Education Opinion

Hillary Clinton, the Future of Charter Schools, and the Presidency

By Douglas N. Harris — February 01, 2016 7 min read
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This year brings the election of the 45th president of the United States. I’ll occasionally touch on this and there is no better place to start than with Secretary Clinton who has been talking more about K-12 than just about any candidate not named Jeb Bush. That’s not surprising for a candidate who has already been endorsed by both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA). However, in the process, Clinton has dug up some political landmines on the topic of charter schools.

My main argument here is that education advocates, especially charter supporters, have over-reacted to these comments.

In her November AFT roundtable session, Clinton drew headlines and recriminations from the reform community for criticizing charter schools: “most charter schools” Clinton said, “they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” This was an unwelcomed shot across the bow to the charter movement and Clinton’s other long-time allies such as Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Bill Clinton played a major role in bringing the charter school idea to the national stage. So, the comment probably felt like a betrayal and reinforced their fears about her union endorsements. Clinton’s comments have even been cited as a reason why Michael Bloomberg might enter the presidential race as an independent to compete against Clinton.

Should they really be concerned? When we look at the context, and the types of arguments usually made about charters, her comments do not seem surprising, nor a real change in her perspective or policy plans.

First, consider the context. Her meeting with the AFT came right on the heals of revelations that New York City charter management organization (CMO), Success Academies, had a secret list of students they were trying to push out. As I argued in a prior post, this was a major error and the CMO leader, Eva Moskovitz, admitted as much. The controversy also involved one of the main concerns about charters (and vouchers): that schools will cherry-pick students. And Clinton happened to be talking in the middle of competitive primary season to an important constituency that opposes charters. It can hardly come as a surprise that Clinton raised this real concern.

Her criticism was also narrow and targeted. Clinton wasn’t back-tracking on the main arguments in favor of charters--choice, innovation, or better results. She didn’t talk about charters draining resources from public schools or about privatization. Rather, her comments were calibrated to keep her in the middle on the school reform debate. She was just following a basic rule of rhetoric: when you disagree with the audience you are trying to persuade (she is pro-charter, the AFT is not), you try to win them over by acknowledging part of the audience’s argument (cream-skimming by charters is bad). In this case, she was criticizing behavior that even charters agree is inappropriate.

Clinton advisor Ann O’Leary tried to explain and defend the comments to AFT. Arguing that the comments implied no change in position, O’Leary cited a 15-year-old Clinton comment: “I do support charter schools that are done the right way. Accountable public schools with well-trained teachers. I believe in giving parents more choices in selecting from among public schools.” O’Leary connects the dots to Clinton’s more recent comments and argues that the criticism of charter cream-skimming is just an extension of her support for charter accountability and for doing charters “the right way.”

O’Leary also correctly pointed out that Secretary Clinton’s support for charters has been rooted partly in the goal of innovation. (AFT’s Al Shanker saw it the same way. See Rick Kahlenberg’s great book). But it is increasingly clear that innovation is no longer the strongest argument for charters. We had two panels at our June conference, both of which touched on the murkiness of word “innovation.”

To clarify the innovation debate, let me just take the dictionary definition: “a new idea, device, or method.” By this definition, charter schools aren’t that innovative. Instead, a large number of them are adopting mostly old-style modes of management (performance-based accountability for educators, data-driven management) and instruction (strict discipline, focus on basic academic skills measured on tests). Anecdotally, some charters also do not seem inclined to share innovations that do emerge, which makes actual innovations less useful.

This is not necessarily a criticism. It’s possible charters may be able to create better versions of these throwback approaches to management and instruction. Also, their approaches are often different from most traditional public schools and this yields a greater variety of options for families. Being different isn’t innovative, but it could still be good. (Others have made similar points.) And there are exceptions where real innovation is occurring and spreading. But they are exceptions and innovation is simply no longer as strong an argument for charters as others such as choice.

Innovation hasn’t generally been Clinton’s lead argument either. In a 1998 speech she said, “We’re here because we believe that charter schools can play a significant part in revitalizing and strengthening public schools today -- by offering greater flexibility from bureaucratic rules, so that parents, teachers, and the community can design and run their own schools, and focus on setting goals and getting results.” This is a more full-throttled defense of charters, all the more so because it’s coupled with veiled criticism of public schools (they need to be revitalized and strengthened). This comment also focuses on “results,” not innovation per se.

In 2000, Clinton also touched on what is perhaps the strongest argument for charters, or at least the one hardest to refute. “I believe” she said, “in giving parents more choices in selecting from among public schools.” Interestingly, though, the word “choice” shows up nowhere in her the 2015 AFT interview or on her current campaign web site. It may not be a good strategy to defend charters on an old theory that doesn’t seem to hold in practice (innovation) while not mentioning a real strength (choice). That said, the choice argument can also be made to justify school vouchers, which she almost certainly wants to avoid.

Effectiveness in generating student results is another common argument for charters, and the one that DFER focused on in its response to Clinton’s recent charter criticism. Specifically, DFER’s Charlie Barone focused on Roland Fryer’s work on “No Excuses” charters. But this is dangerous territory too since only very recently does it appear that the average charter school is (very slightly) more effective in generating high test scores than apparently comparable traditional public schools. (The results have been better, though less convincing regarding college completion, and somewhat more positive when examining the competitive effects on traditional public schools.)

Barone goes on to write that “it begs the questions of why other public schools aren’t adopting some of the lessons learned from high-performing public charters.” Yes, but it also begs the question of why other charters are not learning this lesson. Since most charters have autonomy from school board bureaucracy, why, after a quarter-century of the charter movement, and with apparently positive results from No Excuses, aren’t more charters adopting this model? Part of the answer is surely that a large share of parents and educators simply do not like the No Excuses model. This is partly why the choice argument remains the strongest one.

Looking at Clinton’s comments this way, it’s hard to see a real change in position. She made a narrow critique of a specific weakness of some charter schools in the midst of a scandal that coincided with her AFT conversation. If this is really a key reason why Michael Bloomberg might get in the presidential race (which I doubt), then he may want to reconsider.

Either way, Clinton’s comments highlight the challenges in navigating the politics of charter schools. Choice is the strongest argument, but also one that works in favor of vouchers as much as charters. Innovation avoids the voucher issue, and is ambiguous enough to justify, but looks more questionable when we look at the research evidence. Effectiveness might eventually become a strong argument, but it’s not there yet.

But that’s life if we want to find options that are both good politics and good policy.

Douglas N. Harris is professor of economics, Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education, and the founder and director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education: Lessons From New Orleans are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.