Kerr: Real Democrats support charter schools

This op-ed originally appeared on CommonWealth

WITH JUST DAYS before America selects a successor to President Obama, a longstanding kerfuffle has broken into the open on his longstanding, crystal clear opposition to artificial caps on public charter schools.

An aggressive form of this denial came to the forefront of Massachusetts politics this summer when, after the Democratic State Committee rushed a vote without discussion oppose ballot Question 2 to expand charter school access, the state Senate president’s communications director tweeted: “This just in: Democrats in Massachusetts turn out to be real Democrats after all, vote to oppose increasing charter schools.”

At Democrats for Education Reform, we missed the memo about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton not being “real Democrats.”

To dispel any doubts that charter schools have Democratic support, you need only look to the bench of national Democratic leaders who are champions of high-quality public charter schools. The first major backer of charter schools was none other than Al Shanker, the progressive American Federation of Teachers union leader who himself argued for autonomy, statewide accountability, competition, and no arbitrary caps on growth in charter schooling. The first charter school law in the country, in Minnesota, was spearheaded by a Democratic state senator. As the charter movement grew nationally, it attracted the support of such progressive icons as Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota; former Democratic National Committee chair and Vermont governor Howard Dean; Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York; Congressman George Miller of California; Martin Luther King III; and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.

The first national charter school law was advanced by Democratic President Bill Clinton. That law, the federal Charter School Program of 1994, jumpstarted a Democratic trend of replicating high-quality charter schools. By the time Clinton left office, 1,700 charter schools were open in 36 states. In a 2012 speech delivered to the public charter network KIPP, Clinton explained why he supports the spirit of innovation behind the charter school model: “Innovation is not just coming up with a new idea, innovation is rapidly replicating excellence,” he said. That kind of excellence is exactly why Clinton said, in the same speech, “I wish there were 10 times or 100 times as many KIPP schools because you have proved that you can replicate excellence.”

 

President Obama took up Clinton’s mantle, making the expansion of high-quality charter school seats part of his enduring legacy. In 2008, Obama promised to double funding for high-quality, public charter schools, and he has made good on that promise, especially in Massachusetts. In 2010, Obama’s Race to the Top competitive grant program tied increased education funding to targeted reform measures like increased district accountability and expansion of high-quality charter seats. “I called for a doubling of our investment in charter schools,” Obama said, “so that students and parents have choices within the public school system, because I believe in public schools.”

The legislation that Massachusetts passed to secure that grant doubled the cap on charter schools in the state’s lowest-performing districts, Nationally, Obama has shown his support for public charter schools by proclaiming National Charter School Week and has called himself a “big proponent of charter schools.” His first secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has endorsed Question 2 in Massachusetts, as has his current Secretary of Education John King – a founder of Roxbury Prep Charter School – who said that “any arbitrary cap on the growth of high performing charters is a mistake.”

On November 8, Hillary Clinton will be elected the next pro-charter school president. Secretary Clinton has spent her whole career as a progressive education reformer. While working for the Children’s Defense Fund, she came to New Bedford to make sure all children had access to a quality education. She engineered standards-based accountability in Arkansas when she was first lady there, and she was instrumental in passing Bill Clinton’s charter school law when he was president. Symbolically, the videoannouncing her candidacy for president featured a woman who was moving out of her neighborhood just so her daughter could “belong to a better school.” In July, Clinton was booed at a National Education Association convention for saying “whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working […] and share it with schools across America.”

In this campaign, some people initially doubted where Secretary Clinton would land on charter schools. That’s understandable given the politics around charters in this election season. But Clinton has lately been showing her reformer roots. When directly asked whether states should impose uniform caps on charter schools, Secretary Clinton responded that states should develop measures to keep charter schools accountable, but ultimately “allow successful public charter schools to add new campuses or grade levels.”

Democrats have also led the charter school movement here in Massachusetts. The state’s first charter school law, passed in 1993, was championed by Senate education committee chair (and later Senate president) Tom Birmingham and House education committee chair Mark Roosevelt, both liberal Democrats who have since endorsed Question 2. “Voters,” say Birmingham and Roosevelt, “shouldn’t block access to great charter schools for parents who desperately seek an alternative to what their district offers.”

Then-state Sen. Stephen Lynch, now a Democratic congressman, was the lead sponsor on the 1997 bill to lift the Massachusetts cap for the first time. Another cap lift, in 2010, was passed when President Obama launched the federal Race to the Top program. Democrats in both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly supported the resulting legislation to double the charter school cap. The lead author of that bill, Democratic State Rep. Marty Walz, went on to lead the Massachusetts chapter of Planned Parenthood and is now the chair of the DFER Massachusetts advisory council.

Even as the issue has become more contentious in Massachusetts politics, courageous Democrats who understand the facts remain strongly in favor of charter expansion. The current House chair of the education committee, Alice Peisch, and her two predecessors, Walz and Pat Haddad, all support lifting the cap on charter schools despite starting their careers as charter school opponents.

 

As these lawmakers’ evolution shows, even charter school opponents become supporters when they spend time with the data and become deeply acquainted with facts, as education committee chairs must. Walz and then-Democratic state Sen. Robert O’Leary, who together chaired the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education during the passage of Massachusetts’ 2010 Education Reform Act, wrote with regards to a 2015 attempt to lift the cap legislatively that Massachusetts should “build on what works” by lifting the cap on public charter schools.

Congressman Lynch, a labor Democrat and former ironworker union president, has seen first-hand the positive impact of charter schooling through his work at Boston Collegiate Charter School, a high-performing charter school in Dorchester that he-cofounded. Lynch calls himself “very much pro-charter school.” On his support for Question 2, he said “I certainly am very, very supportive of [public charter schools] and I support expanding the cap.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo is another courageous Democrat willing to counter powerful special interests in favor of what’s right, explaining, “I decided to do what I feel is best for students. Whatever the political ramifications may be, I think it’s the right thing to do.” US Education Secretary John King and former US senator Mo Cowan, both of whom played leadership roles in the Massachusetts charter school sector, also both support Question 2. In a recent op-ed, Cowan wrote that lifting the cap on public charter schools “currently is our best option to empower more families to choose the right public education for their children and for the rest of us to support innovation in education, the foundation upon which every innovative idea is built.”

Support for charter schools is also strong among the next generation of Democratic leaders, especially in cities and communities of color. Boston City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Josh Zakim refused to endorse a Boston City Council resolution against Question 2, and Campbell has since come out strongly for the charter cap lift, making the case that her constituents want better schools.

The soon-to-be only women of color in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Juana Matias of Lawrence and Chynah Tyler of Roxbury, ran as unabashed charter supporters and have both endorsed Question 2. When she is elected on November 8, Tyler will be the first charter school alumna to serve in the Massachusetts House. Her principal at Roxbury Prep was John King, President Obama’s education secretary.

The notion that Massachusetts Democrats don’t support charter expansion is a myth. Democrats who care about good government, want quality education for all students, and know the facts understand that charter schools must be part of the solution.

At Democrats for Education Reform, we support charter schools in Massachusetts because they are proven to provide a quality education to students who have too often been left behind by traditional schools. As progressive education reformers, we want every child have access to a quality district school – and we will fight to make district schools better no matter what happens with Question 2.

Right now, though, there are simply too many children in chronically underperforming district schools. Every student currently on a charter school waitlist has just one chance at a K-12 education – they cannot wait decades for adults to solve adult problems and fix the district schools. For these children, Massachusetts charter schools represent the opportunity for a better future.

If we as progressives believe that government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have a responsibility to ensure that it does. This means identify areas where the status quo is insufficient, try new solutions, measure the impact of those solutions, and replicate what works. It is a data-driven process that must be separated from mere ideology. As progressives, we employ this process to bend our social structures toward justice. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s first secretary of education, put it best when he said, “Our policies have to be based on evidence and based on facts. Secondly, we have to be the party that fights for those who have a harder time fighting for themselves.”

This process is mostly common sense, but in practice it is often difficult to achieve. Any status quo exists because people with power have benefited from it, whether consciously or not. It takes courage to admit that such a status quo is broken, failing the members of our society who have most often been left behind. And it takes even more courage to work to change that status quo. But that’s what being a progressive and a Democrat should be all about. You identify the problem, you use data to find a solution that works, and once you’ve found that solution, you replicate it.

The mechanism by which charter schools are funded is also fundamentally progressive. In Massachusetts, the money follows the child. This means simply that schools receive funding for the number of students they educate. When charter schools do well by their students, demand increases and more students want to attend. There is no “siphoning” or “draining” of money from public schools because (1) charter schools arepublic schools, and (2) the money always follows the child.

In terms of results, the academic consensus is clear that Massachusetts’s urban charter schools do a better job of educating their students than do traditional districts. A succession of academic studies from nonpartisan, independent institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, and the left-leaning Brookings Institution have consistently verified the substantial positive impact of Massachusetts charter schools.

In the most recent Brookings Institution study, respected education researchers Sarah Cohodes and Susan M. Dynarski wrote, “One year in a Boston charter […] erases roughly a third of the racial achievement gap.” They conclude that “[t]here is a deep well of rigorous, relevant research on the performance of charter schools in Massachusetts. In fact, it is hard to think of an education policy for which the evidence is more clear.”

History, conviction, and data make the Democratic case for charter school expansion. As progressive Democrats, we have always supported the civil rights of disempowered groups over the simple and classically conservative ideal of local control, which has so often been used to disempower those very same people. Democrats accordingly played leading roles in the development and implementation of charter schools here. There is room for ideological disagreement within the Democratic Party, but no one can seriously claim that Massachusetts charter schools don’t work, or that that Democrats have not supported them.

Believing that government can make a difference in people’s lives comes along with a responsibility to measure that impact and do more of what works. Charter schools work in Massachusetts, and their carefully measured impact embodies Democratic values. That much is clear. President Obama’s belief is similarly clear. He has called on states to lift charter caps and stated that such caps are “not good for our children, our economy, or our country.”

That’s why we at Democrats for Education Reform are “Yes on 2.” We hope you will join us in advancing our state’s—and, yes, Barack Obama’s – education legacy by voting “Yes,” too.

Liam Kerr is Massachusetts state director of Democrats for Education Reform.