Vouchers have never been very popular with a majority of Democrats. But charter schools? Plenty of Democrats, voters and politicians alike, have supported them with the same enthusiasm as Republicans. President Obama, Vice President Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan were big charter boosters, creating policies which led to an increase in the number and distribution of the schools around the country. Presidential hopeful and former Newark, New Jersey, mayor Cory Booker has long been a vocal charter advocate. And they weren't alone. Many Democrats in local, state and national office either actively supported the spread of charters or quietly accepted their presence, and Democratic voters followed suit.
That's changing. Democratic candidates who give full-throated endorsements to charter schools are becoming an endangered species. Biden is shifting away from his support of charters. Booker tries to avoid the subject. Democrats across the political landscape are emphasizing increasing teacher salaries, boosting funding for Title 1 and putting more money into school infrastructure. Charters, many of them are saying, are siphoning money away from the schools which educate the vast majority of our children.
Democratic voters are moving in the same direction.
That could spell trouble for the charter school movement, which has counted on bipartisan agreement that our public schools are a mess and we need an infusion of new schools and new approaches — read, charter schools — to give children, especially poor and minority children, a better chance at a quality education. If one side of the political aisle representing half the country's population no longer supports charters, the schools' future becomes shaky.
But charter schools and the whole privatization/"education reform" movement have a secret weapon which helps them survive the ebbs and flows of politics. Money. Lots of money. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year are spent by members of the one percent to promote charter schools and demonize traditional public schools. The effort rivals the billions the Koch brothers and their allies spend to push their self-serving version of libertarianism.
The Billionaire Boys Club. That's what critics often call the ultra-rich charter supporters, who are Democrats as well as Republicans.
Because of the well funded public relations efforts charters have enjoyed, they have been able to rely on their manufactured reputation instead of actual accomplishments to maintain their popularity. In unbiased studies, charters come out looking a little better or a little worse than district schools depending on the emphasis of a given study. Overall, it's pretty much a wash. But the glowing praise they receive from deep-pocketed boosters and the organizations they support has helped bolster the myth that charters are the superior option.
Recently, one member of the Billionaire Boys Club, Nick Hanauer, defected.
He writes about the reasons for his change of heart
in an article in The Atlantic
. I don't often say this, but the article is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand why the notion that improving schools will take care of society's ills is wrongheaded, even destructive.
Hanauer spent millions of dollars and years of effort promoting the idea that improving our district schools and supplementing them with charter schools was the way to address problems of poverty and income equality.
"But after decades of organizing and giving," he writes, "I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong."
"[I]ncome inequality has exploded not because of our country’s educational failings but despite its educational progress. Make no mistake: Education is an unalloyed good. We should advocate for more of it, so long as it’s of high quality. But the longer we pretend that education is the answer to economic inequality, the harder it will be to escape our new Gilded Age."
Among the country's largest family foundations, Hanauer writes, a majority talk about education as one of the fundamental issues they must address.
"Only one mentions anything about the plight of working people," wrote Hanauer, "economic inequality, or wages."
And when he talks with his wealthy friends about income inequality and the personal and societal problems accompanying it, "[they] push back with something about the woeful state of our public schools."
Hanauer is only one guy. His defection won't change much by itself. But recently Bill Gates, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on educational innovations, most of which have been failures, has made similar statements, that we have to address the root causes of poverty and inequality rather than expecting our schools to carry the burden.
If this becomes a trend among the other members of the Billionaire Boys Club, charter schools will find themselves with fewer rich cheerleaders to help them maintain their inflated reputation.