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What Did Hillary Clinton Really Mean on Charter Schools?

By Alyson Klein — November 09, 2015 3 min read
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So as I’m sure you’ve read by now, over the weekend Hillary Clinton, a longtime charter fan, had some tough words for charters, specifically when it comes to equity.

And that sent the Internet into a bit of a tizzy as folks tried to parse her words and figure out what they might mean for charters in a potential Clinton administration, take two.

To recap: During a town hall meeting in South Carolina, Roland S. Martin, a commentator for TV One, asked Clinton what she thought of charter schools and school vouchers. And, he pointed out, black parents in South Carolina overwhelmingly support some school choice.

In response, Clinton called out charters for not educating the toughest kids, while public schools have to. And she argued that the point of charters is to figure out what works in education, to benefit regular public schools. (Some charter advocates see the schools’ purpose differently, more as an alternative to traditional public schooling.)

It’s possible Clinton’s comments were inspired by recent coverage of problems at Success Academies, a charter school network in New York City, detailed in the New York Times and elsewhere.*

So what does it all mean? More of that below. First, click below to watch the exchange, which begins at about the 35th minute:

No time to watch? Here’s a condensed transcript of the interview:

Martin: At TV One, we conducted a poll of black parents. And we asked them the question about charters and vouchers. Seventy-four percent of black parents said they were interested in enrolling their kids in charter schools, seventy-eight percent favored school vouchers ... Do you support the expansion of charter schools and school vouchers?

Clinton: I have for many years now, about thirty years, supported the idea of charter schools, but not as a substitute for the public schools, but as a supplement for the public schools. ... There are good charter schools and there are bad charter schools, just like there are good public schools and there are bad public schools.

Roland: So let’s get rid of all the bad and accept [the] good?

Clinton: The original idea behind the charter schools was to learn what worked and then apply them in the public schools. And here’s a couple of problems. Most charter schools, I don’t want to say everyone, but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest to teach kids. Or if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation. Because they do, thankfully, take everybody and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education. So I want parents to be able to exercise choice within the public school system not outside of it but within ... I am also fully aware that there are a lot of substandard public schools. But part of the reason for that is that policymakers and local politicians will not fund schools in poor areas that take care of poor children to the level that they need to be.

So the bolded part of her comments is the part that set the edu-internet on fire. Edu-historian turned progressive uber K-12 blogger Diane Ravitch said she’d like to see the feds focus more on accountability for charters.

But in the conservative journal Education Next, Robert Pondiscio argues that wealthier schools are just as likely to counsel out behavior-problem kids as charters are.

Charlie Barone, the director of federal advocacy for Democrats for Education Reform was also unhappy. He called Clinton’s comments “highly disappointing” and said they seemed to reinforce fears about how her endorsements from both major teachers unions would affect her K-12 platform.

The part that really bummed Barone out? As he sees it, Clinton completely ignored Martin’s comments about the poll showing that two-thirds of black parents support expanding school choice, both through charters and vouchers.

So does all this mean that Clinton would be an anti-charter president?

It’s hard to say. For one thing, Clinton is hardly the first generally pro-charter Democrat to raise equity concerns. Former Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. and Barone’s one-time boss, asked the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, to look into how charters are serving students in special education—and charters came up short.

Barone says a key difference here is that Clinton said “most” charters fail to serve all kids not just “some.” And, he’s bummed she seems to think charters are outside the public school system, and only to be used as testing grounds, not as alternative schools.

But Barone also said it’s early in the game, and hard to say at this point how a President Clinton would deal with charters, or other edu-issues.

A lot would depend on who Potential President Clinton would pick for her education secretary. Plus, politicians tend to sound a bit different during the heat of a campaign. (Just ask U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who toned down his reformy-rhetoric when speaking to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.)

Another thing to note: Clinton didn’t seem to answer the voucher question directly. Or does she? In listening to her comments, I’ll admit I was kinda confused on this point. I thought Clinton was arguing against vouchers when she said, “I want parents to be able to exercise choice within the public school system not outside of it but within.” But that could also be interpreted to mean that she’s discouraging charters.

What do you think she was trying to say? And what do you think of Clinton’s comments? Internet blip, or is she seriously anti-charter? Comments section is open!

*I originally wrote “Success for All” not “Success Academies.” They are two different organizations. Thanks to the reader who flagged the mistake for me.