Charter schools aren't all evil: Betsy DeVos as education secretary presents an opportunity for Democrats

Democrats must champion charter school teachers as much as they champion public school ones

Published February 20, 2017 4:59PM (EST)

 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

This article originally appeared on American Politics Made Super.

On last week's "Real Time with Bill Maher," Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken had stark words for liberals hoping to stop the Trump agenda.

“The Democrats cannot let that stand,” Maher said, referring to Trump’s Supreme Court pick. His audience cheered.

“I hear everyone applauding. Stop applauding,” Franken chided. “They have the majority.”

It was a stark reminder of how much the Democrats had lost since November. Merrick Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, will never see a confirmation hearing. The Republicans have the majority, and that is that.

So it behooves Democrats to stop thinking about what should have been and start thinking about what must be, and what they can do to survive and counterattack in the new Trump era.

One flashpoint? Education and charter schools. If played right, charter schools and their teachers can be turned into a win for the Democrats. If done poorly, the Democrats will hand a victory to the Republicans they don’t deserve.

First, we have to acknowledge that Betsy DeVos and Trump will get whatever they want on education for at least two years.

The appointment of Betsy DeVos, the deeply unqualified influence buyer whose fortune is based on a barely legal pyramid scheme, as education secretary came despite deep opposition and strong protests. Nowhere has Democratic weakness been better illustrated.

The DeVos and Trump era will signal a new assault on public schools, especially in Republican-led states. Neither DeVos nor Trump seems interested in another round of federally led reform like No Child Left Behind or Common Core, both of which have been largely abandoned. What they are clear on: more charter schools as soon as possible.

But they are limited in what they can do for new charter schools. The Department of Education’s powers relies heavily on grants to enforce standards. These grants are most often tied to Title I funds for low-income schools, which bolster school funds for those districts that cannot raise cash off tax-strapped neighborhoods. Since the 10th Amendment leaves all powers not explicitly stated in the Constitution to the states, education, which has no constitutional amendment, is almost entirely left up to them.

So the Feds have never been able to pass a new law and force compliance; instead, they create a new grant, which states can opt for it they like. This was most recently  —  and notoriously  —  done with Race to the Top, a program designed by the Obama administration to force schools to adopt stricter standards to get at a big pile of federal dollars. It largely backfired: instead of producing higher quality students, it produced schools that were very good at chasing the boxes on the Race to the Top forms, resulting in an obsessive testing culture best exhibited by the nonsense “test prep season” that took hold in both public and charter schools.

The DeVos era — more charter schools with less accountability

Since DeVos clearly has no idea what she’s doing, she will likely rely on “the market”  —  a combination of parents wanting what’s best for their kids and hedge fund managers wanting what's best for their bottom line — to reorder the education system. From what we can tell, she has no idea how to build, run or improve a school. That means, from the federal level, grants will be doled out based on her perception of success, which must by the nature of her ignorance be limited.

What will she look for in success? Well, certainly standardized test scores.

Test scores are notoriously unreliable in determining the quality of a school. They are a measure, but they should never be the measure. But since education is hard to quantify, people who have never worked in the field rely on them. They are clean measurements that allow lazy politicians to slap the label of “failure” on schools.

And that may be as far as it goes for her. If a school can keep up its state test scores, it will be allowed to function with impunity. And here is the opportunity for Democrats.

Charter schools are not necessarily bad things, especially in the hands of seasoned and dedicated professionals. But without informed oversight, they can become little more than cash cows for their owners. This is despite their non-profit status: A CEO of a large network can pad their own salaries well beyond a normal public school administrator. Success Academics, a New York City charter network infamous for test-chasing, longer-than-pedagogically necessary school days and high teacher turnover, pays its CEO, Eva Moskowitz, over $550,000 per year. This is twice what the chancellor of the entire NYC public school system earns. Non-profit the network might be, Moskowitz is clearly finding a way to personally reap the rewards she believes she deserves.

And this is in New York City, where the still-powerful teachers union can pull elections their way. Additionally, setting up a charter in New York is difficult because space is at a premium. But in states with few unions and plenty of emptying malls, someone like Moskowitz could easily roll up with a marketing blitz to set up a new charter school network overnight.

Without accountability, charter schools function much like a private business, with all the benefits and drawbacks therein. Gifted network operators will run gifted and precise networks without the hindrance of regulation. Meanwhile, ill-informed, ideological or badly trained network operators will do the same. Parents will have to spend years sorting one from the other at the expense of their children.

Every big, bad idea in education takes two to four years to be discredited

Schools operate on a yearly basis: Changing course mid-stream is extremely difficult. Students develop habits not easily overcome. Teachers set plans that are difficult to change. Administrators have early trainings that become gospel. In other words, if one starts off the year with a bad idea, it takes at least a year for it to be tossed out.

The best example of a bad idea? A bad hire. Like all professions, schools also hire people who are not, for whatever reason, a great fit. Unlike most professions, teaching has a clean hiring season in the spring and summer. If you fire someone mid-year, you risk being unable to replace them until much later in the year, leaving a class without a competent teacher for months. It’s much safer to simply replace them at summer. But that means putting up with them for an entire school year.

And the bigger the system, the longer it takes. Race to the Top almost immediately pulled attention away from physical education and the arts; those classes were reduced, cut or canceled, because there was no Race to the Top indicator for them.

When a school district embarked on chasing Race to the Top money, it took a year to plan for the change. It took another year for them to enact their change. By year three, it began to become habit, but its deficiencies were apparent almost immediately. Only by year four could discussion begin of how Race to the Top had maligned the education system. By year five they started to ease off it; year six saw it largely rolled back.

So when a charter school network starts on a bad idea in a Republican state, it will take at least four years before “the market”  —  that is, hedge fund managers and the parents who might choose the school  —  will understand that the school network is a scam.

It could take longer; schools will lawyer up and fight to stay open, as any business would. That will delay the supposed refining effects of the market even further.

And that opening of a bad door is where Democrats can benefit

The political reason Republicans support charter schools is because they want to break up the monolithic teacher union vote. Much as they have gerrymandered Democratic districts into oblivion in swing states, they also assault public schools and their unions as ineffective morasses of incompetence hoping to crack the union vote.

Yet Republicans miscalculate when they believe replacing union teachers with charter school teachers will suddenly create a new Republican voting block. Case in point is the New York City charter school market. Despite the growing charter school scene, Republicans have gained little to no traction in the city, despite victories nationwide. Neither charter school teachers nor parents are switching sides to the GOP. Instead, they fight internecine warfare with fellow Democrats over the issue through primaries.

Some charter school CEOs may be natural Republicans, seeking deregulation and greater autonomy from government control, but charter school teachers crave both, from workplace standards to curriculum oversight. Moskowitz loves her long school days and her test drill classes. Both are easy ways to manage her diverse population of teachers, allowing her to hire and fire based on two basic sets of data: how many hours a teacher works and how many points a teacher’s class earns on a test.

But her teachers clearly don’t. Common complaints on Success Academies’ Glassdoor reviews are no work-life balance and poor management: the former the result of long hours, the latter the result of test chasing and a weak understanding of education beyond such tests. The high turnover  —  and constant open jobs  —  is proof that while Republicans may laud Success Academies as a breakthrough for high poverty neighborhoods, they are winning no converts to their political aisle amongst the organization’s rank and file.

What they are doing is breaking up the old Democratic political machine, and even that could be to the Democrats’ benefit.

* * *

That is an opportunity for Democrats

It is useful to think of Democrats as having two major halves: the Clinton Democrats and the Obama Democrats. The Clinton faction uses the traditional machinery of politics: unions, insider endorsement, superdelegates and identity litmus tests. The Obama faction uses far less of those tools, relying on inspiration, especially for young people, and a message that appeals to the common good to bring about grassroots-led change.

The Clinton faction lost the 2016 election partially by relying on outdated modes of politics. They used those methods to crush the only heir acceptable to the Obama faction, Bernie Sanders.

Teachers unions, part of the Clinton faction, are no longer as strategic as they once were. If anything, they are becoming a liability. Millennials are less unionized than any other generation; when they are unhappy with work, they quit and find a better job. Charter schools suit their mentality much better than public schools, allowing millennial teachers to jump from network to network trying to find the right fit rather than staying on and hoping to force change where they work. This behavior doesn’t make them natural Republicans; instead, most remain liberal, horrified by the rhetoric of the Trump administration.

Teaching is, after all, a profession that attracts liberals. It is a public service that is underpaid and carried out by those who seek a social good. There is little they get from lower taxes, deregulation or market competition  —  in fact, much of that directly threatens their well-being. Charter school or public, a Republican teacher is often rare enough to stand out.

Democrats must adapt to the changing times. Public schools will remain important, but there is no reason the education question must be either/or. Charter schools can complement public schools, and vice versa, if done with the right priority.

Democrats must not demonize charter schools categorically. They must attack the bad networks  —  the test chasers, the networks that can’t hold onto teachers, the ones who overpay CEOs while underpaying teachers. Democrats should also strive to eliminate the Trump University-style charter schools that will inevitably crop up in the DeVos era. These schools will be golden opportunities to attack Republican education policy. But they shouldn’t be hit as a reason to dismantle charters; good charter networks must be highlighted so charter school teachers don’t feel they’re being forced into a political corner.

They must also find ways to hook charter school teachers into the systems Democrats protect. This could be done by giving charter school teachers the opportunity to join the public teacher pensions so jealously guarded by unions. Not only would that increase the pension pot, it would also build party loyalty to the Democrats, who don’t advocate for gutting these pensions. It would keep more millennials in teaching  —  one of the major perks of being a NYC public teacher is, after all, the pension  —  for longer.

Democrats can also help charter schools by changing the methods of both school and teacher accreditation. Charter schools that go into tough neighborhoods must not be measured the same as schools that stay in easy ones. Some charter schools should be allowed to specialize in a single disability: that kind of specialization would be optimal for a charter, as highlighted in a recent VICE News on HBO piece on a Louisiana school designed primarily for dyslexic students. This could also work well in other areas: bringing back trade schools, computer science and STEM schools, English language schools, and liberal arts and drama schools.

Teacher licenses should also be tied to on-site observation by their immediate bosses rather than central districts or offices. Passing some basic tests is a reasonable ask for teacher licenses, but so too are observations by principals, department heads and other supervisors. Teacher licenses must be faster than they are in some places: in New York, a teaching license can demand a whole new Master’s degree even from someone who has a Ph.D., should that Ph.D. be in anything but education.

In other words, Democrats must champion charter school teachers as much as they champion public school ones. The DeVos era means there will be far more than just a few years to go. Some charter school operators may be natural Republicans, but their employees are not. The Democrats could lose them if they declare war on all charter schools. That would be exactly what the GOP wants.

By Ryan Bohl