A singular voice, former president Bill Clinton, sounded a note of caution about charter schools in a speech in New York Tuesday and thank goodness. From Huffington Post:
Charter schools have great potential, but they aren’t living up to their promise, former President Bill Clinton said late Tuesday night at a gathering of about 100 international philanthropists and businesspeople.
“If you’re going to get into education, I think it’s really important that you invest in what works,” Clinton said. “For example, New Orleans has better schools than it had before Hurricane Katrina, and it’s the only public school [district] in America where 100 percent of the schools are charter schools.”
But the reforms shouldn’t stop there, he added. “They still haven’t done what no state has really done adequately, which is to set up a review system to keep the original bargain of charter schools, which was if they weren’t outperforming the public model, they weren’t supposed to get their charter renewed,” he said.
Bill Clinton has wandered into my briar patch. Not in a wholly perfect way. It is far too simplistic, for one thing, to declare New Orleans charter schools a success story. It actually is a reflection of Clinton’s cautionary note: Some charter schools are working; some are not; poor, black children are often far removed from the schools that are “working.”
And about “working”: Across the country, schools that succeed often succeed because they enroll students far more likely to succeed based on the usual demographic predictors. It takes no crystal ball, for example, to predict that the new Quest charter middle school in Chenal Valley will have higher standardized test scores than the Henderson Middle School a few miles away in the Little Rock School District. One (Quest) has a student body that is majority white with a small minority poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches. One (Henderson) has a virtually all-black student body of children in poverty. Demographics invariably are destiny in schools. Will higher test scores alone prove Quest is “outperforming” Henderson?
For too long, the Billionaire Boys Club — Waltons, Stephenses, Murphys, Hussmans in Arkansas — have paid big money to support lobbies that argue that the word “charter” is magical and guarantees success over conventional public schools. Some charters have proven to be outliers — advancing students who meet the demographic profile of students who typically lag behind. But others have been education disasters. Some have been scams. Some have merely succeeded by skimming cream from school districts with largely difficult populations. The good ones also benefit from strict procedures that discourage poor students from attending. They self-select families that WANT to succeed. Imagine if every school in America enrolled only students with parents committed to — and participating in — their academic success.
The Arkansas Board of Education, after an earlier laissez faire approach to charter schools, has become more rigorous in its reviews. It is still likely to approve schools established for no good educational benefit except to provide an escape valve — a neighborhood school for middle class white parts of Little Rock, for example.
The encouragement of Bill Clinton for all to take a more nuanced look is welcome. Clinton is again triangulating a topic — he supports charter schools, but not unilaterally; he supports testing, but not too much; he stressed the importance of good teachers. Charter schools are neither instant salvation nor the bogeyman that the opposite poles (yes, sometimes even me) would have you believe. Gary Newton, the Walton-paid lobbyist in Little Rock who gins a steady stream of pro-charter, anti-LRSD propaganda, could take a lesson. I’d be surprised to hear him, for example, praising New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as Bill Clinton did for tough regulation of charter schools.