Over the weekend, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton responded to a question on charter schools from TV One Host Roland Martin in a way that, for anyone who cares about the future of our public education system, is cause for concern. Over roughly three minutes – the most that Clinton and perhaps any 2016 candidate has spoken publicly about K-12 education thus far – Clinton’s comments were, by turns, accurate, erroneous, and unnecessarily divisive (see video from 36:07 – 39:17).
It’s important to say up front that Clinton made completely appropriate comments about variable charter quality:
“There are good charter schools and there are bad charter schools, just like there are good public schools and bad public schools.” (37:12-37:20)
I’m not looking for a Presidential candidate who is a quality-blind charter cheerleader. I am looking for one who focuses on what works for kids and who is willing to speak truth to power. Unfortunately, that is where Clinton’s comments were, to say the least, highly disappointing and seemed to reinforce fears about how her endorsements from both major teachers unions would affect her K-12 platform.
What was most initially striking was Clinton completely ignoring Martin’s point about a poll showing that more than 70% of black parents support greater school choice, both within and outside the public system. This was, after all, a South Carolina Black Caucus event. Clinton instead went on to opine on public charter schools in ways that aligned neither with her past statements or the facts. Three things in particular stood out:
1. Are Charter Schools Public Schools? Most egregiously, Clinton seemed to imply that charter schools are not public schools:
“I have for many years now, about 30 years, supported the idea of charter schools, but not as a substitute for the public schools, but as a supplement for the public schools.” (36:41-36:56)
Lots of politicians are misinformed about the fact that charter schools are public schools. The problem is that Clinton knows better. As she said in 1996 in “It Takes A Village:”
“Charter schools are public schools created and operated under a charter. They may be organized by parents, teachers, or others. The idea is that they should be freed from regulations that stifle innovation, so they can focus on getting results.”
2. Can Charter Schools Refuse to Serve “Hard-to-Teach” Students? Clinton also made a blanket statement about the students that charter schools serve:
“Most charter schools — I don’t want to say every one — but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” (37:32-37:41)
One can’t know what Clinton meant exactly by “hard-to-teach,” but charters usually have more applicants than seats and thus – under law – must choose students via lottery. And the reality is that, with the exception of students with disabilities, charter schools generally have a higher percentage of students from demographic subgroups that lag academically behind their more advantaged peers. According to Stanford’s CREDO:
“Charter schools in the United States educate a higher percentage of students in poverty. [A] much larger proportion of charter students are black than in all public schools. The proportion of Hispanic students is slightly larger in charter schools than all public schools as well. [Charter schools] have a higher proportion of students who are English language learners and a lower proportion of special education students than are in all US public schools.”
Does this match up everywhere? No. That’s why there are efforts underway, such as through weighted lotteries, to ensure that public charter schools serve similar proportions of historically disadvantaged groups of students as their traditional public school counterparts and, through increased monitoring and oversight, to prevent charters from pushing-out students they are, as public schools, obligated to serve.
3. What Was the Original Idea? Clinton also seemed to be redefining the history of charter schools and the role of public charter schools in improving the public school system:
“[T]he original idea, Roland, behind charter schools was to learn what worked and then apply them in the public schools.” (37:22-37:29)
This statement is problematic for a couple of reasons. For one, it seems to imply limiting public charter schools to being a finite set of experimental laboratories for study by traditional public schools rather than being a type of service delivery option in its own right that can, if successful, be expanded. This is not quite the idea Clinton described in a speech she gave in 1999:
“We’re here because we believe that charter schools can play a significant part in revitalizing and strengthening public schools today — by offering greater flexibility from bureaucratic rules, so that parents, teachers, and the community can design and run their own schools, and focus on setting goals and getting results.”
Second, it begs the questions of why other public schools aren’t adopting some of the lessons learned from high-performing public charters. Research by Roland Fryer of Harvard, for example, shows that the characteristics of high-performing charters are: 1) Focusing on human capital – including school leader autonomy over hiring teachers; 2) Using data to drive instruction; 3) Providing intensive tutoring; 4) Extending learning time; and, 5) Establishing a culture of high expectations.
Is it possible for a candidate who has been endorsed by both major teacher unions and who seems to be reading from their off-key songbook on charters to put kids first, speak truth to power, and deliver news from work such as Fryer’s to our public education system? Clinton’s comments on Saturday aren’t encouraging. But I wouldn’t count her out yet. The election is still one year away.