Please Save The Charter Movement From its Friends

It’s understandable that Betsy DeVos would find a reservoir of goodwill from national and local charter school advocates. But the unabashed embrace she’s received from many of them as nominee for Secretary of Education is hurting the charter school brand and all of us who are working to sustain an innovative sector of autonomous and accountable public schools.

This is not because she seems to be a stranger to pedagogy, although it would be nice if she knew the difference between proficiency and growth.

Nor is this because of her poor grasp of education law, although an understanding would, in a better world, be prerequisite for the job.

It’s because her sole qualification for the position, apart from the money her family has lavished on politicians of a certain persuasion, is her extreme position on “market-based” education reform.

God save us from our friends.

How can we continue to make the case to charter skeptics that we are not a stalking horse for privatization if we give tacit support for education vouchers? Are we so desirous of having a charter supporter as the nation’s educator-in-chief that we’re blind to her lack of credibility as an educator? By embracing someone as unqualified as Ms. DeVos, charter advocates are conveying a dangerous message that will haunt us for years to come: our political interests trump our educational ones.

And there you have it. The charter school movement, founded and nurtured by American educational visionaries in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and which for the past two decades has been the single biggest game-changer in public education, is on the verge of forfeiting its basic principles in order to place a charter evangelist at the US Department of Education.

Ms. DeVos is likely to be confirmed and we will work with her as we work with everyone in every department of education with whom we agree or disagree. I hope though, that we are able to persuade her to look at charters beyond our role in providing choice. We need to re-examine the autonomy-accountability paradigm so that charters are not being micromanaged and so that the expectations for performance are clear, strong and aligned with realities of the 21st century. We need to make sure that there are no perverse incentives that incline schools towards inequitable enrollment and retention policies. The long-term health of the sector and the role charter schools play within the larger world of public education is far more important than rapid growth.

Steven Zimmerman is co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools

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