Clinton drinks anti-charter school Kool-Aid

In the midst of an eternal presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton surveyed a smorgasbord of potential treats she could have served the electorate last weekend while campaigning in South Carolina, and decided on a gigantic pitcher of stale teachers-union Kool-Aid about charter schools.

Hillary Clinton in Iowa, via Wikimedia Commons.
Hillary Clinton in Iowa, via Wikimedia Commons.

In a profoundly disappointing pronouncement, especially given President Bill Clinton’s strong support for charters and her own history of advocacy, Clinton declared, “Charters don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”

Then she offered dessert: “Public schools…thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.”

Let’s look at these statements with some common sense and facts. When one reviews the ten districts nationally with the greatest percentage of students in charter schools, accounting for nearly a quarter of all students in the US enrolled in charters, more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, while 86 percent are from minority backgrounds. Nationwide, 63 percent of charter student qualify for free and reduced lunches compared with 48 percent in traditional public schools. The African-American population is larger—28 percent versus 16 percent; the Hispanic population the same—28 percent versus 23 percent.

The charter movement is indeed growing, and while it’s true that the middle class is beginning to take notice, charter schools around the country have not been predominantly in middle class or higher income neighborhoods. They are in urban locales or blue-collar suburbs, so it strains credulity to say that they aren’t teaching the kids representative of those areas.  The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools published this month a list of the 160 school districts where charters now enroll at least 10 percent of students. Even a cursory review supports this assertion.

As for keeping students, the facts do not support Clinton. When parents choose a school, they don’t easily abandon it, especially involuntarily. Parent satisfaction rates in charter schools are extremely high, especially compared with traditional public schools. Multiple studies show higher graduation rates in all schools of choice, including charters.

The oft-repeated generalization that charters systematically “push out” low-performing students just to make themselves look better has no empirical support. Charters are funded primarily by keeping students in seats every day. Throwing students out en masse does not even make sense in the context of the opponents’ continuous assertions about “privatization” and “charter operators being all about the money.” Anecdotally, abuses may take place, but this is why strong authorizing is critical to a healthy charter movement.

Clinton also noted her long historical support for charter schools had been conditioned somehow on a premise that “the original idea for charters was to learn what worked and then apply them in the public schools.” She is right that was one idea for charters, but certainly not the only one, or even the main one. It has now become some mythical reason for limiting the growth of charter schools. Nearly every state law, however, outlines multiple purposes for charters, including improving academic outcomes, competition in the education sector, and increasing parental choice. Charters are not intended to be subsidiaries of school districts and indeed are in the process of creating an entirely different model.

Turning to Clinton’s assertions about traditional school districts taking everybody, Jack Coons, one of the American Center’s founders, wrote years ago that America’s upper class chooses its schools and the lower classes are sent to schools. The Zelman v. Simmons-Harris Supreme Court case in 2002 that found vouchers constitutional also pointed out that the Ohio legislature had, at the same time it enacted the voucher law for the students in Cleveland, authorized the identical additional tuition grant, $2250, over and above what the state would pay for any student, for any surrounding suburban school district that served a Cleveland school district student. Not one district accepted a student from Cleveland.

School districts take students in their ZIP codes, not “everyone.” We are becoming a country more segregated by race and income within our ZIP codes. Try and blend these ZIP codes together, and you’ll be met with outcry from privileged parents. The example comes from Brooklyn, but the same occurs most everywhere to one degree or another, and traditional public schools are at the heart of the controversy.  Chicago, Dallas, New York, and Philadelphia public schools are the most segregated in the country and are home to some of the worst-performing urban schools in the nation.

If you’re a parent living in the attendance boundary of a multigenerational failing public school, Clinton’s canard that they “take” you is not a reassuring path to a bright future for your child, but a sentence to functional illiteracy – and all too often, poverty or prison. This is why choice, the right to cross boundaries, and access to charter and private schools are essential. These families cannot pack up and move to the suburbs.

Finally, a word about “not being given the resources.” We spend more than $600 billion annually on public education, almost all of it on traditional school districts. By any measure, we are tops in educational spending in the industrial world and that total has grown astronomically over the last four decades. We have mediocre to poor outcomes, whether test scores or other measures, such as graduation rates at both high school and college levels. These are not explained by extraordinary American poverty. Our excuses for this education-by-ZIP-code system are running out.

Our system does not work for millions of our families and children. We see areas where these reforms are working, but the changes inconvenience the status quo interest groups and the adults in the system. We need a fact- and evidence-based discussion about education in our political campaign. It’s unclear, however, if anyone running for president is interested in dumping the Kool-Aid pitchers and biting into the tough meat of education policy.

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BY Peter H. Hanley

Peter H. Hanley is director of Discovery Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education, the successor to the American Center for School Choice. The Center remains dedicated to bringing school choice to the center of the political spectrum since Peter led the merger in June 2015. He successfully created the national Commission on Faith-based Schools, which continues at Discovery, to improve the understanding of the important part these schools have in American education and the need for expanding public support for parental choice. In addition, he is the board president of a charter management organization with schools in Oakland and Richmond, California, sits on a Waldorf-inspired charter school board in Oakland, and is in his fourth term as an elected board member in San Mateo, California.