Equity & Diversity Opinion

Terminal Charterism: The View From Michigan

By Nancy Flanagan — December 12, 2016 4 min read
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I read yesterday that the final five genuinely public schools in New Orleans have at last—as predicted—succumbed to charterism, creating the first major American city without a traditional public school system.

They’re Number One! The wave of the future, the terminal canary in the public education coal mine.

Of course they had assistance from a devastating hurricane, the clean-slate “opportunity” that other cities could not readily manufacture (although Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asserted that a hurricane striking Detroit might be a good thing). In other states, the Charter Powers That Be had to use bogus data, celebrity founders and free computers, the union bogeyman and outright fear to hack away at their public school systems. But NOLA—it was charter heaven.

Indeed, national observers sometimes failed to notice that New Orleans still had a handful of traditionally run schools.

By contrast, the establishment of charterism has been a long-term, carefully crafted project, in Michigan—some two full K-12 generations’ worth of students have started kindergarten and graduated from high school (or not) as public education, that pillar of American citizenship and productivity, took hits from MI-based edupreneurial policy-shapers bent on destroying teacher unions, disenfranchising poor black voters, and supporting custom-tailored “Christian” education (including “intelligent design”).

What about charters to replace urban schools that are “failing” to produce good test data for minority children in poverty? Our new Secretary of Education has been a Betsy-come-lately to that idea, in spite of glowing and utterly false reviews of her so-called transformation of Detroit. Here’s the truth: the DeVos political machine grew frustrated when two attempts to establish vouchers were soundly defeated in Michigan—so they went through the back door with charters and hand-picked legislators.

You can sense the difference in states where charterism is still experimental, took root later—or where more stringent, cautious legislation has slowed the runaway charter train. Massachusetts recently proved that its public was not convinced charters were the answer—but it took $34 million and a hot, bitterly contested ballot initiative. None of the 2016 presidential candidates seemed to understand the danger of fooling with the foundations of public education, and that includes third-party folks and all those knocked out in the primaries.

If you want to know what end-stage, terminal charterism looks like, how it impacts the educational ecology, when it is fertilized by policy tweaks and allowed to flourish, take a look at the reality of Betsy DeVos’s accomplishments in Michigan:

Test scores? Down. Urban schools? Cheated, closed, and neglected. Teachers? Demoralized. Unions? Toothless and subject to public punishment.

And the “good” charters that are replacing what was once a top-flight public system? Corrupt—but still flourishing. Making Michigan the poster child for What Not to Do in school reform.

Repeating: this is NOT the result of well-meant attempts to find the right combination of policy tweaks to improve educational outcomes for kids in poverty. It’s a stealth campaign around the aforementioned goals: taking down “too-powerful” unions, slowly privatizing the great untapped market of public education, and disenfranchising poor and minority citizens.

Charter schools are merely a convenient, legal means to other ends.

As our new administration rolls out familiar promises—Parental choice! High-quality urban education where little girls wear plaid jumpers and little boys wear ties! An end to Common Core (and learning about climate change)! Entrepreneurial teachers and technology-delivered instruction!—keep this in mind. We’ve tried this before in the Mitten State.

If you’re thinking a modest number of carefully selected charter schools won’t have a major impact on high-functioning traditional public districts, you might want to rethink. There is now, from terminal states like mine, a growing body of scholarly evidence that demonstrates just what happens when big cities and small towns abandon the idea of education as community good: Kiss equity goodbye.

So how should we assess charters, in states that still have a chance to keep their public systems healthy? Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker:

“The goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available. That is, resources should be used most efficiently and equitably to achieve the best possible system of schools for all children.”

Baker suggests moving the conversation away from the individualistic, consumer-choice narrative that market-driven reformers have promoted over the past two decades, and towards one that centers public education as a collective responsibility for communities to provide as efficiently, and equitably, as they can.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.