that charter schools would take hold in well-heeled areas (“places like Palo Alto”), while in urban centers “you would give a party and no one would come.” Things turned out a little differently than anticipated.
Bill Clinton, entering the White House in 1993, quickly embraced the idea of charter schools, touting their ability to “reinvent government” while pushing for grassroots accountability and the ability of parents discontented with traditional schools to vote with their feet. Clinton soon approved federal funding to buildthousands of new charter schools.
The robust movement demonstrated how Clinton-era Democrats could spark experimentation in the public sector and mimic Silicon Valley’s outside-the-box thinking. Now the Democratic party could look beyond teachers unions for campaign cash; wealthy progressives and Manhattan financiers could offset the loss of support for pro-charter Democrats from labor.
This new coalition of advocates would change minds coast-to-coast as support for charter schools flourished among local politicians and huge foundations. I attended a celebration of Oakland activists in 1998, where a staff aide to the late John Walton (the son of Walmart’s founder), a bible placed before him, conferred with black and Latino church leaders on how to expand charter schools citywide.
Do charter schools lift students as much as they reflect the aspirations of political activists and private donors? It seems that the abstract idea of charter schools began to outshine hard evidence on whether they were having a positive impact on student learning.
Established charter schools such as KIPP that have been in operation for years, along with those serving large shares of black and Latino kids, do often lift achievement at higher rates than do traditional counterparts. But charter campuses can limit the learning of white, urban students relative to their counterparts who remain in traditional public schools, according to Stanford’s Margaret Raymond, who tracked over 1 million charter students in dozens of cities over five years.