On New Year’s Eve The Nation published an analysis by Jennifer Berkshire called “The Democrats’ School Choice Problem.” Her piece is instructive because it illustrates a strategy commonly employed by those who regard themselves as warriors against craven privatizing shysters intent on expanding charter schools and/or voucher programs. This is how it works: Ignore context. Ignore math. Ignore inconvenient facts. And hustle together a specious argument that plays to those who —perhaps responding to the Trumpian lurch to the right by Republican Party leaders in D.C. —believe that the only way to retain decency and moral order is by careening just as far to the left, which seems to me a surefire way to guarantee Trump a second term. (Not sure what these directions mean anyway. Since when is limiting public school choice, which primarily benefits low-income children of color, a value of left-wingers? Since when is it a violation of Democratic Party loyalty to want better schools for your kids?)
To unknowing readers (which apparently includes The Nation’s fact-checking department) Berkshire’s argument, as context and fact-free as it is, holds power. So let’s demystify the mystique and look at some of the ways that Berkshire makes her argument that the Democratic pro-choice coalition is “unraveling” and that no choice is the right choice.
First, to give credit where credit is due, Berkshire begins with the recent AFT/NEA “school choice forum” last month in Pittsburgh where seven candidates begged for union money and endorsement. She notes that the invitation-only audience was greeted by a Black mother affiliated with the Working Families Party (closely tied in agenda and funding with AFT/NEA) while 250 Black mothers (she says 100 but who’s counting) stood in a cold rain because they were locked out of the “public forum” for wanting quality schools for their children even if they can’t afford to live in Gloucester. (See here.) Why were they outside in the rain? Because the candidates, with the sole exception of Mike Bennett, refused to walk down the block and meet with them in a hotel room paid for by a GoFundMe campaign. Inside, audience members wore “F*%k Charter Schools” tee-shirts.
Berkshire’s piece unravels from there, devoid of context and accurate information. Let’s count the ways.
One: Berkshire conflates voucher programs, which help pay tuition to private schools, with public charter schools. Vouchers, she says, are a pet project of Betsy DeVos and Trump (true enough) but public charters have enjoyed bipartisan support, from George Bush to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. The charter backlash is a product of union prowess, candidate cowardice, and a disdain for the views of Black families who overwhelming support school choice. Following the anti-choice playbook, she attacks Florida’s newly-expanded voucher program (which prioritizes families with an income of 185 percent or less of the poverty level) while omitting important context: To wit, Governor Ron DeSantis’ education plan raises teacher salaries and caps vouchers at $6,447 per student. Also, Florida charter students outperform their district peers in 170 of 195 categories and are subject to tougher accountability regulations than traditional public schools.
Two: Berkshire writes,
The clearest signal that the GOP’s embrace of DeVos-style privatization has opened a door for Democrats came in Kentucky where not even an eleventh-hour appeal from President Trump was enough to save Republican governor Matt Bevin. The only GOP candidate for statewide office to lose, Bevin alienated suburban and rural voters with his attacks on public school teachers and his embrace of school privatization, including a push to bring charter schools to Kentucky.
Yes, Bevin lost, but that’s because, as the New York Times reported, he “wrapped himself in the mantle of Mr. Trump” and his loss “turned on personality” and peculiar Kentucky political dynamics. Also, he lost by a tiny margin of 5,136 votes out of more than 1.4 million cast. Berkshire’s attribution of Bevin’s loss to his views on school choice is silly.
Three: Berkshire writes, “In Ohio, students in two-thirds of the state’s school districts are now eligible for vouchers, a ballooning program that is on track to cost taxpayers $350 million by the end of the school year.” Wow. That sounds a lot. It’s not: $350 million is less than 2% of Ohio schools’ annual budget of $20 billion. (Context, people, context.)
Four: Berkshire, in discussing the “dismantling of public schools,” cites as evidence South Carolina which “spends half as much per student as it does per inmate,” tying this to “GOP lawmakers” who “just unveiled a massive voucher program that could drain as much $500 million from the public schools in its first two years.” The link Berkshire makes here –South Carolina’s hunger for vouchers and underfunding of traditional schools, demonstrated by the ratio of cost per inmate to cost per pupil — is based not on factual analysis but on inflammatory insinuation.
How do we know this? Because just about every state spends “half as much per student as it does per inmate,” even states without voucher programs. In Berkshire’s home state of Massachusetts (which has no voucher program) the annual cost per inmate is $55,170 and the annual cost per student is $16,197. (It took me maybe 30 seconds to find those numbers.) The cost per inmate in New Jersey, which has no voucher program, is $61,603; the annual cost per student is one-third of that: $21, 866. California spends $81,203 per inmate and $16,000 per student. No vouchers there either.
Berkshire’s logic doesn’t hold up. In fact, there is no logic, just cherry-picking numbers to make a case that falls apart if you actually parse the data.
One last note: Nowhere in this piece is there a mention of the benefits of public charter schools for children, especially those trapped in long-failing school districts. In Boston, for example, a new study finds that charters there “significantly boost the academic performance of English language learners and special needs students compared with traditional district schools.”
The academic effects of attending charter schools, as measured by scores on standardized tests, are immense. A year of charter school attendance reduces achievement gaps with typical, native-language students for both special education students (by 30 percent in math and 20 percent in English) and especially English language learners (by 84 percent in math and 39 percent in English).
But Berkshire doesn’t care. In the beginning of the piece she notes “the loss of neighborhood schools and the jobs that go with them” when charters expand, a nod to the needs of adults. As education advocates, shouldn’t our focus be on the needs of children?
Not to Jennifer Berkshire. Like facts and context, children get the shaft.