After the blue wave, a new push against school choice
Chris Van Hollen, the junior senator from Maryland, appears to have volunteered himself as the water bearer for education reform. The Democrat already has synchronized strategy with the teachers’ unions and other progressive groups that want to rewrite the narrative on school choice.
If they succeed over the course of the next decade, a span chosen by Mr. Van Hollen, who knows whether the school choice movement will still be making forward progress?
But first, a short refresher course. In March 1988, Albert Shanker gave a speech at the National Press Club explaining why, as president of the American Federation of Teachers, he had become a backer of what he called “a different type of school.” He referred to them as schools-within-schools, where small groups of teachers could coalesce to help raise the academic standings of students who don’t ordinarily rise on their own.
The Shanker proposal followed the magnet plan, wherein some school districts, like D.C. Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools, offered decentralized schooling. The charter school movement followed the Shanker proposal and, interestingly, for the same reason the union leader had advocated.
Shanker pointed out that the status quo was leaving behind 80 percent of the nation’s public school children, and that that could only be changed if administrators and teachers led the way.
Times have changed, but the problem has not. The 80 percenters remain 80 percenters.
The teachers unions and their supporters argue that children aren’t learning because school systems are not getting the money they need from taxpayers. So along comes Mr. Van Hollen, fresh off Democratic gains in the House and several statehouses, introduced the “Keep Our Promise to America’s Children and Teachers Act,” or PACT.
PACT calls for mandatory funding of Title I, which provides aid for poor students and at-risk students, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which targets special-ed students. The proposal also opens the door to a 10-year-long mandatory “funding glide path.”
Early supporters are the AFT, the National Education Association and assorted progressive groups, including the $15-an-hour minimum-wage crowd, and AFT President Randi Weingarten set out the progressives’ talking points on Wednesday.
“Too many special-education programs are understaffed, leaving too many students with specialeducation needs struggling to achieve at grade level, too many students of color attending schools with aging textbooks and crowded classrooms, and too many students with disabilities going to school without the supports they need,” she said. “The historic underfunding of Title I and the Individual with Disabilities Act has reinforced a separate and unequal education system, leaving a $580 billion hole that has shortchanged the futures of our nation’s most vulnerable students.”
Now, one could suppose that Ms. Weingarten and her anti-choice attitude would mean that even children in charter schools or receiving public vouchers would be included in that lot. But suppositions are not allowed, because Democratic victors in the midterms are bracing to lay hands on supporters of school choice — but not to help heal the all of the vulnerable.
Indeed, the blue wavers are not all in. The incoming Democratic governors in California, Illinois and New Mexico want to halt charter growth, while their counterparts in Connecticut, Kansas, Maine and Nevada aren’t as enthusiastic for charter schools as their predecessors.
Considering the fact that California was a very early supporter of charters proves the landscape is changing, and for that the Democrats can thank the titular leader of their party, Barack Obama, who tolerated charters and never supported vouchers.
I’ve said all that to close with this: Progressives want to put charters on a taut leash, a leash on issues running from A to Z. The A, of course, stands for “accountability” — the very factor that’s never factored into the failings of traditional school systems.
Just like traditional schools, charter schools have their problems. Which means school-choice supporters have several obvious options at this early juncture: They can shore up charter schools to ensure they have dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, or they can merely rely on educational savings accounts and call it a day.
The latter means it’s likely those “students of color” Ms. Weingarten referred to would still be situated on the low end of the academic ladder.
Why? In large urban areas, charter schools are those kids’ neighborhood schools.