Charter school war could go national
Charter school war could go national
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is winning the battle in New York, but what about your state?
(Photo: Tim Roske, AP)
New York City's celebrated new mayor and the state's famous governor just hammered out a truce over charter schools that most people probably assume only matters in that state. They are wrong.
The drama started when the ultra-liberal mayor, Bill de Blasio, decided to crack down on charter schools— publicly funded, independently operated schools that he considers a threat to traditional schools. Then, the centrist liberal governor, Andrew Cuomo, mounted a strong defense of charters, not only blunting the attack but also boosting funding for charters. A win-win for Cuomo and charters.
That fact that a governor like Andrew Cuomo, someone mentioned as a future presidential contender, came out so strongly in support of charter schools is something that won't go unnoticed nationally.
Congress is definitely paying attention. The House education committee is scheduled to update the federal Charter Schools Program — an update which would increase the share of program funds used to support facilities for charters. Do you really think conservative House members will allow themselves to be outdone by a liberal New York governor?
And then there are impacts in Democrat-leaning states. In nearby Connecticut, a state with weak charter school laws, the governor and legislature have to be wondering about whether the time is right to move in New York's direction.
In Massachusetts, Democrats may be rethinking their opposition to a law allowing high performing charters to expand. If Cuomo was willing to stand tall, does that make Gov. Deval Patrick look like, well, something less than tall? Um, yes.
Several Republican governors, some of whom remain a bit wishy washy on charters, will feel a bit skunked. In Pennsylvania andTennessee, the governors have to be wondering: Why are we letting a Democratic governor like Cuomo make us look passive, maybe even a little wimpy, on charters?
On the flip side of the political picture, in progressive enclaves across the country, places where New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio is regarded as the brightest political prospect they've seen in years, political leaders have to be wondering what went wrong. If the incredibly popular de Blasio got slam dunked while attempting a modest charters trim back, what hope do they have?
The most significant part of the "treaty" that emerged from Albany is facilities funding. This is Cuomo saying flatly that charter schools are just as "public" and deserving of money for buildings as traditional school districts.
Until now, charter school critics — the unions and superintendents who see charters as intruders — have successfully painted charters as part of a nefarious "privatization" movement. Definitely unworthy of public school buildings. (Just how union presidents and school chiefs came to view themselves as the true public and charters as something else is unclear, but that's the way it is.)
Cuomo's strong steps could also end the fiction that charter schools are some kind of "experiment" tolerated only to pass lessons on to traditional schools — and therefore should not be allowed to expand. That hasn't been valid for years, not since it became clear that most traditional school leaders studiously ignore lessons-learned from charter schools.
It's not that charter schools are America's great education salvation. On average, they perform only a little better than regular schools. But the top charters, let's say the top 15%, maybe even the top quarter, are doing something special. They are succeeding with low-income minority kids in ways never before seen. They are not antidotes to poverty, but they demonstrate that poverty alone can't entirely predict academic outcomes. Schools matter, at least the good ones.
In recent years these top charters have shown they can partner with regular school districts in ways that help both. If de Blasio ever visited schools in Denver or the Spring Branch district in Houston, he might start rethinking his hostility toward charters. They could help him achieve his goal of narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots.
As it turns out, de Blasio's botched attack on charters may end up doing a lot of good for urban students in several states. Maybe even in New York.
Richard Whitmire, author of On the Rocketship:How High Performing Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope, is working on a book about education politics.