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How Charter Schools Lost Democrats' Support

The biggest school reform movement in the past decade is taking some hits.

Last December, after two years of negotiation that hadn’t produced a contract, the United Teachers of Los Angeles took to the streets. Thousands of them marched in their red shirts past the glimmering towers of revitalized downtown Los Angeles. They finished their march at The Broad, a contemporary art museum where union leaders held a rally before dismissing the crowd. Their demands were clear: smaller class sizes and a limit to the explosive growth of charter schools. 

The final destination was as deliberate as the demands. The target of their rage was Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who is a modern-day Medici in Los Angeles. He backs the arts. His bid to buy the Los Angeles Times was widely supported by locals. And his museum attracts nearly a million visitors a year. But as labor negotiations slowed and then stalled last year, the teachers turned their anger toward the city’s civic hero. The reason was simple: Broad is a passionate supporter of charter schools.

California is home to 1,306 charters -- more than any other state in the country. And Los Angeles is the state’s most fertile ground for these schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District has 277 of them. Control of the nation’s second-largest school district rests with its school board, where Broad has wielded influence for years. In the last two election cycles he gave more than $2 million to school board candidates. After the 2017 campaign -- the most expensive school board election in the nation’s history -- yielded a 4-3 pro-charter majority, Broad’s influence over the school district grew even stronger. The board picked as its new school superintendent Austin Beutner, an investment banker with no experience running a school district or even a school, but with close connections to Broad, who had helped Beutner land a job as L.A.’s deputy mayor. Beutner, like Broad, is a charter supporter, having served on the boards of several charter operations.

With the labor dispute in its second year, Beutner pushed a plan to reshape the school system. He proposed forming 32 networks across the district, meant to foster a decentralization of power. Autonomy would be returned to the schools and, by extension, to parents. But to the powerful teachers union in Los Angeles, Beutner’s plan was a move toward still more charters and to school privatization. “Decentralization is a common refrain in so-called portfolio districts -- like New Orleans, Newark and Detroit -- cities that are riddled with a patchwork of privatization schemes that do not improve student outcomes,” the union said in a statement released in November. “Clusters of schools compete against each other for resources and support, creating a system of haves and have nots and exacerbating segregation and equity issues.” 

Beutner’s plan galvanized the anti-charter forces. Parents joined teachers on the picket lines, swelling the ranks of those who descended on The Broad museum to roughly 50,000 on the day of the march. “The thing Beutner didn’t see,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, “was the overwhelming support of traditional public schools in Los Angeles.” 


Eli Broad is one of the nation’s most ardent supporters of charter schools. (AP)

Mayor Eric Garcetti broke the labor stalemate in January, forging a deal between the union and Beutner. The union got a commitment to the smaller class sizes it had long demanded. And the mayor, who had once called for the expansion of charter schools in Los Angeles, got the school board to vote up-or-down on a union-backed resolution asking the state to place a cap on charter schools. In short, Garcetti delivered a win for the teachers in a place where the charter movement had won some of its most significant victories. The school board eventually approved the resolution calling for the charter cap in a 5 to 1 vote. In February, state leaders agreed to form a task force to examine the fiscal impact charter schools have on traditional public school funding. The union claims that charters drain resources from regular public schools.  

The concessions by the school district didn’t happen in a vacuum. From coast to coast, the charter movement has seen its political support declining, especially among progressive Democrats. The movement was defeated badly in Massachusetts in 2016 when voters rejected a ballot initiative to lift a state cap on the number of charters. Last year, in contests for governor in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico, Democratic candidates campaigned openly against charter schools. Tony Thurmond overcame a 2-to-1 fundraising deficit to defeat a charter-backed candidate for state superintendent of public instruction in California. More than $50 million was raised in that campaign, and the election split Democrats in the state and nationally. In February, newly elected Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, put forth a proposal to slow and possibly stop the growth of charter schools in the state. Evers, who spent a decade as the Wisconsin schools superintendent, has proposed a freeze on new independent charters for four years and wants to eliminate a program which allows Milwaukee County officials to transform low-performing schools into charters.  

Charter support has also cooled at the local level. According to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the opening of new charters has steadily declined since 2013. More than 600 were authorized that year. By 2016, the total number of authorizations had fallen by almost half, and the number of charters authorized by local school boards declined from 357 to 135.

All of this is happening after two decades of support for charter schools from both parties. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all backed the charter school movement, as does President Trump. Republican governors and Democratic mayors have joined forces to give charters a foothold not only in Los Angeles, but also Chicago, New York and New Orleans. They essentially agreed that market-driven reforms, competition and choice were the key to transforming an education system that was failing urban children of color, and that charters were the instrument of transformation. “We used to say education reform was the last bipartisan issue,” says Marc Magee, CEO and founder of 50CAN, an education advocacy group that backs charter schools. Now, he says, “that is increasingly threatened.”


Teachers hold signs protesting Eli Broad and L.A. Schools Superintendent Austin Beutner. (AP)

The ironic wrinkle in the charter school story is that the movement’s earliest supporters were teachers unions. Albert Shanker, who ran the powerful United Federation of Teachers, representing New York City public school teachers, was one of the early advocates. He and others believed that charter schools, free of the bureaucratic restrictions that plagued traditional schools, would be natural innovators. The innovations that worked would be copied and scaled up. The first charter schools were opened in Minnesota in 1992, and the movement gradually spread across the country in the ensuing decade. “They were launched as a progressive idea intended to save poor kids from failing schools,” says Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education who started as an enthusiastic supporter of charters and has become their most prominent critic. 

Early charter advocates argued that traditional public school teachers, with tenure and other workplace protections, were change-averse and in many cases complacent. They had bought into the idea, advocates said, that poor kids from poor families with uneducated parents were all but impossible to teach. Once the movement got the backing of reform-minded mayors such as Richard M. Daley in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York, it began to gain traction in urban education. With help from Republican governors and state lawmakers, Bloomberg and Daley wrested control of their school systems from their respective school boards. Other mayors did the same thing. They pushed for more competition and charter expansion, to the displeasure of the unions that had once backed the charter school idea. 

But the most important source of momentum was the decision by President George W. Bush to make education reform a centerpiece of his agenda. In 2001, months after being elected, he signed the federal law known as No Child Left Behind. The legislation required schools to collect reams of student performance data. States were allowed to close underperforming schools and replace them with charters. By the time President Obama took office in 2009, the charter movement was well underway in cities across the country. Chicago had almost 100, and New Orleans had turned virtually all of its school district over to charter operators in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Obama picked Arne Duncan, who had run Chicago Public Schools, to head the U.S. Department of Education. His appointment signaled that the new president was doubling down on charter school growth. Ultimately, Duncan’s tenure and the Obama administration’s own education reform plan, Race to the Top, was the turning point for Democrats on charter schools. 


Charter schools grew exponentially under President Obama. (AP)

Where No Child Left Behind collected data and used it to close schools that were falling behind, Race to the Top further unleashed market dynamics on public schools. Competition increasingly became the focus. States were given additional federal funding for adopting performance metrics for teachers and students and creating supports for charter schools. “If you couch it in the context of competition, conservatives will go along with it,” says William Sampson, an education policy professor at DePaul University. “Competition satisfied conservatives, extra money satisfied liberals.” The move caused Illinois to lift its lid on charter school approvals. Massachusetts adopted policies to allow state takeovers of entire school districts. 

Charter school growth under Bush and Obama was exponential. More than 3 million children, about 6 percent of all public school students, now attend a charter school. The growth has been fastest in large urban districts. In Washington, D.C., almost half of the public school students are in charters. One-third of the children in Newark, N.J., attend a charter, up from 10 percent a decade ago. In New York City, 1 in 10 students, roughly 90,000 children, are charter school pupils, four times as many as 10 years ago. The explosive growth in charter schools, and especially the emphasis on competition, generated fierce pushback from labor and the left. “Competition produces winners and losers in public education,” says Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. “Our obligation is to all children, so this culture of competition is antithetical.” 

Meanwhile, Republicans framed Race to the Top as another example of the federal government meddling in local education. With pressure from both the left and right, Duncan would eventually give a tearful resignation in 2015. “When you put that much political capital in change,” Magee says about Duncan and Race to the Top, “there is a natural feeling that you can’t maintain the political push.” By 2016, the NAACP was calling for a moratorium on new charter schools, and both major-party presidential candidates that year expressed reservations about their growth. The same data collection that helped fuel the rapid expansion of charters in the earlier Obama years became weaponized by the movement’s opponents. 

William Sampson’s 2016 book, Chicago Charter Schools: The Hype and the Reality, looked at math and reading scores across the city. It reported that traditional public schools outperformed charter schools in math, science and composite testing (a test of overall knowledge). Charters outperformed traditional schools in one area, third grade math. Sampson also found that charter schools had a lower percentage of special education students, and an abundance of students who moved less often and had fewer absences. In other words, Sampson argued, charter school student bodies were flush with children who would succeed in any school environment. 

The research backed what many critics had been saying of charter schools for years: that they were unable or unwilling to meet the needs of children with social, emotional or developmental needs. Charters were accused of pushing out students who didn’t meet performance standards, which happened at one of the nation’s most celebrated charter programs, the Harlem Children’s Zone. New York’s highly touted Success Academy schools do not backfill spots that open when poorly performing children leave after the fourth grade. Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz claims students who haven’t succeeded by the fourth grade would struggle to keep up with the academic rigor of her schools. Critics call this a form of creaming. In Sampson’s view, charters that present their own data and point to success are “making a random selection from a biased sample.” 

Still, the examples of success at charter schools, while anecdotal, are hard to ignore. Recent research from the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows that charter schools, especially the large charter networks like Kipp, Success and Yes Prep, all reported small but significant gains in reading and math when compared to their traditional school peers. The same study, which examines slices of the charter industry across the country, shows that larger charter schools improve the outcomes for black students, especially when compared to those in neighboring traditional public schools. But those students still trail white students in traditional public schools in reading and math.

Despite the inconclusive measures of success, supporters say that without the agitation caused by charter schools, traditional public schools in places such as Chicago and New York would not have been moved to reform in the last 20 years. And while charters may have a direct benefit only to the relatively few children who gain access to them, the hope has always been to force the rest of the system to adopt changes. 


Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supported numerous charter schools in her home state of Michigan. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

When Betsy DeVos became secretary of education under President Trump in 2017, she gave political cover to Democratic opponents of charter schools. DeVos has long been a proponent of charter schools and school vouchers; in her home state of Michigan, she and her family helped fund some of the state’s first charter schools. Last year, Democratic candidates for governor in Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico framed their opposition to charters as part of the resistance to Trump. “The election of Trump and appointment of Betsy DeVos clarified that school choice is a right-wing issue pushed by the Waltons, the DeVos family, the Koch brothers and every red state governor,” says Ravitch. “If DeVos favors charters, how can they be ‘progressive’?”

The Democrats elected governors in California and Connecticut in 2018 who ran on education platforms that contrasted sharply with the views of their Democratic predecessors. In Connecticut, Ned Lamont marked a clear reversal from fellow Democrat Dannel Malloy, a longtime charter advocate who serves on the national board of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter activist group. Lamont was once all-in on Malloy’s plan to improve education. In 2012, halfway through Malloy’s first term, Lamont wrote an op-ed in the Stamford Advocate in which he gave his full support to Malloy’s charter expansion. “Connecticut is getting close on groundbreaking education reform efforts,” Lamont wrote. “Don’t punt now, let’s drive for the end zone.” But by 2018, Lamont had pivoted away from his earlier position. He claimed charters were taking money away from traditional public schools in a state where education funding has long been tight, especially in the state’s poorest districts. As governor, Lamont is promising to focus on helping impoverished schools in Connecticut rather than allowing for more charters. 

California elected Democrat Gavin Newsom to replace retiring Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who had largely stayed out of the fight over charters. It took hard lobbying efforts to get Brown to sign a bill outlawing for-profit charters in the state. When Newsom ran in 2018, one of his strongest primary challengers was former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Newsom had been close to Broad and to Mayor Bloomberg earlier in his career. But he vowed during his campaign to place a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools, and Broad and Bloomberg put a combined $5 million behind Villaraigosa, who was strongly in favor of charters. Despite the millions in pro-charter money, Villaraigosa finished third. In his first weeks in office, Newsom signed a bill calling for open meetings of charter boards; his predecessors Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar bills.   

Proponents and critics agree that the charter movement is not going away anytime soon. It has been the source of fissures in the Democratic Party, but they are unlikely to lead to a dismantling of the charter establishment. “How many charter school laws have we seen undone in the last five years?” says Andy Smarick, who studies education policy for R Street Institute, a public policy research firm. “There are waves in favor and waves in opposition, but they are small waves.”

Critics insist they are not trying to demolish the movement but seeking to return it to its roots. Ravitch and Weingarten believe the sector can still play an important role as a laboratory for innovation. The United Federation of Teachers operates a charter school in New York City, even as the union voices strong opposition to the movement at large. What opponents of rapid charter growth say they want is a reversion to local control. While local school boards have cooled on their support of charters, states and public university systems continue to authorize them. That creates deeper tension over local control, the kind of tension that led to pushback against No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. “Charter schools should be authorized only by districts and should be required to follow the same laws as public schools,” Ravitch says. “They should meet a need that the district can’t fill.”

Then there’s the issue of scale. The success of certain charter schools appears to some as a statistical blip in a sea of data that suggests disadvantaged urban children are still lagging behind their wealthier counterparts. But while charters aren’t equipped to take over public education, as even their backers admit, they can augment what is available. And that might be where the movement can be an agent of change without attracting so much criticism, moving away from a focus on growth to a concentration on quality and being a model for educating urban children of color. “If not for charter schools,” says charter advocate Magee, “what is the bold plan to change education? Because the status quo is unacceptable. I don’t think the solution is to take pressure off the system to help kids.”

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