The Demise of the Great Education Saviors

Charter schools and testing were supposed to right historic wrongs. Now they’ve run out of political steam. What happened?
(Nicole Xu for The Washington Post)

In November, Sen. Elizabeth Warren traveled to Clark Atlanta University to give a speech about the history of discrimination against working black women. Instead of receiving a unanimous welcome, Warren was repeatedly interrupted by a group of pro-charter-school demonstrators — mostly black women — chanting, “Our children, our choice!” A few hours later, having agreed to meet with the protesters if they let her finish her speech, the then-presidential candidate found herself listening to a Memphis activist named Sarah Carpenter explain her deep unhappiness with Warren’s education platform.

Warren’s plan called for quadrupling funding for the federal Title I program, which supports high-poverty schools, and spending billions to help students with disabilities. But it was the charter-school section that had driven Carpenter and dozens of fellow parents to raise money on GoFundMe for a bus to Atlanta.

The experience of watching her children and grandchildren fail in the Memphis public school system — and then succeed at KIPP, a national chain of nonprofit charter schools — had turned Carpenter into a charter-school champion. And for most of her 20 years as an education advocate, charter schools had enjoyed steady, bipartisan political support. The conservative Walton Family Foundation, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting market-oriented education policies, financially supported Carpenter’s nonprofit organization, which counsels parents on selecting schools for their children. But the previous months had been increasingly difficult for supporters of “school reform,” a set of policies that broadly includes holding schools accountable for student scores on standardized tests, tying teacher hiring and pay to their performance in the classroom, government intervention in persistently low-performing schools, and giving parents more publicly financed options through such policies as vouchers and charter schools.

Warren, for one, had been increasingly opposed to charter schools. In 2016, she opposed a Massachusetts ballot measure that would have lifted a statutory cap on the number of charter schools in the state, despite evidence that those in the Boston area were, on average, far more effective at educating poor children and students of color than regular public schools. In her presidential platform, Warren described her opposition to charters as fighting back against “privatization, corporatization, and profiteering in our nation’s schools.” In substance, her plan left existing nonprofit charters mostly alone while eliminating a federal charter funding program and banning for-profit charters. In tone, it tarred charter schools with phrases like “corruption,” “dark money” and “self-dealing.”

Sarah Carpenter told Warren that her family couldn’t afford to simply move to the wealthy suburbs of Memphis and their well-financed schools. She kept returning to what she knew was true. “Charter schools saved my grandbaby,” she said. “Every school in my community was failing.” Howard Fuller, a school-choice activist and former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, weighed in. “We are not the enemy,” he told Warren. “If you’re black in America, and you only got one option for your children, you’re in deep trouble.”

Warren stood listening intently. She thought charters should have to meet the same standards as regular public schools, she explained. Her plan would bring enormous new resources to education. Fuller countered: If “you don’t radically alter the practices of that system ... that money is going to go down the drain.”

Sitting in a room nearby was Amy Wilkins, chief lobbyist for the nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (Wilkins and I worked together for a short time at the Education Trust, a pro-school-reform organization.) She had been in the auditorium during the protest, after spending the day with Carpenter and the other activists. Their direct action thrilled her. But her excitement turned to anger as she saw friends who had stepped off cold buses with packed lunches described on social media as bought-and-paid-for outside agitators. Like they were selling themselves for money. Like they couldn’t have minds of their own.

Looming behind that one day was a larger crisis. Warren wasn’t the only politician who had turned hard against school reform. As the Democratic presidential candidates rolled out their platforms in 2019, they promoted unprecedentedly generous plans for education. Sen. Bernie Sanders called for tripling Title I funding and providing free prekindergarten for all. Former vice president Joe Biden also called for tripling Title I and free pre-K. Meanwhile, school-reform ideas that had been staples of presidential agendas since the 1980s were nowhere to be found — unless they were being stridently denounced. Sanders called for banning for-profit charter schools, while describing the test- and accountability-focused No Child Left Behind Act, enacted under President George W. Bush, as “one of the worst pieces of legislation in our nation’s history.”

Liberals were condemning standardized tests while criticizing candidates like Sen. Cory Booker for his longtime support of charter schools. Conservatives were rejecting any federal policy that would limit states’ rights in education. School reform — a movement that Wilkins had devoted most of her adult life to, a movement that was supposed to right one of the great wrongs in American history, a movement that a mere decade ago was setting the terms of the education debate inside the Democratic Party and beyond — seemed to be politically collapsing. What had gone wrong?

Charter school proponents in D.C. rally to demand more support for the schools from the city government in November 2019. (Perry Stein/The Washington Post)

School reform began with the civil rights movement, with the desegregation order of Brown v. Board of Education, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocking a schoolhouse door. With people in Washington deciding that the nation’s vast, decentralized education system, locally governed and locally funded, could not be trusted to give marginalized children the education they needed.

There’s a photograph of Amy Wilkins, age 6, at the White House, grinning at the camera in a neat patterned dress. To the left is her father, Roger Wilkins, who was being sworn in as head of a Justice Department agency charged with helping communities racked by poverty and unrest. To the right is her great-uncle, Roy Wilkins, the executive director of the NAACP. Between them is President Johnson, holding Amy’s index finger in his right hand.

Wilkins is 60 now, thin, with gray hair pulled back in a bun. She’s punctual, a trait inherited from her mother, who was deputy chief of protocol in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. She’s also wry, blunt and sometimes profane, especially with people who doubt that black and brown children can learn as well as anyone else.

Not long after the White House photo was taken, a clarifying moment occurred in young Amy’s life. The Wilkins family had recently moved to Southwest Washington, primarily on the strength of the local public school’s reputation. Amidon Elementary was new, integrated and designed to attract the educated middle class. But as Amy moved to second grade and then third, her parents became increasingly concerned. She wasn’t learning to read. They reluctantly pulled her out of Amidon and enrolled her in a private school in Virginia.

The question of why children learn, or don’t, is fundamental to education policy debates. The quality of the school matters, enormously. Curriculums, textbooks, the skill and experience of the teacher — these and many other factors have a huge effect on learning. However, school isn’t everything. A student’s home life makes a big difference. Children’s natural talents and inclinations, how their parents raise them and how their environment shapes them all matter.

Amy Wilkins was a kind of one-girl controlled experiment in the effects of school on learning. She was, by all accounts, exceptionally bright. Her home life was stable and enriched. Despite societal racism, her parents had unusual social capital. Amy’s mother was a college graduate, as was her grandmother and her great-grandmother, a legacy of learning that is unusual even now and was all but unheard of for a black child in 1966.

At her new school, she quickly learned to read. Every afternoon she would come back across the Potomac River. “I saw kids who had gone with me to kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade, who I knew were just as smart as I was, if not smarter, who stayed in public schools and didn’t learn anything,” she told me. The more time passed, the larger the gap between them grew. “I would come home from college and I would still see them at the Safeway, but they went nowhere. They didn’t have jobs, or they had [lousy] jobs. They had bad, hard lives.” She took that truth and carried it with her and never let it go: Schools make a difference; sometimes, all the difference.

Shannon Carey was teaching middle school in Oakland when No Child Left Behind was enacted, and the memory is vivid. “It was huge,” she says. “It was like a tidal wave.”

The segregationists did not quit after Brown v. Board outlawed school segregation in 1954. Noncompliance was widespread: Virginia’s Prince Edward County, less than 200 miles from the nation’s capital, shut down its public school system for five years, starting in 1959. White children got vouchers to attend private academies. Black children were left with nothing. Other districts remained open but extremely poor. The school finance system relied heavily on local property-tax revenue, producing enormous disparities in funding. In many northern cities, government-sponsored redlining and racist housing covenants segregated students of different races into neighboring districts, rich and poor.

The Johnson administration’s Great Society program included the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which launched the Title I program. Having seen the depths of Southern resistance firsthand as attorney general, Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York was skeptical of giving large amounts of money to people like the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors. At 1965 hearings on the legislation, Kennedy said, “My feeling is that even if we put money into those school districts, then it will be wasted.” In reply, Anthony Celebrezze, Johnson’s secretary of health, education and welfare, said, “That is the price of democracy. If you want to keep your education on a local level without concentrating it in the federal government.”

“It may be the price of democracy,” Kennedy responded, “but we don’t have to accept it.” He called for “the highest standards possible” and suggested a testing system so local parents and Congress could know whether progress was truly being made.

The final version of the Johnson education act, however, did not have strong requirements for standards and testing. Nor did it provide enough money to close the yawning gaps between rich and poor districts. In the early 1970s, the Supreme Court issued a pair of decisions ruling against low-income black and Latino students who had been segregated into impoverished school districts. The court would not require that the students’ schools receive equal funding, nor that the students be bused to wealthier neighboring districts. These rulings cemented racism and financial inequality into American education. Every reform since has tried to build atop those uneven foundations.

Amy Wilkins enrolled at Barnard College in 1977. After graduating, she took a job as a political organizer in a working-class black neighborhood in Springfield, Mass., eventually becoming a lobbyist on public utilities, voter registration and economic justice issues in Boston. From there, she moved to Washington, helped push through major federal child-care legislation for the Children’s Defense Fund, and joined the Clinton administration to support Hillary Clinton’s health-care campaign. When that failed, she got a spot on the White House press team. One day in 1996, Ladies’ Home Journal called, wanting to know President Bill Clinton’s favorite flavor of Jell-O. Amy decided it was time to look for something else. Later that same day, an old colleague from the Children’s Defense Fund named Kati Haycock rang. She was starting an organization called the Education Trust and needed someone with great lobbying skills. Education, Amy thought. Compared to battling health insurance companies, how hard could it be?

School integration proceeded in fits and starts through the 1970s. After the failed Supreme Court cases, advocates turned to state courts for school-funding justice. Some won and some lost, leaving a patchwork of 14,000 unequally funded districts nationwide, many racially segregated. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration issued apocalyptic warnings about bad schools undermining national competitiveness with rivals like the Soviet Union and Japan.

In 1989, nearly all the nation’s governors attended an education summit in Charlottesville. President George H.W. Bush presided, and attendees included then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and former governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. It was the start of “school reform” as we know it today. The governors agreed to shore up the nation’s academic standards and regularly test students to ensure the results, much as Robert Kennedy had proposed 24 years earlier. That became the framework for the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The early 1990s also saw the first charter-school laws, which gave public funds to private nonprofit and for-profit schools that agreed to be held accountable by public sponsors. As president, Clinton was an enthusiastic promoter. It seemed like progress.

But for the advocates at the Education Trust, it was not nearly good enough. National tests showed that white students were, on average, far surpassing their black and Latino peers, and that low-income students were falling behind. The Trust called this the “achievement gap.”

Clinton’s focus on education waned in a scandal-plagued second term, but in Texas, Gov. George W. Bush was becoming increasingly interested in the subject. The Trust dispatched Amy Wilkins to El Paso to help organize an event focused on low-income Latino children on the border. Bush came to deliver a speech. Wilkins had spent enough time around politicians to know when they were faking it. “I think he was genuinely concerned about and moved by these kids,” she told me, “and thought he had an idea that would help.” That idea was a strengthened version of the standards, testing and accountability framework Bush’s father had helped broker in Charlottesville. Texas students would be tested annually in reading and math. If the scores were persistently low, schools would face consequences.

One of the key architects of that system was lawyer and Dallas school board member Sandy Kress. At the Republican National Convention in 2000, Kress could see that many delegates had misgivings when Bush talked about taking the Texas model nationwide. “Most of the delegates were very uncomfortable with an aggressive federal role,” Kress says. Nevertheless Bush pressed on with his national plan, and fortunately for him, the leading education Democrats in Congress — George Miller of California in the House and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts in the Senate — were on board with it. They, too, faced opposition inside their party, especially from teachers unions that thought the punitive aspects of accountability would fall heavily on their members. But Kennedy and Miller had experienced the civil rights movement firsthand. The federal government had stepped in to save children of color trapped in school systems that would not serve them. Now, it would do so again.

Wilkins played a key role in moving Bush’s 2001 education bill, bringing all her lobbying acumen to bear. The teachers unions had been caught flat-footed and weren’t in the game. The old civil rights organizations were mostly against the bill, saying that if the government raised academic standards and tested the results, children of color would get expelled or drop out. Wilkins found this argument infuriating. “Do you want them to sit there and not learn anything?“ she would argue. “We’ll keep them in the building but we won’t teach? Is that the trade-off you’re telling me that we’re making here?”

In the final deal, Title I funding was increased from $8 billion to $12 billion. In exchange, states would establish academic standards in reading and math and administer annual tests in grades three through eight, and once in high school. States would determine what score indicated “proficiency.” Schools where not enough students tested as proficient year after year would be subject to an escalating series of interventions. The threshold for “enough students” started low but increased steadily to 100 percent by 2013.

Each subgroup, including black, Latino and low-income students, as well as English language learners and students with disabilities, had to hit the same threshold. This was the provision Wilkins fought for tenaciously throughout 2001. “The world that these kids go into doesn’t have different standards for them,” she says. “The world doesn’t say, ‘I’m sorry you grew up poor.’ Setting lower standards for some schools because they have less money or poorer kids means you’re saying right from the jump, we’re writing these kids off and they’re not going to have a part in our common culture. No.”

The bill passed both houses with large bipartisan majorities. There was great optimism at the Education Trust, where I worked as a policy analyst from 2002 to 2005. (Wilkins left to run an affiliate group before I was hired but returned in 2005.) After the long, inconclusive battles for desegregated and well-funded schools, the federal government would finally ensure that the most disadvantaged students got the good schools they needed.

Second-grade teacher Brittany Chalk works with students at Young Scholars of McKeesport Charter School in McKeesport, Pa. (Justin Merriman for The Washington Post)

In the classroom, however, No Child Left Behind felt very different. Shannon Carey (no relation) began teaching in Oakland, Calif., in 1992, two years after graduating from Yale. Test scores in Oakland were abysmal in the 1990s, particularly for children of color, and high school dropout rates were high. It was exactly the kind of city the architects of NCLB wanted to help. Carey was teaching middle school when the law was enacted, and the memory is vivid. “It was huge,” she says. “It was like a tidal wave.”

Her school immediately began changing what and how it taught. Math scores were especially low, so the school implemented a “double block” of math, one session after another consuming most of a morning or afternoon. The after-school programs were quickly retooled. Art, theater, music and sports were discarded. Everything had to focus on test preparation and remedial instruction in reading and math. Late afternoon was not, in her experience, a great time to drill vocabulary lessons with early adolescents. But that didn’t matter.

Within a few years, Carey started seeing the downstream effects of NCLB elementary education. The district made a hard turn toward phonics-based reading instruction. There is substantial evidence that many children benefit from phonics instruction. But taken to an extreme, it can remove crucial context for what words actually mean. Students began arriving in Carey’s classes having never studied science, social studies or literature.

The law also changed the experience of being a teacher. “Every year during the 2000s, it was like, ‘Oh no, we’re in this danger group’ ” of schools subject to NCLB sanctions, Carey says. “There was this constant fear that schools would be closed, teachers would be taken out, and the students would be scattered.” The district also tightened its grip on how teachers approached their work. “I remember some schools where every third-grade teacher had to be on the same page on the same day,” she says. Teachers hated it. “It was extremely stressful.”

Standards and accountability supporters like Wilkins and Kress will point out that nothing in the law directed school districts to block-schedule math or shut down art. “If I were a teacher working in a school and the principal said, ‘Drop everything and do test prep,’ I would hate that,” Wilkins says. They will also note, correctly, that for all the anxiety about schools being closed and teachers being fired for poor test scores, this hardly ever happened. Only 231 schools, out of nearly 100,000 nationwide, were taken over by their states because of poor NCLB results.

But the sense of threat and fear was enough. As the proficiency thresholds rose and the “failing” label was applied to hundreds and then thousands of schools, NCLB’s popularity declined. The teachers unions filed lawsuits in multiple states, alleging that the law was an unfunded mandate. State departments of education, most of which were unprepared for and unenthusiastic about becoming school-quality police, worked the regulatory process to water down performance standards. Parents complained about how much time their children spent on standardized tests.

“For the record,” Carey says, “my teacher friends and I knew it was terrible from the start. These carrots and sticks with adults who were working in underfunded schools with 32 students per classroom? Really? You’re going to punish us for our migrant students who learned English two years ago, their test scores? It was very clear that it was setting us up to restructure. For privatization.”

Oakland’s schools did not become private. But the district did become a hotbed of charter schools. Proponents promised an influx of innovation and virtuous competition. What they delivered was closer to the highs and lows of modern capitalism. In 2002, then-Mayor Jerry Brown helped launch Oakland School for the Arts, a charter school that has an outstanding track record of sending graduates to college. Alumni include the actress and singer Zendaya. There are also Oakland charter schools with very bad outcomes and leaders who have been charged with cheating and financial crimes. The market giveth and it taketh away.

Did school reform work? High school graduation rates have improved over the past two decades, probably in response to accountability. Morgan Polikoff, an education researcher at the University of Southern California, says that NCLB produced modest bumps in student achievement on federal and state tests in the early years. Those gains, however, were concentrated in math in the early grades and seem to have plateaued or possibly reversed in recent years. There is very little evidence, Polikoff says, that the law meaningfully narrowed the achievement gap. As for charter schools, studies have shown that they have not on average performed appreciably better than regular public schools. The best performers are often well-regulated urban charters like those that Sarah Carpenter’s grandchildren attended in Memphis.

Neither standards and accountability nor charter schools have lived up to their promoters’ lofty aspirations. And there is much public unhappiness with school reform. Unease with charter schools may reflect misgivings about subjecting public schools to the harsh forces of free-market competition. Few mourn when a local fast-food restaurant goes bust, but schools, even unforgivably low-performing ones, are community institutions. The idea that they should simply board up doesn’t sit well.

The accountability regime created by NCLB was a change in governance, altering the power dynamics between federal, state and local governments. Governance is a matter of institutions and relationships, which require trust to function well. And the great moral force of the civil rights movement, the legacy of Brown v. Board that has powered school reform, is shaped in part by mistrust. Mistrust earned from decades of discrimination and oppression. Mistrust sustained by ongoing unequal access to resources and teachers, to this day. The Department of Justice still has teams of lawyers trying to enforce Brown in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi right now. That’s how deep the resistance to racial justice runs.

But mistrust is poison to human relationships. Teachers like Shannon Carey and her friends and millions like them sensed mistrust in how NCLB spoke to them. They felt infantilized and disrespected. Because the law did so little to fix the financial and social inequality baked into the education system and the larger society, they felt set up to fail. So they rejected it, in ways large and small.

To many politicians on both sides of the aisle, so-called school reform efforts seem like a surefire way to anger their base, in exchange for moderate votes that don’t exist.

No Child Left Behind was wheezing by the end of the Bush administration. But Barack Obama had his own moment of clarity on the 2008 campaign trail. In rural South Carolina, he visited schools with crumbling buildings, underpaid teachers and few courses in advanced academic subjects, art or music. Poor students were getting the worst of everything in the wealthiest nation on Earth. Their plight stayed with him.

After his election, Obama appointed Arne Duncan, the reform-friendly chancellor of the Chicago public school system, as his secretary of education. With the early 2009 economy in free fall, Congress passed an economic stimulus package directing billions to public schools. Obama and Duncan put school-reform conditions on a small portion of the aid. States would need to turn around their lowest-performing schools and improve the way they evaluated and hired teachers, based in part on student test scores. They would also need to adopt high-quality standards and tests, a provision that buttressed a new movement called the Common Core State Standards. Forty-six states initially signed on to the Common Core, which corrected a major NCLB design flaw that had allowed every state to establish its own standards, tests and proficiency thresholds.

Meanwhile, NCLB was overdue for reauthorization, but American politics had changed fundamentally since 2001. Bipartisanship had become obsolete. Political discourse was becoming increasingly harsh. A more conservative Republican faction in Congress, driven by tea-party antipathy toward federal power, largely reverted to traditional skepticism of a federal role in education. The Obama administration made a tactical error by linking the nascent Common Core to its push for test-informed teacher evaluations that teachers unions, buoyed by an energized left’s support for organized labor, strongly opposed. The new standards were caught in the crossfire.

A testing “opt out” movement sprang up in New York City and elsewhere, appealing to affluent parents with ideological objections to standardized tests. The new left was also highly focused on the damaging effects of unrestrained markets: rising inequality, catastrophic climate change and more. For Democrats, market-based solutions like charter schools were an increasingly awkward fit.

By 2015, Democrats had lost control of Congress. Obama was skeptical that a new education deal could be reached, but in late 2015, to the surprise of many, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law still requires schools to publish academic results for low-income students, children of color and other subgroups. But it also gives states wide latitude to develop accountability policies. As a result, the intense pressure to improve that characterized the early 2000s has not returned.

Donald Trump made a point of denouncing the Common Core during his presidential campaign. His secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is a fierce supporter of private-school vouchers, but in February, the Trump administration joined senators Warren and Sanders in calling for the elimination of a major charter-school funding program. Most of the Congress members who championed NCLB in the early aughts have retired or died. To many politicians on both sides of the aisle, school reform now seems like a surefire way to anger their base, in exchange for moderate votes that don’t exist.

Amy Wilkins still goes back to her old neighborhood from time to time. She asks about Amidon Elementary. It’s had its ups and downs. Last year, 19 percent of its students were proficient in reading, up from 2 percent in 2015. If it had been a charter school, she says, it would have closed long ago.

She also looks back on the school-reform tidal wave she helped unleash in 2001. One crucial mistake, she says, was making all of NCLB’s consequences fall on individual teachers and schools, not the school districts and state education departments. And, she says, “we should have been more aggressive about school funding equity. Far, far, far more aggressive.” The $4 billion increase in Title I funding included in NCLB represented less than 1 percent of K-through-12 budgets nationwide. The law did not require states like California to fix school finance systems that starved high-poverty schools of resources.

The Education Trust is now run by Obama’s second education secretary, John B. King Jr., a former schoolteacher, charter-school leader and New York state commissioner of education. “I’m more optimistic than many about the future of school reform,” he told me. For all the political controversy around the Common Core, he notes, 41 states and the District of Columbia remain on board.

King believes that accountability can succeed if it works alongside other critical changes, including more-equitable funding, higher-quality curriculums and better training for teachers. He points to a recent bipartisan deal in Massachusetts to boost school funding alongside accountability for student learning. States including Texas and California have taken advantage of the decade-long economic expansion to send large sums to high-poverty schools. Others may follow suit. King’s is a more pragmatic and incremental approach to improving education, one that recognizes, and pays, the price of democracy that confronted Robert Kennedy in 1965.

For her part, Amy Wilkins hasn’t given up on school reform. She remains “struck by how politics allows the stubborn self-interest of adults to undermine again and again what’s right for poor kids and kids of color.” But, she says, “I have to believe we’re just at the wrong end of the pendulum swing.”

Kevin Carey is a writer, analyst and director of the education policy program at New America.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Christian Font.

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