Betsy DeVos and Over-the-Top Fears of Privatizing Public Schools to Their Last Stub of Chalk

As you read what follows about how charter schools came to be in 1991, you may want to keep track of the number of early players whose animus towards the public sector was fevered, as they were crazed right-wingers enveloped exclusively in the hot amour of markets.  (Hint: No one I knew.)

You may also think about the barrage of rhetorical bullets aimed at Secretary of Education-designee Betsy DeVos over the last several weeks for allegedly seeking to deny educational opportunities for every poor child in the country by privatizing public schools to their last stub of chalk.  I overstate, but not by much.

In the beginning (in this instance October 1988), the Minneapolis Foundation pulled together a group of civic leaders for a retreat on improving public schools.  Among the attendees was Ember Reichgott (now Ember Reichgott Junge), a DFL state Senator from New Hope.  Also there were the late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Sy Fliegel, majordomo of public school choice in New York City’s East Harlem.

Shanker’s remarks were shaped by his recent reading of Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts by an educator named Ray Budde, and by a speech the union chief himself gave at the National Press Club earlier that year on affording teachers greater freedom to create new programs and schools.  Shanker was enthusiastic about (what he described as) “charters,” writing several columns about them.  He also got the AFT to endorse the idea of charters at the union’s convention earlier in 1988.

Inspired by what Shanker and Fliegel had to say, several conference participants, including an official of the Twin Cities-based Urban Coalition, offered to help Reichgott draft charter legislation.  The Citizens League also got involved, appointing a diverse committee to study the issue.  Eventually, all members of the panel signed a report recommending the “creation of charter public schools sponsored either by a local school board or the State Board of Education.”  Neither the Minnesota Federation of Teachers nor the Minnesota Education Association concurred and they proceeded to block passage of charter legislation in 1989 and 1990.  (The MEA and MFT subsequently merged, forming the present-day Education Minnesota.)

Bypassing, for abbreviated blog purposes, anything additionally here about the cogitating and politicking that went on between 1988 and 1991, Reichgott and her colleagues managed to prevail in 1991, with newly elected Governor Arne Carlson, a moderate Republican, signing the first charter school bill in the country.  Interestingly, Carlson had previously opposed charters, which was perfectly aligned at the time with his (shall we say) unconventional appointment of Gene Mammenga as his first Commissioner of Education.  Mannenga had been an MEA lobbyist right before he was tapped.

Given the progressive origins of charter schools, understanding how they have come to be seen as right-wing Trojan horses can be tricky.  Or maybe not tricky at all, as the donkey more than elephant in the room is that most charter school teachers are not unionized.  More broadly, charters regularly steam-off not just MEA, AFT, and their affiliates, but also the rest of what Arne Carlson eventually called “The Cartel,” and what U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett called “The Blob.”

Moreover, given that about 13 percent of charters (really not a big proportion) are run by for-profit companies, it’s not hard to comprehend why significant numbers of people on the left are not as keen about charter schools as they used to be.  Never mind that such schools “have to meet financial oversight regulations, just like any company the government contracts with to provide a service.”  And never mind that in defining “public” schools in contexts like these, it’s educationally sound and accurate to say that any school that well-serves the public – regardless of how it’s incorporated – should be effectively thought of as one.  (The 13 percent approximation and quote about oversight regulations are courtesy of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.)

Needless to say, this re-imagination of “public schools” works only if a person or political school of thought has adequate respect for the private sector generally and free markets in particular, especially in the ways they can truly help people, not just make and sell widgets and cheeseburgers efficiently.

(By the way, I use “politicking” above very much in a positive sense, as it’s impossible to have democracy without politics, and it’s impossible to have politics without politicians politicking.  For a fuller review of the birth of charters in Minnesota, as well as the creation of open enrollment, Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, and tax credits for certain educational expenses – all bequeathed to the nation by Minnesota – you may want to take a look at a 2000 essay of mine: “Nothing Plain about These Plains: Minnesota’s Motley Story of School Reform.”)

It’s certainly granted, as it’s self-evident, that many charter schools are not nearly good enough.  But so are thousands upon thousands of regular district schools.  A fundamental difference, however, is that it’s usually much easier to shut-down a bad charter school than a bad district school.

On top of that, great numbers of parents love the charters their children attend, often because of their distinctive curricula or innovative teaching.  But perhaps even more frequently, because they correctly believe their boys and girls may well be physically safer in charters than in other public schools available to them.

As for our next Secretary of Education, someone at Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing (I forget who) besmirched her as an “activist.”  An exceedingly affluent one obviously, but nothing more than that.  A mere activist, was the implication.  Given her decades of substantial work and deeds to improve learning in Michigan and across the country, this was absurd, of course.

Then, again, “activist” does sound to be in the same occupational ballpark as, say, “community organizer.”  Do people – progressives in particular – want really big public sector assignments in Washington filled by folks whose main jobs not much earlier were as activists or community organizers or something like that?  Do let me know.

An official in the U.S. Department Education during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment.