This week, I’m juggling three or four different articles, which range in quality from really rough to really, really rough. Next week, I’m going to focus on the article that is merely really rough and get it out the door. It’s about high school marching bands, and I’m having a lot of fun with references to Ester Williams musicals and such — references that will be certainly cut by a wise editor down the road, but for now, I’m amusing myself, so don’t judge.
One topic that I’m not writing about is charter schools. Which is weird, because I’ve been studying charter schools since the mid-1990s. I put myself through my PhD program working at a policy institute at CUNY Grad Center. There, the director (and my dissertation advisor) got some nice sized grants from the Ford Foundation, which she used to employ a small crew of students to travel around the country and find answers.
Looking back on it, we were given an insane amount of responsibility and had some incredible experiences. We traveled in groups of two or three around to the roughest parts of Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin, Boston, and talked to community and education activists. Then we wrote it all up and gave presentations in an modern glass building on the east side of the New York City. If we weren’t so poor and so stressed out about finishing our dissertations, I might have enjoyed it more.
Anyway, one of the topics that we looked at was charter schools. I talked to everybody about them. Those activists in those rough spots of Philadelphia and Chicago liked them. They also didn’t have very nice things to say about the teachers’ union.
Somewhat simultaneously, I spent two years studying school voucher politics in Ohio and Pennsylvania as part of my dissertation. On one memorable trip, I waddled (I was was eight months pregnant with Ian at the time) around Philadelphia and Harrisburg by myself. And those activists told me that they would happily take vouchers, charter schools, ANYTHING, but their local public schools, which sucked terribly. Their kids didn’t have time to waste in those schools, while reformers spun their wheels.
In early 2018, Cory Booker started thinking about running for presidency, but he had to deal with some skeletons in the Newark closet first. His career so far in the Senate has been short and uneventful. The lion share of his political experience comes from being the mayor of Newark. What was one of the biggest things he did as mayor? He instituted a pretty ambitious education reform, which included a plan to streamline the application process for charter schools in the city. Parents could much more easily apply for a charter school in the city, including the KIPP and Uncommon Schools.
Those two charter schools have hit it out of the ballpark with getting kids into college and then getting them through it. They do some super incredible stuff, like placing staff on college campuses to help get those very vulnerable first generation kids through college. Those programs cannot be scaled up and only help a handful, but their successes are amazing just the same. And the parents in Newark all know it. That’s why 1/3 of the parents in Newark choose to send their kids to a charter school.
Now, you would think that this would be something to brag about. A feather in his cap, right? But no. There was a book that came out about five years ago that pointed to problems in Newark’s reform effort. The author said that the community wasn’t involved enough and that outside consultants squandered money. When the book came out, Booker didn’t address the controversy, but when he started thinking about running for office in early 2018, he needed to deal with it.
He brought me down to Newark and told me about it. And then I wrote about it. In our conversations, Booker said pretty clearly that he was agnostic about the forms of school — public or charter — he just wanted schools that worked for kids. Which was basically the same message that activists had told me back in my grad school years. At that time, Booker was mostly concerned about pointing out that Newark reform was a success. We didn’t talk THAT much about charter schools, because they didn’t feel that controversial at that time.
But then, just a few months later, the mood around charter schools changed. Around the same time as the Democratic Primary began — it sure feels like twenty years ago, doesn’t it? — education reporters who spent a year covering teacher strikes heard nothing but bad things about charter schools, and published articles to that effect. Suddenly, charter schools became toxic. Booker was on the defense about them for months in Iowa. Nobody cared whether Newark was a success or not. They only wanted to talk to him about charter schools.
But then things changed again.
There was a great article in the NYT by Erica Green and Eliza Shapiro last week about how the large base of support among African Americans for charter schools. You know who is “meh” about charter schools? Suburbanites. You know why? Their schools are decent. I wrote a quick article in The Atlantic about that awhile back. The NYT article put charter school critics on the defense.
Then there was a lot of chatter about how voters were looking for a more moderate candidate than Warren and Sanders. So, Booker wrote an op-ed in the NYT showing his support for charter schools.
Meanwhile, Warren, who had taken a very strong stance against charter schools, is now taking some major hits. Turns out she sent her own kid to a private school and then wasn’t entirely super open about that fact. And just the other day, she gave an interview with the NEA that said that parents should do something about their broken and crumbling schools. Charter school advocates said she was blaming the victim.
So, in an election that is growing increasingly pointless and depressing, suddenly there’s a small skirmish about charter schools. But I’m writing about marching bands instead. Don’t ask. I can’t explain it.