Why Leftists Should Embrace (Some) Charter Schools
~by Shawn Gude
One of the joys of intellectual development is having one’s views challenged and, if not fundamentally altered, at least measurably modified. When beneficial, this transformation is actuated not by perfunctory acceptance, unmoored from personal principle, but a realization of errancy after critical reflection. That’s exactly what’s happened to my thinking on charter schools.
As I made my way into the education reform/ policy debate last year, I sought out those with the most trenchant critiques of Arne Duncan and his reform brethren. I still strongly believe that this corporate reform coterie is misguided. But the site for vociferous disagreement is educational ends, not necessarily the mechanisms used to attain those ends. Take charter schools, for instance. (High-stakes testing is a different story: The Atlanta testing scandal alone should disabuse anyone of the notion that it should play a major role in our education system. And that’s on top of its insidious tendency to narrow curriculum and circumscribe pedagogy.)
I admit I harbored a visceral disdain for charter schools, perhaps entirely because of the odious figures who commonly champion them. I couldn’t possibly be on the same side as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee—right? The problem is, I failed to recognize the inherent possibilities of charter schools. I had conceptually elided means and ends: I didn’t—and don’t—agree with Cory Booker’s educational ends, so I mistakenly assumed that his means were equally as misguided.
The fact is, charter schools can bring about increased pluralism—in curriculum and pedagogy, governance, and workplace representation—while remaining ensconced within the public school system. They can circumvent public school bureaucracy and empower teachers, students and parents, and community members. They’re not only consistent with, but constitutive of, the kind of education reform that can empower the marginalized. Indeed, lefty academics Eric Rofes and Lisa Stulberg argue in their superlative 2004 book The Emancipatory Promise of Charter Schools that they’re already doing so: “[C]harters are playing a powerful role in reviving democratic participation in public education, expanding opportunities for progressive methods in public school classrooms, and providing new energy to community-based, community-controlled school initiatives for communities of color.”
This isn’t to say (much of) the left’s unalloyed antipathy toward charters is entirely unfounded. Corporatism has become too common, as have traditional-charter turf wars that pit parent against parent. Charter proponents are often vociferously anti-union. And charter school proponents have forsaken the bottom-up potential of charters for a top-down approach that often calls for mayoral control as well.
Similar to my conflating of means and ends, however, highlighting the myriad charter scandals shouldn’t sully the idea itself. Charter schools themselves aren’t the problem, but how and under what terms they’re operationalized. As the singular Stacy Smith argues in her chapter contribution to The Emancipatory Promise, “[T]he oppositional stance of the antichoice Left undermines attention to localized practices of school organization and governance that will both reveal social reproduction of inequalities and inform liberatory strategies of counter-conduct and resistance.”
(E.D. Kain, for one, has written perceptively about the bottom-up potential of charter schools. Unlike Kain, I’m less enthusiastic about vouchers, even on a limited scale. This Freddie deBoer post critiquing vouchers has my imprimatur; I’d also add that voucher schemes are antithetical to democratic decision-making in that they involve atomized individuals making isolated choices rather than equal citizens and/or their representatives making collective decisions that bring about equity. We should also be talking about different types of choice—e.g., residential—at the disposal of well-heeled liberals who simultaneously oppose public choice for poor families.)
This fascinating debate—especially over charters—has caused cleavages in the Democratic Party and on the left more broadly. My taxonomy identifies three principal groups:
1. As centrist charter school proponents make inroads among neoliberal, New Democrat types (Booker and Duncan, for instance), the party’s longstanding philosophical alliance with teachers unions—cemented by union largess, to be sure—seems to be fraying. Center-left groups like Democrats for Education Reform have legitimized the idea that party members can jettison the union platform without being viewed as apostates; Barack Obama’s education policies have likely had a similar effect. Broadly speaking, this neoliberal cohort wants more charter schools, test-based accountability, and merit pay.
2. Then there’s what could be termed the traditionalist left (probably not the best way to describe them, but a more precise neologism isn’t coming to mind). Staunch defenders of traditional public schools, this amalgamation claims both mainstream and left-wing Democrats, anti-NCLBers and pro-unioners. They almost always favor some type of school reform, but often oppose charter school expansion, emphasize the importance of alleviating child poverty, and side with teachers unions.
3. The third camp is a less visible, iconoclastic group of leftists. In some ways they’re the New Left of education reformers, willing to question extant alliances and bureaucracies. Unlike centrist skeptics, though, they’re more worried about oppression and instilling an insurgent citizenship in the disenfranchised and unlettered than competing with China or other global economic hegemons. (They also they don’t see charters as a Trojan Horse for privatization like some conservative charter supporters.) Many of the contributors to The Emancipatory Promise of Charter Schools would fall into this category.
There’s some definite overlap, but I find myself increasingly in the third camp while remaining sympathetic to the traditionalists.
Riffing off this outstanding post from the blog “A Thinking Reed,” I think it’s useful to think about these divisions in terms of small-c conservatism (protecting existing policies or institutions) and small-p progressivism (seeking change to existing policies or institutions). While the traditionalists support changes to the public school paradigm, they’re also scared of tinkering too much with a system that works well—and has worked well—for a ton of students. Similarly, here’s the blog’s proprietor describing his dyspepsia over welfare state erosion (a decidedly small-c conservative sentiment): “[W]hen pillars of the post-New Deal welfare state are under increasing attack, which threatens the already tenuous position of some of the most vulnerable citizens in our society, it seems urgent to muster at least two cheers for big government liberalism. This is largely the spirit of what the late social thinker Tony Judt called “the social democracy of fear.'”
Here’s Judt elucidating the concept:
If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them.
The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.
Public education is worth defending, so the circle-the-wagon response to rearguard attacks has been eminently reasonable; the upcoming Save Our Schools March in Washington is an obvious manifestation of this push-back. But traditionalists need a clear reform agenda of their own. They need more than a variation on the “social democracy of fear.”
All this is perhaps a prolix, overly personalistic way of saying that the left needs to rethink its reflexive opposition to charter schools. Housing policy, as Matt Yglesias and others have pointed out, is a vital part of school reform. So is ameliorating child poverty. There are a bunch of other non-schooling policies that would also undoubtedly help. The role charter schools can play in a left-wing reform project, then, is not necessarily in directly addressing these societal problems, but supplementing traditional public schools with a potentially more variegated model of schooling. The deracination of public education shouldn’t be the end result, but a more equitable, pluralistic public education system.