The Charter-School Movement Is Playing Defense

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The wave of teacher unrest that has swept the country from West Virginia to Colorado to California has brought to the surface the conflict between the K-12 educational establishment and its would-be reformers over charter schools, standardized testing, education standards and more.

Recent elections have sharpened the divide and heightened the stakes. In California, which has seen the largest growth in charter schools in the nation, newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom just signed a transparency law designed to require charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately run,  to abide by open-meetings and conflict-of-interest rules — legislation that had been opposed by his predecessor, Jerry Brown. The state also convened a task force last week to consider the fiscal impact of charter schools and is expected to take up a cap on charter-school expansion.

In Chicago, anger over the closing of public schools and the spread of charters contributed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third City Hall term. Instead, two charter skeptics will be competing in a historic run-off election on April 2.

And in Newark, New Jersey, where Senator Cory Booker built his political career a decade ago as an education-reform mayor supporting rapid growth of the charter sector backed by $200 million in private donations, the tide has also turned. Now Booker’s education-reform credentials are seen as a liability by many of the progressives he’s courting in his presidential bid.

The K-12 battle is often cast in all-or-nothing terms, with each side characterizing the other as the enemy of children and the public good. “Across the country urban school districts are not serving students,” said the text accompanying a secret 2015 plan, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, that was underwritten by the Los Angeles real estate and insurance mogul Eli Broad and proposed to turn the majority of the city’s schools into charters.

That brought a furious rejoinder from Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, who accused “billionaires and privatizers” of undermining public schools and “destabilizing them financially and infrastructurally.”

In fact, the education journeys of Newark and Los Angeles suggest that the future of K-12 education may depend on how well public schools and charter schools respond to the needs of parents and community organizations and the extent to which they engage with the democratic process.

To understand why, it helps to consider how public sentiment has swung in the direction of public schools and their teachers who were, not so long ago, demonized by education-reformers like Michelle Rhee, former schools chancellor for Washington, D.C. Striking teachers have won widespread support in the last couple of years for salary increases and money to pay for smaller classes and additional personnel, including social workers and nurses.

One reason for this shift, according to Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist at Michigan State University and coauthor of a new book, “Outside Money in School Board Elections,” is that education-reform funders overplayed their hand by abandoning coalitions with local organizations and generated “widespread community backlash” instead.

Reckhow’s research focuses on Los Angeles, where charter school enrollment grew 17 percent annually in the six years leading up to the 2014-2015 school year at a time when the majority of the city’s school board did not favor charters. By the 2016-2017 school year, the charter-school growth rate had declined to 4 percent. Today one in five L.A. children attend charter schools.

The slowdown, according to Reckhow, was linked to the more aggressive posture of philanthropists. Between 2011 and 2013, individual campaign contributions of top national philanthropists to candidates in L.A. school board elections grew from 13 percent to 48 percent. By 2017, two-thirds of campaign spending came from organizations supporting charter expansion. In the school board race last week, Jackie Goldberg, the teachers’ union favorite, won over 48 percent of the vote in a field of nine candidates, in which her two leading opponents garnered just over 13 percent each. Goldberg is expected to win a runoff election in May, which would end the school board’s brief pro-charter majority.

Foundation-sponsored reforms “are more likely to flourish in a context of lively democratic politics, which requires building grassroots alliances and compromising with opponents,” Reckhow wrote.

At the same time, last year’s Supreme Court decision, Janus v. AFSCME, ruling that public-employee unions could not force non-members to pay union dues, has invigorated organizing among teachers unions. Building relationships with community organizations is seen as one way to bolster union membership and lobby state governments.

In Newark, Mayor Ras Baraka is gambling that local alliances and coalition building will protect and improve the city’s public school. Baraka, a former high school principal, rode a wave of anger over charter expansion to victory in 2014, in a mayoral race in which his pro-charter opponent was financed by philanthropists who had underwritten the charter movement there.

That Baraka won a landslide re-election victory last year, however, owes as much to his ability to forge surprising alliances, including one with the architects of Booker’s education reforms that helped restore power to the Newark school board in 2017 after more than 20 years of state control.

“Baraka has built relationships with teachers, with administrators, with community organizations; he has threaded the needle” even with charter-school supporters, said Domingo Morel, a political scientist at Rutgers University whose new book, "Takeover," explores how state takeovers often serve to disenfranchise local African-American communities.

Alliances and coalition-building have become a signature strategy for Baraka. In 2015 he persuaded the state-appointed superintendent to launch a community-school experiment intended to turn schools into hubs of services that would address ailments ranging from food insecurity to health problems — the program is now under review. A year ago, as Newark was about to win back control of its schools, Baraka also held a series of community meetings, asking residents to “imagine” what they wanted their school district to be.

The education paths of Los Angeles and Newark raise questions about what happens after the strikes and walkouts are over. While charter advocates may be playing defense now, they are unlikely to disappear; there is too much money and political momentum behind the reform movement. Yet teachers and parents, especially in minority communities, are unlikely to tolerate education reforms that disenfranchise them.

Shifts in the education landscape also demonstrate how much urban communities have at stake. The financial stress of districts like Los Angeles and Oakland, California, suggests the need both for increased investment in public education and for policies that address the tipping-point at which the number of charter schools destabilize nearby public schools by sapping enrollment and selecting the easiest-to-teach children. The unpopularity of closing even low-performing schools also calls into question disruptive free-market solutions, and signals the need to develop better approaches to improving the weakest public schools.

The challenge for policymakers is to resist the constant lure of new disruptive innovations, and to create the infrastructure that supports the kind of educator-led improvement efforts that, from Massachusetts to Texas, have produced the best and longest-lasting results. Schools will then need to step up and meet the challenge.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.