Charter-school narratives and presidential-election politics

Charter-school expansion advocates have responded quickly and energetically to remarks Hillary Clinton made at last Friday’s televised Democratic candidate forum in South Carolina:

The original idea behind the charter schools… was to learn what worked and apply them in the public schools. And here’s a couple of problems. Most charter schools, I don’t want to say every one, but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids. And if they do, they don’t keep them.

The public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do thankfully take everybody, and they don’t get the resources and help and support they need to take care of every child’s education. I want parents to be able to exercise choice within the public school system. Not outside of it, but within it.

I am still a firm believer that the public school system is one of the real pillars of our democracy, and it is a path for opportunity. But I am also fully aware there are a lot of substandard public schools. But part of the reason for that is policymakers and local politicians will not fund schools in poor areas that take care of poor children to the level they need to be.

As Vox’s Libby Nelson pointed out, this is a shift in tone from the Obama administration rhetoric on charter schools, and was probably a reflection of what Clinton had read or heard about the latest controversy coming from Success Academy charter network in New York.

Democrats for Education Reform’s (DFER) Charles Barone responded on Monday with a statement on where he thought Clinton was wrong: on whether charter schools are public, whether they serve difficult-to-teach students, and whether the original idea of charter schools was to be the R&D for public schools. Others have chimed in, often with less reserve and more heated rhetoric than Barone. After all, this is in the context of a presidential election.

With regard to Clinton, her comments at another South Carolina forum on Saturday offer a more complete picture of her views of charter-schools in the context of educational opportunity:

To be honest, I don’t think Clinton’s remarks are about charter schools — they are about opportunity more broadly. If you listen to the above clip, you will hear where the audience applauds. It’s not about charter schools; it’s in response to comments about the dilapidated conditions of schools in South Carolina.This is Hillary Clinton’s version of triangulation and pivoting: sounding wonky (and semi-boring) on a potential wedge issue and then finishing with an appeal to a common set of values. At least on this issue, it will probably work. Black parents who want to send their children to charter schools still care about those issues and don’t want Black children in local public schools to be sitting in classrooms with leaky ceilings and with 20-year-old textbooks.

On the other hand, if you are an advocate of charter-school expansion and stuck in the politics of that issue, you worry about the narratives around charter schools. So you will see responses in the same news cycle to potential threats to a preferred narrative of charter schools as the solution to urban school problems (or whatever narrative you wish). Here is the problem with that approach, from a broader standpoint: once an educational practice becomes broad enough, you don’t get to monopolize its narrative. Almost by definition, no proposed broad-based education practice survives unless the rhetoric around it is flexible. (See Cuban, 1990, on this point.) It may be possible to control a narrative on the national scale for a short time, or on the state level for a longer time, but as we have seen in New York with the Success Academy network, other narratives are often available.

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