Elizabeth Warren Clarifies The Charter Schools Debate


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Are charter schools a “progressive” idea for education? Some progressive sources would have you think so, but other progressives have challenged that framing.

This week, Massachusetts news outlets reported that the state’s most prominent politician and one of the nation’s most important progressive leaders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, threw the supposedly progressive framing of charter schools into doubt when she announced officially her opposition to a ballot initiative in November to expand the number of charters in the Bay State.

The referendum, called Question 2, calls for lifting the cap on the number of charters allowed in the state, allowing for as many as 12 new charter schools per year.

In her statement, Warren explains that although some charter schools are “excellent,” her concern about Question 2 is about what “this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth, especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters. Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind.”

In other words, Warren’s progressive values, which few would dispute she possesses, have persuaded her to reject a policy idea that may benefit some of her constituents but neglects, or even does potential harm, to the broader population.

Warren had signaled her potential opposition to Question 2 back in August when she told reporters, “I’m just concerned about the proposal and what it means for the children all across the Commonwealth … Public officials have a responsibility not just to a small subset of children but to all of the children, to make sure that they receive a first-rate education.”

Warren’s views about charter schools and other forms of “school choice” have been a matter of much speculation by school choice advocates because of a positive mention of school vouchers in a book she co-authored 13 years ago. But a recent conversation Warren had with education historian Diane Ravitch threw those speculations into doubt, when Ravitch reported on her personal blog that Warren is unlikely to fall in line with charter school doctrine.

Now we know Ravitch’s assertions were well founded.

A Drain On Local Schools

Warren has good cause to be concerned about expanding charter schools in her state.

Over 150 Massachusetts communities, at last count, have gone on record to oppose Question 2, no doubt due in large part due to the financial impact charter schools have on school district funding levels.

As a recent news source in Northampton reports, six nearby charter schools are projected to drain $2,279,216 from the district’s budget, which prompted the local council in that community to vote unanimously to oppose the ballot measure. Said one council member, “Public school districts across the state are losing more than $408 million [to charters] this year alone – a loss of funds that is undermining the ability of districts to provide all students with the educational services to which they are entitled.”

Charter proponents argue that local schools aren’t being financially harmed by charters because as students transfer from public schools to charters, the “money follows the child” and the cost of educating the transferring students merely moves from one education facility to another. But this argument is either profoundly ignorant of school finance or purposefully misleading.

Research studies have shown that the current model for financing charter schools harms the education of public school students. As a public school loses a percentage of its students to charters, the school can’t simply cut fixed costs for things like transportation and physical plant proportionally. It also can’t cut the costs of grade-level teaching staff proportionally. That would increase class sizes and leave the remaining students underserved. So instead, the school cuts a program or support service – a reading specialist, a special education teacher, a librarian, an art or music teacher – to offset the loss of funding.

For these reasons, and others, the introduction of charter schools into communities now invariably sparks division and resentment from parents who stay committed to public schools.

An Exclusionary Approach To Schooling

Charters, as they are currently conceived, are also concerning to anyone with progressive values because of the tendency of these schools to exclude certain students that are more difficult to teach.

Massachusetts charter schools in particular have had a history of cherry-picking students.

For instance, Bay State charters, compared to district schools, have a tendency to under-enroll students with disabilities, although there is some evidence the schools are making progress on this front. And in Boston and other urban centers in the state, charters tend to under-enroll students whose first language isn’t English.

Another exclusionary tactic charters often employ is to use harsh discipline codes and out-of-school suspensions to push out students who exhibit behavior problems or who struggle with school rules and academic work.

A 2014 article in the Boston Globe cited a report finding, “Boston charter schools are far more likely than traditional school systems to suspend students, usually for minor infractions such as violating dress codes or being disrespectful, a high-risk disciplinary action that could cause students to disengage from their classes … Of the 10 school systems in Massachusetts with the highest out-of-school suspension rates, all but one were charter schools.”

One Boston charter school had suspended 60 percent of its students.

Students who are frequently suspended are much more apt to leave, and once they leave, charter schools are not required to fill the empty seats with new students. As students progress from grade-level to grade-level, this allows charters to sort out “the chaff” among its students until the entering grade class is reduced to only those students who are more apt to score well on tests and eventually graduate. This filtering process shows up in the high student attrition at charters.

Based on recent research conducted by classroom teacher and PhD candidate Mark Weber, who blogs under the moniker of Jersey Jazzman, every Boston independent charter high school has a higher student attrition rate than their public school counterpoints as a whole, meaning that the freshman class that had enrolled in the school originally eroded in size by the time graduation rolled around. In one case, a charter school’s freshman class shrank by more than half by the time they were seniors.

A Favored Cause Of Big Money

Finally, Warren, who is best known for battling Wall Street and the interests of big finance, likely sees that these are the very same people funding the campaign to pass Question 2.

According to Louisiana public school teacher and author Mercedes Schneider, as of September 9, the effort in favor of Question 2 had raised roughly $17.8 million, with the largest amount of money coming from Walmart Arkansas billionaire siblings Jim and Alice Walton, who together contributed $1,835,000.

Another source of money to push for Question 2, according to Schneider, comes from “Massachusetts bankers and hedge funders” who have contributed a total of $437,410 to the campaign. “Twenty-four of the above hedge funders/bankers identified as employees of Fidelity Investments,” she notes.

Public broadcasting source WGBH reports other funders of the campaign for Question 2 include New York-based Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy and Education Reform Now Advocacy, which both have strong ties to the hedge fund industry. Those two groups, along with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, put in $6,240,000.

Other contributors to the campaign to pass Question 2 are decidedly more prone to back causes aligned to conservative Republicans than progressive Democrats. In an interview on her Edushyster blog, Jennifer Berkshire talks with political scientist Maurice Cunningham who explains that funding to support Question 2 is driven by “a handful of wealthy families that … largely give to Republicans, and they represent the financial industry.”

According to Cunningham, these funders are mostly “out of Bain, they’re out of Baupost, they’re out of High Fields Capital Management.” Other backers include “billionaire Seth Klarman … the largest GOP donor in New England” and Republican strategists Will Keyser and Jim Conroy.

Other contributors to the pro-charter initiative include corporations in the information technology, manufacturing, healthcare, and pharmaceutical industries.

A Collision Course With Progressives

Adding to the financial industry’s support for charters is the full-throated support for charters coming from Republican politicians.

In a recent campaign address, presidential candidate Donald Trump called school choice the “civil rights cause of our time,” thereby adopting the rhetoric of establishment Republicans including his primary opponents Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Jeb Bush in support of charter school expansions.

Of course, Warren could have other reasons to oppose the expansion of charters in her state. And there are certainly many charter schools that adhere to the progressive ideals that originally motivated the creation of these schools.

But that’s not the point.

When advocates for charter schools decided to embrace a school choice financial model that cripples existing neighborhood schools, to adopt education practices that exclude and push out the most challenging students, and to join forces with the financial industry and right-wing Republicans, they put their movement on a collision course with anyone who has progressive values.

Sen. Warren’s opposition to Question 2 is proof the car wreck is happening.

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