The National Education Association, the most implacably anti-reform of the two major national teachers’ unions, has released a series of candidate interviews. Senator Elizabeth Warren, making her case for NEA support, notes her role in opposing a 2016 ballot initiative to expand charter schools in Boston.
In one sense, Warren is correct. The fact that she opposed the Massachusetts initiative does prove how far she is willing to go to maintain teachers’-union support. But what it says about her willingness to follow evidence, and to value the needs of low-income parents, is deeply worrisome.
Boston has probably the most effective public charter schools in America, producing enormous learning gains for the most disadvantaged children. “Charter schools in the urban areas of Massachusetts have large, positive effects on educational outcomes,” reported a Brookings study. “The effects are particularly large for disadvantaged students, English learners, special education students, and children who enter charters with low test scores.” Researchers have asked and answered every possible objection: Boston’s charters are not “skimming” the best students, they do scale up, and they do not harm students left behind in traditional public schools. (Indeed, “charter expansion has a small positive effect on non-charter students’ achievement.”)
It is inconvenient for Warren that she happens to represent a state with the most effective charter sector in the country, given the fact that she’s running for president and one of the most influential interest groups in her party opposes charters everywhere. Even more inconveniently, Massachusetts had a ballot initiative in 2016 to lift the cap on charter attendance in Boston schools. (The previous time the cap had been lifted, charters proved they could replicate and expand on their success, and proved operators were asking to open schools.) This spurred Warren, who had previously supported charter schools, to reverse herself.
Warren’s NEA interview recounts her role opposing this initiative with apparent pride. “The idea,” she says, “was to lift the cap on charter schools and expand the number of charters across the state.” (This is false, actually: The cap was not affecting charter growth across the state because most areas had charter enrollment well below existing cap levels. It would only have increased enrollment in “precisely the urban areas where charter schools are doing their best work.”)
“The educators said, uh-uh, this is about draining money out of the schools, and I fought on the side of the educators. Public dollars must stay in public schools,” she continues — following the union convention of defining charter schools, which have open enrollment and no tuition as not being “public.”
But what about the low-income parents who wanted better schools for their children? Here is where Warren’s answer goes from obtuse to almost cruel:
“I had a lot of folks visit my office and say, ‘I love my charter school,’” Warren said in the video about constituents who wanted her to support expanding the charter cap. My question always was, ‘If you don’t like your public school, what’s going to happen to the rest of the children who are there?’ Because we don’t have an obligation to just a handful of our children. We have an obligation to all of our children.”
“If you think your public school is not working, then go help your public school. Go help get more resources for it. Volunteer at your public schools. Help get the teachers and school bus drivers and cafeteria workers and the custodial staff and the support staff, help get them some support so they can do the work that needs to be done. You don’t like the building? You think it’s old and decaying? Then get out there and push to get a new one.”
The answer to parents who want to allow more high-quality public schools is that they should fix the existing schools themselves?
As a factual matter, Warren is implying that resources are the reason parents might prefer a charter school in Boston. In reality, the city’s charter schools spend less per pupil than traditional public schools. What makes the city’s charter sector so much more effective is its innovative pedagogy, culture, and the ability to replace ineffective teachers (which is why unions oppose them so fervently).
Warren is telling parents stuck with low-performing neighborhood schools that the state should not allow their kids to attend good schools, and instead they themselves should take responsibility to fix the neighborhood schools. It’s the parents’ job to raise money, spend volunteer hours, and, apparently, implement the schoolwide reforms that allow the charter sector to do so much better at teaching poor kids.
Notably, Warren personally sent one of her children to a fancy private school. That is not an option that’s available to low-income parents. (Nor is it scalable: Studies have shown that private-school vouchers, in contrast to public charters, do not work.) Warren’s own decisions do not by themselves invalidate her policy stance. But it shows that even for a parent with the extraordinary intelligence and social capital of an Elizabeth Warren, personally fixing a neighborhood school is a hopeless task.
Warren is placing the entire responsibility for improving a public service on the shoulders of low-income parents, while supporting laws to deny them better options. Warren has lots of effective proposals. But the fact that her response to a reform that has dramatically helped poor minority children is to block it, and to tell the parents to solve their problems, ought to prompt some reflection as to just how “progressive” the union stance on education actually is.