Hillary Clinton addressed the National Education Association — the country’s largest labor union — on July 5, and while there was plenty of applause, there were some boos as well.
Why did teachers from the association boo the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee? And for that matter, why are education activists upset with the draft version of the Clinton-led education plank of the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform?
The bottom line: The activists are worried that if she becomes president, she won’t depart much from President Obama’s education reform policies, which critics say have contributed to the privatization of public education.
Let’s first look at Clinton’s speech to the association, whose leadership gave her an early endorsement last October despite some opposition from members who thought it was too early and/or who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). (The NEA endorsed the 2012 reelection of Obama early too, despite some member opposition.)
Many teachers today, including NEA members, have been angry at the Obama administration for education reform policies that they say have harmed public education, including its support for the expansion of charter schools and the controversial evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It was when Clinton spoke about charter schools to the NEA that boos could be heard, according to this story by my Washington Post colleague Emma Brown:
“When schools get it right, whether they’re traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working and share it with schools across America,” she said to audible boos from the audience. “Rather than starting from ideology, let’s start from what’s best for our kids.”
Though charters have support in both the Democratic and Republican parties, the schools have become contentious among Democrats, some of whom back them with talk and money and others who think they are contributing to the privatization of public education.
Charter school supporters say they are providing opportunities for students in areas with poor traditional public schools to have a better alternative to get an education, and some have even framed it in language of civil rights. But many educators in traditional public schools think that charter schools — though they, too, are publicly funded — are allowed to operate as private schools do, are not accountable to the public and are draining resources from the traditional public system. Some charters are run by for-profit companies and have little oversight, resulting in scandal after scandal that has resulted in charges against some charter operators. In Ohio, for example, the Akron Beacon Journal last year ran a series about charters, which said:
No sector — not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals — misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.
There is also a lot of back-and-forth about how well charter schools do vs. traditional public schools. There are studies comparing standardized test scores, which is not a good metric to use, but it is safe to say that some do better, some do worse and some do the same. If charter schools had done what proponents promised they would do 25 years ago, when the movement in the United States began, public education would look different today.
Clinton is a longtime supporter of charter schools, but last November, she upset some charter supporters when she said during an interview with journalist Roland Martin that charters are not a substitute for traditional public schools and that many charters don’t take the neediest students — or, if they do, don’t keep them for long. She wasn’t wrong, but that didn’t stop a reaction from charter advocates, who, Brown wrote, were happy with what she said to the NEA.
Many of those same charter advocates welcomed Clinton’s remarks Tuesday. “We were happy to see her specifically affirm her support for high-quality public charter schools,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of the pro-charter group Democrats for Education Reform. “Her statements today reiterate her commitment to reform.”
NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said some of her members are deeply angry about charter schools because of the way they have siphoned money away from traditional public school systems. But Eskelsen did not take umbrage at Clinton’s remarks: “There are some successful charter schools,” she said. “Let’s look at what makes them work.”
This all carries over into the growing discussion about the Democratic Party’s draft education plank in the 2016 platform (which you can see in full below.) The five key issues in the section are, in order: higher education, student debt, minority-serving institutions, for-profit schools and early childhood (pre-K and K-12).
Among its promises are that Democrats will support free community college for all, make it easier to repay student loans, allow borrowers with student loans to discharge their debts in bankruptcy if necessary, strengthen higher education schools that serve minorities, crack down on “for-profit schools that take millions in federal financial aid,” and continue to work to improve public schools by holding teachers and schools “accountable.”
Critics have pounced on some of the language, which has been used by corporate reformers to support their agenda of emphasizing standardized tests as a way to hold educators, students and schools accountable, as well as expanding school choice through charters. This is what the platform actually says in this regard:
Democrats are also committed to providing parents with high-quality public school options and expanding these options for low-income youth. We support great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools and we will help them to disseminate best practices to other school leaders and educators. At the same time, we oppose for-profit charter schools focused on making a profit off of public resources. Democrats also support increased transparency and accountability for all charter schools.
Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch was among those who were unimpressed. She wrote on her blog:
The section on education contains a lot of reformer lingo. Zip codes. Options. Accountability. The Democratic party favors “high academic standards.” Who favors “low academic standards?” The party opposes too much testing; who favors too much testing?
The rhetoric about “high academic standards” brings echoes of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Wouldn’t it have been refreshing to see a statement about meeting the needs of all children? Or ensuring that all schools have the staff and resources they need for the children they enroll?
And then there’s the section on charters. The party is against for-profit charters: so far, so good, but how about saying that a Clinton administration will stop federal funding of for-profit schools and colleges, because they are low-quality and predatory, with profit as their top priority?
The party favors “high quality charters.” Does that mean corporate charter chains like KIPP, Achievement First, and Success Academy? Probably. How about a statement opposing corporate replacements for neighborhood public schools? How about a statement insisting that charters accept English language learners and students with disabilities at the same rate as the neighborhood public school? How about a statement opposing draconian disciplinary policies and suspensions?
And veteran teacher and blogger Peter Greene wrote:
… let the Democrats re-affirm their love for school choice and charter schools. “We support great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools, and we will help them disseminate best practices to other school leaders and educators.” This overlooks the fact that under current policy, charter schools … can only exist at the expense of neighborhood schools. … Democrats oppose for-profits making profit off public resources, but if [New York City charter network founder] Eva Moskowitz wants to pay herself a half-million dollar salary with taxpayer money, that’s totally cool. But the Democrats are just going to support charter transparency and call it a day. Basically, the Democrats have a plank here that would fit comfortably in the GOP platform; I would love to hear Democratic Party leadership explain how they are the slightest bit different from the Republicans when it comes to charters and choice.
And that’s why Clinton got booed at the convention — and why the party platform, should it remain as it is now, continues to spark controversy among Democrats. Here’s the full education portion of the draft Democratic Party platform: