School Choice & Charters

Authors Urge Left-Leaning Advocates to Back Chartering

By Caroline Hendrie — May 24, 2005 2 min read
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Concerned that the Democratic Party is increasingly unfriendly to charter schooling, some left-of-center advocates of the independently run public schools are urging like-minded members of the education community to do a better job of making their voices heard.

Among them are the editors of The Emancipatory Promise of Charter Schools: Toward a Progressive Politics of School Choice, a recent book that embraces charter schooling as a means of improving the educational fortunes of children disadvantaged by race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

Ordering information for The Emancipatory Promise of Charter Schools: Toward a Progressive Politics of School Choice is available from SUNY Press.

At a forum on the book held here May 13, the pair of self-described politically progressive education professors who edited the volume said charter schools can and should be used to promote social justice and educational equity.

“We challenge the old-guard left to stop using 1960s, pure visions of what needs to happen,” said Eric Rofes, a co-editor of the book and an associate professor of education at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif.

He and co-editor Lisa M. Stulberg, an assistant professor of educational sociology at New York University in New York City, discussed the book at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Mr. Rofes said too many policymakers suppress their own inclinations to support successful charter schools out of deference to teachers’ unions—traditional allies of the Democratic Party that often oppose efforts to expand the charter sector.

That trend has grown as charter schooling, which had its rise during the Democratic administration of President Clinton, has been heavily promoted by the Republican administration of President Bush, several participants at the forum suggested.


“The Clinton administration gave political cover to a lot of people on the left,” said Alex Medler, a former U.S. Department of Education official who contributed a chapter to the book, published last fall by the State University of New York Press.

Several particularly prominent national advocates of charter schooling have Republican pedigrees and back publicly funded private school vouchers as well as charters, Mr. Medler noted. Those factors have made it harder for charter supporters to win over elected Democrats and policy experts who work for them, he said.


Another factor in dampening Democratic support for chartering, Mr. Medler said, has been a tendency among national policy experts to frame the relationship between charter and district-run public schools as chiefly competitive rather than mutually complementary.

By contrast, those at the grassroots often seek to defuse opposition from the regular education system by focusing on how charter schools can meet needs not being served by district-run schools, he said.

Mr. Medler said such leading Republican-leaning charter proponents as Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform and Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation had “done some great things for charters.”

“It’s just that they’ve alienated people who might otherwise support charters,” he said of the two, whose organizations are based here in Washington. “I don’t think the spokespeople have served the charter school movement as well as they could.”

Ms. Allen said last week that the movement has strong “tripartisan support” among the public from Democrats, Republicans, and independents and is not split along ideological lines.

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