In 1983, the Reagan administration’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released an explosive report called A Nation at Risk, and its findings were alarming. The United States, despite its proud place on the frontier of cutting-edge technological innovations like space travel and computing, had an education system that somehow ranked near the bottom of all industrialized countries. The report’s authors famously quipped, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Since then, education reform has been a priority for American politicians and scholars alike – I know it is for me. I plan to join Teach for America as a corps member next year and am currently working on a thesis chapter about political takeovers of struggling school districts, so the contemporary debates on education are always on my mind.
Activists, school leaders, and policy experts across the country have reevaluated the traditional district school model and have finally opened up the possibility for truly dramatic change. In particular, the Democratic Party has found itself in a very interesting and oftentimes conflicted position within those conversations. The city of Newark, New Jersey, offers an instructive case study. In late 2009, then-mayor Cory Booker was deeply frustrated with the state of the public school system and committed a large part of his political energy to transforming Newark into the charter school capital of America.
Many Democrats admired his approach, an urgency rooted in a refusal to accept the substandard performance of city schools. When Booker launched his reform, 95 percent of students in the Newark school district were black or Latino, 88 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, and 44 percent lived below the poverty line. In that context, Booker’s intervention was one on behalf of his most vulnerable constituents. He was convinced that publicly-funded, privately-run charter schools could turn student achievement around.
For one, charter schools had more freedom to innovate, which can uncover effective new teaching strategies and create a working environment that attracts more talented and creative teachers. More importantly, charter schools expand the range of options for students and their parents, unlike the traditional district system in which students are assigned to a school simply based on geography. In America’s highly segregated cities, those district schools reproduce the tangle of concentrated poverty and social ills that afflicts the neighborhoods they serve. In doing so, they trap low-income children in schools that are overwhelmed by community problems that spill into the classroom.
Booker, however, received intense grassroots opposition to his plan from other Democrats. Those Democrats were no less concerned with social justice and equalizing opportunity across race and class in America than Booker but saw the charter school movement as a Trojan horse harboring a militant neoliberal element disguised as a progressive monument. The anti-Bookers were led by Ras Baraka, who was an outspoken critic of Booker’s plan as a Newark school principal during the reform movement (Baraka is now the mayor of Newark).
Baraka and his acolytes saw the proliferation of charter schools as a long-term threat to public education in America. In general, charter schools are less transparent and accountable than traditional public schools because they are run by private (and sometimes for-profit) organizations rather than by elected school boards. Many Democrats are uncomfortable with what they interpret as the government abdicating its role in educating its citizens and making a permanent withdrawal and disinvestment in the lives of children (especially inner-city children where most charter-heavy districts exist). They also complain that charter schools hire young and inexperienced teachers, eroding the labor protections and benefits that teachers have come to rely on. High staff turnover rates (commonly above 50 percent) in charter schools are a direct result of those hiring practices. Finally, charter schools – because they are competitive firms and not public institutions – close frequently and without notice, often leaving students without an education mid-year.
In the end, the binary choice between traditional public and charter schools – the Bookers and the Barakas – is wholly unsatisfying. Traditional public schools lack the flexibility and resources to meet the needs of communities that have been systematically targeted by processes of redlining, deindustrialization, and mass incarceration. Charter schools are too unreliable and unaccountable to the public to replace district schools as the singular model of education.
Whether America is – or ever was – a Nation at Risk is up for debate. But the peril of communities within America – like Newark, for instance – is incontrovertible. Their issues are layered in complexity; there are no straightforward solutions. In this case, the progressive principles that Democrats rely on for moral guidance are more disorienting than unifying. The road ahead is too treacherous for blind partisanship; rather, it is navigable only with critical thinking and open-minded dialogue.