Hillary Clinton’s Bad, Anti-Charter School Argument
|Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton|
speaks during a rally at Pine Middle School,
Nov. 23, 2015, Reno Nev. (Image: Lance Iversen via RCE)
Clinton sounded more like a rank-and-file teachers union member than a charter school backer in her criticism of the schools, saying “most” charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” Hillary Clinton’s statement is patently untrue, and by making it, Clinton is turning her back on charter schools at a pivotal point in the education reform debate.
You can add this to the list of Clinton flip-flops. She wasn’t always a critic of charter schools. In fact, Clinton was a vocal supporter of charter schools on the campaign trail during her first attempt at the presidency in 2007, but her support of charters dates back much longer. In her 1996 book, Clinton wrote that the idea behind charter schools was “that they should be freed from regulations that stifle innovation, so they can focus on getting results,” and that she found the argument “persuasive.” Her husband created federal grants to encourage charter school growth in America during his presidency, and Hillary was publicly supportive of that move as well.
What changed? Are charter schools in decline? Not at all. Charter schools have never been more popular with students and parents.
According to a report from the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, more students than ever are attending charter schools, and the highest increase in enrollment has been in urban areas. It’s unsurprising that their popularity is growing. Some of the districts with the highest enrollment totals also rank among the highest academic achievers. In Los Angeles, the district with the highest charter school enrollment, charter students scored higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in 2015 than traditional public school students.
Hillary Clinton’s change in opinion is likely a result of some of her newest supporters-- the teachers unions.
In October, Clinton secured the endorsement of the nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association. It’s a pivotal endorsement, and one she failed to secure during her first presidential campaign-- something that may have helped cost her the Democratic nomination. And, in July another powerful teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed Clinton as well.
The teachers unions dislike charter schools because many employ non-union teachers and they compete with - and outperform - traditional public schools. Union opposition is solely for self-preservation. It has nothing to do with the best interests of students.
With the teachers unions on Clinton’s side this time around, they wasted little time doing spin after her comments received pushback. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Teachers Federation, defended Clinton’s comments arguing that charter schools have gotten away from how they were initially conceived when Clinton strongly supported them. Weingarten claims that now, charter schools have become a competing school system to public schools and that they have “destroyed public education,” which is a strange comment considering charter schools are public schools.
Hillary Clinton’s comments on most charter schools not taking and retaining the hardest-to-teach-kids, whether they reflect union talking points or a genuine, non-politically motivated shift in her worldview, are factually incorrect.
Most charter schools are required to take every applicant that comes their way. When space runs out in a charter school, as is often the case, the schools select applicants through a random lottery. Some states have policies giving preference to students living near the school or with siblings attending the school, but the only state that specifically limits the enrollment of students defined as “at risk” is Ohio. Keep in mind that if caps on the amount of charter schools a state could have didn’t exist, these kinds of enrollment restrictions (as limited as they are) would matter a lot less.
What Clinton meant by “hardest-to-teach-kids” is uncertain, but the implication of her statement is that charter schools fail at serving lower income or minority students who historically have been failed by our public school system. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the U.S., charter schools educate a higher percentage of students in poverty. Nationwide, 63 percent of students enrolled in charter schools are minority students-- and they perform better in charters than traditional public schools. Stanford University has found that in charter schools, black students gain nearly three additional weeks of learning in both reading and math; Low-income black students gain nearly one and a half additional months of learning in both reading and math; Low-income Hispanic students gain nearly three additional weeks of learning in reading and more than a month in math.
Once enrolled, “most” charter schools aren’t getting rid of difficult to teach students. In Washington, D.C., where the expulsion rate of students in charter schools has been cited by the Clinton campaign as being problematic, 11 out of the 52 charter schools were responsible for 75 percent of the 227 charter school expulsions in 2011 (the most recent data available). That’s not “most” schools by any stretch of the imagination. Performance metrics are important, but when two-thirds of charter schools in D.C. didn’t expel anyone, it is unfair to criticize charters as a whole with regards to retention.
Over 1 million students are currently on waitlists to get into charter schools and it’s no surprise they are so popular with parents these days. They serve a diverse population of students, and students are simply performing better academically in them. Hillary’s criticisms of charters may win her brownie points with the unions, but they will probably backfire with the parents of charter school students and those on waiting to get in one.
Erik Telford is President of The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He has been a contributing author and a friend of the ARRA News Service for over seven years. This article was previously shared at Real Clear Education (RCE).
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