Elizabeth Warren Declares War on Charter Schools
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Last month, Elizabeth Warren paid a visit to the National Education Association (NEA). She was doing what candidates always do: hunting for votes. So one can understand why she was there and why she wanted to please the union.

But her comments on charter schools were an affront to any parent or anyone who cares about educational equity and the freedom to choose. She all but declared war on school choice and accused those who opted out of troubled public schools as selfish.

The conversation got off to a pretty dreadful start. NEA head Lily Eskelsen García said, “NEA members have pushed back against misguided school reforms like charter schools…. You know how we feel about charter schools. It is important that we know how you feel about charter schools.” In short, candidate Warren — toe the current union line.

Remarkably, the purportedly thoughtful and maverick-minded Warren did exactly that for the next five minutes, unctuously explaining how she is against charter schools and bragging about how she helped stop their expansion in Massachusetts. In the course of her supplication, Ms. Warren said some jaw-dropping things.

1. “No one should be doing for-profit charters in America.” Ms. Warren offered no explanation for her declaration. Of course, the distinction between a for-profit school and a not-for-profit school is not nearly as sharp as Warren implies. A school can be nonprofit and still charge sky-high tuition, pay its leadership huge salaries, and give them rewards based on rising enrollments and revenues, just like what happens in many for-profit enterprises.

2. “Public dollars must stay in public schools.” One would think a professor of law would know that federal law and Supreme Court rulings have permitted tax dollars to go to private and religious educational institutions. Moreover, charter schools are public schools. They have a government-issued charter to carry out a public purpose. What members of the NEA, and apparently candidate Warren, despise about charter schools is that very few of them have unionized workforces.

3. “I had a lot of folks … visit my office and say ‘But I love my charter school’ … And my question always was, if you don’t like your public school, what’s going to happen to the other children who are there?” What parent would find that line of argument compelling? Few beyond statists who want to sacrifice their own progeny’s well-being to the good of the collective. Indeed, if we really care about children in failing schools, then we should allow more of them to leave failing schools for better ones.

4. Schools can be fixed by spending more money. Candidate Warren followed up her diss of parents who like charter schools by declaring that what they should do is to demand more “resources” (i.e., public spending) in their current public school. If education reformers have learned anything over the past 50 years, it is that school spending and student success have a complicated relationship. School funding has grown and grown since the late 1960s, but student achievement has not improved commensurately. Troubled schools rarely can be improved by throwing more money at them. And unstated by Warren or the NEA is that a big chunk of education budgets is consumed by rising unionized teacher compensation, pension, and medical costs. One reason why charter schools have become such a popular option among policymakers is that they direct funding to new organizations that are not swamped in red tape and dysfunction and that have more freedom to try new ways to organize education.

5. Schools can be fixed by parents volunteering. In addition to suggesting that parents become activists for more resources, Ms. Warren suggests they volunteer at their schools. Certainly, some parents do have the time to join the Parent Teacher Association and to help student groups run bake sales and fundraisers. But then there is everyone else, swamped by the demands of day-to-day life. And this is especially so for single parents and those who are on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Moreover, how exactly individuals could volunteer and to do so in a way that makes a significant difference in the day-to-day operations of the school is anything but clear. Public schools, lest we forget, are unionized shops. Parents can’t just volunteer to be teacher’s aides, tutors, or even custodians. Shop floor rules and the associated government bureaucracy both curb involvement. (D.C. public schools, for example, require any would-be volunteer to go through fingerprinting, a background check, and a TB test.)

All in all, Ms. Warren may have scored highly with the NEA’s leadership and union activists. But for parents who want better options for their children, candidate Warren’s message is disheartening and distasteful.

Kevin R. Kosar wrote Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards and created the Federal Education Policy History website.

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