Resisting Fatalism in Post-Truth Trumplandia: Charter Schools and the End of Accountability
Bill asks Mike Campbell how Mike goes bankrupt, and Mike answers: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly.’”
This conversation in Ernest Hemingway’s sparse dramatization of the Lost Generation, The Sun Also Rises, also serves as a chilling characterization of how the U.S. finds itself in post-truth Trumplandia.
The paradoxes multiply for those of us in education because we can not only see but also live the reality that our post-truth U.S. is both a consequence of a country’s negligence of universal public education and the cause of that negligence — notably the uber-corrosive accountability era of the past three decades.
It seems like a distant memory, but just months ago, there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel, a crumbling of support for charter schools on the heels of rising resistance to standards and high-stakes testing.
And then the election of Donald Trump.
And then Trump’s apparent selection of a Secretary of Education with zero experience in public education and a harsh school choice agenda.
This feels not like passing dark clouds, but a potential permanent eclipse of the sun.
However, we must resist the alluring fatalism of Trumplandia upon us even though truth and evidence have been declared defunct.
In a time of post-truth, truth becomes Kryptonite.
The Crack in Charter School Support Must Be a Harbinger of the End of the Accountability Era
“What exactly is the position of charter school supporters?” ask educators and activists Adrienne Dixson and Andre Perry, writing at The Hechinger Report. For some, the time to question charter school advocates and commitments to charter schools is well past due because the evidence is substantial that charter advocacy fails against miraculous claims and erodes community public schools.
Nearly three decades ago, charter schools began as educational experiments designed to benefit, not compete with, all public schools, but during the Obama administration, charter schools have increasingly turned into an alternative to traditional public schools, especially for black and brown students.
As a softer but misleading and more publicly palpable form of school choice, charter schools represent a microcosm of the larger accountability era of education reform. In many ways, charter schools have been defined by embracing Teach For America (TFA) and rejecting tenure and unionized staffs, focusing on standards and high-stakes testing, promising to close achievement gaps among vulnerable populations of students (black, brown, and poor), and identifying strongly with “no excuses” ideologies and policies such as teaching “grit” and growth mindset, as well as enforcing zero tolerance disciplinary agendas.
The transition from educational experimentation to educational alternative can likely be traced back to 2009, when David Brooks proclaimed the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) the “Harlem Miracle” and introduced Paul Tough and Geoffrey Canada to the education reform landscape.
Tough established himself as a powerful proponent of “grit,” and “miracle” charter schools, while Canada was soon crowned “Superman” in a controversial and biased documentary that promoted TFA and charters while demonizing unionized teachers.
Grounded in both Barack and Michelle Obama’s championing Canada’s HCZ, the education agenda of the last eight years has never really questioned charter schools or their advocates. However, at the end of Obama’s second term and despite this administration’s doubling down on George W. Bush-style accountability education reform, questions about charter school began in some notable places, including by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan penning The Myth of the “Miracle School.”
Ironically, charter schools have now returned to delivering on their original goal: they’re an experiment that has quite possibly produced what education reformers could not have anticipated — evidence that the accountability era has failed. Questioning charter schools prompts, then, another question: Can calls for a moratorium on expanding charter schools sustain a broader end to accountability era education reform?
From “Miracle” to Mirage
Over Obama’s two terms, charter schools went from “miracle” status to the focus of a searing satire by HBO’s John Oliver, prompting, as Valerie Strauss reports at The Answer Sheet: “the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit pro-charter organization, [to offer] $100,000 to the school that creates the best rebuttal video to Oliver’s rant.”
But the challenges and rebuttals to charter schools have also been extremely serious. Both the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter movement issued calls for a moratorium and an end to charter schools serving highly segregated impoverished and black/brown students.
The shift from “miracle” to mirage grew out of the utopian promises linked to charter schools, such as closing the achievement gap, paired with the crisis discourse (failing schools and “bad” teachers) around traditional public schools.
Advocates for charter schools blamed low academic outcomes for impoverished and minority students on “bad” teachers and the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” but claimed that charter schools would close the achievement gap, primarily by implementing the major elements of the accountability education reform movement.
The promises of charter schools gradually began to be central to major reform efforts across the U.S.
Notably, one of the most powerful examples of eradicating traditional public schools and replacing them with charter schools — as well as firing the entire teacher workforce and replacing them with mostly TFA recruits — has been New Orleans post-Katrina, documented by education journalist Sarah Carr. Yet, since New Orleans became an all-charter school district, test scores have remained low and schools have continued to be plagued by segregation — the exact problems charters were supposed to eradicate.
Parental choice, which lies at the heart of support for charters, has failed, as Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University, has detailed. Broadly, Helig explains:
Despite the trendy popularity of charter schools in some circles, their wholesale replacement of traditional public schools is unnecessary. Not only do decades of data and research show this, but in each city there are plenty of successful public schools on the other side of the tracks or highway or river. The wealthy in the United States, regardless of locality, continue to have access to quality public education.
As an experiment, then, “decades of data” have produced results that charter proponents would like to ignore: on balance, charter schools are mostly indistinguishable in quality from traditional public schools, with both having some strong results while sharing lingering problems related to social class and race.
Since charter schools have become the primary face for the accountability machine of education reform, embracing many of the primary policies and practices of the standards and high-stakes testing era, challenging charter schools must continue as a lever for overturning the entire accountability era.
The Beginning of the End?: Maintaining Hope
As the tide has turned against charter schools, many parents have also begun to reject high-stakes testing and embrace the opt-out movement, and the entire country has witnessed a jumbled but significant challenge to national standards, the Common Core.
In other words, many of the key aspects of major polices designed to reform public education have suffered eroding support from the public in general and parents specifically — even while the larger political environment has embraced an ugly form of right-wing ideology. Questioning charter schools must continue and must also fit into helping create a much different structure for education reform.
Therefore, recent challenges to charter schools and the reform agenda cannot be allowed to be swept away in the post-truth mayhem of Trumplandia.
Even Tough, who made much of his fame by supporting “no excuses” charter schools and “grit” has begun to backpedal, as seen in his latest book and recent public messages. And zero tolerance policies, so prevalent in charter schools, have been challenged by parents, the public, and even the Office of Civil Rights.
Once popular among educators and the media, both “grit” and growth mindset have lost favor as well, particularly as useful approaches to addressing vulnerable populations of students. As Paul Gorski, Associate Professor of Integrative Studies in New Century College at George Mason University and founder of EdChange, warns: “No set of curricular or pedagogical strategies can turn a classroom led by a teacher with a deficit view of families experiencing poverty into an equitable learning space for those families.”
And TFA, strongly linked with charter schools, has experienced multiple years of decline in applications, as well as cities and states dropping partnerships. Since TFA was touted as the quick and easy fix to a failed teacher workforce buoyed by teachers’ unions, this decline signals yet more cracks in both education reforms promises as well as suggests a potential end to the era of accountability.
Today, with powerful messages from the NAACP and BLM, activists supporting public schools must remain resolved to emphasize the overwhelming evidence that simply creating charter schools and implementing the same ineffective policies — new standards, new high-stakes tests, “grit,” growth mindset, zero tolerance, TFA — has not and cannot create the sort of reform needed that addresses inequity of opportunities for the students who need public schools the most.
As well, activists supporting public schools must be vigilant about the utter failure of school choice, which is a form of zombie politics paralleling the accountability buffet of the past thirty years that has proven to be universally hollow as well.
The remaining hurdles, of course, include a well informed and vocal public as well as political leaders in office (consider Duncan’s turn of attitude came after he left office) willing to question and then change their standard reform practices.
This now seems a Herculean task in post-truth Trumplandia — but hope has to overcome fatalism here. However, the rise of Trumplandia was both gradual and sudden.
As Emily Deruy writes in The Atlantic regarding Black Lives Matter’s K-12 education agenda:
“The education system in this country has never worked for poor people and people of color,” said Rivera. “We’re not calling for the status quo. We don’t want things to continue as they’ve always done.”
Ultimately, questions about charter schools and their advocates must continue and resonate in a way that recognizes an extremely complicated message about historical and current failures of public education — primarily the inequity of opportunity in the lives and schooling of black, brown, and poor students — that has not been and cannot be addressed by high-stakes accountability or through a form of schooling, charter schools, that simply houses failed policies.
Along with questioning charter support, Dixson and Perry call for reformers to change course in a way that serves communities — especially black and brown poor communities — instead of using those children and their education as political theater.
In post-truth Trumplandia, this imperative is even more urgent.
Charter schools like the entirety of the accountability era must be named for what they are: political theater.
Trumplandia as the ultimate and most hollow political theater cannot be allowed to win.
Along with U.S. politics, public education and education reform need a new script, and continuing resolved to stop charter schools and the accountability era can be an important moment in making that happen.