This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Temple University professor Barbara Ferman has edited the new book The Fight for America’s Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education. She co-wrote the book’s final chapter, "Preserving Education as a Collective Good," with Temple law professor Susan Dejarnatt.
The chapter deals with what Ferman calls “market-based reforms” and the belief that “choice promotes competition, which in turn weeds out poor performers.”
But Ferman argues that these reforms have resulted in expanding charter school networks, turning this philosophy of choice into a rhetoric of illusion. Competition is actually producing less choice, she writes, and gradually resegregating schools.
Question: Can you elaborate on the idea that some parents receive inadequate or wrong information and explain how that can lead to resegregating schools along race and class lines?
Ferman: One of the arguments for a market system of education is that it’s efficient — I will buy what I want and pay what I want, and if the price is too high, I just won’t buy it. But if I’m going to buy something, how do I know what the best product is, and how do I know I’m getting the best price? I have to do research.
That assumes that parents are fully informed about the pluses and minuses of all the schools they could send their kids to, but they’re not. There’s not a lot of transparency. Even if you want to be an informed consumer, it’s hard to get that information and to know where to get it from. …
There’s also a lot of public relations material out there. Some [charter management organizations] have big budgets, and they send out a lot of slick stuff that looks nice and shiny but isn’t actually substantive. …
The parents with the best information are probably, but not exclusively, parents who are more educated and affluent, so there’s going to be a socio-economic bias in the system.”
From the book’s final chapter: “In charter systems, the schools are supposed to be equally available to all district children, yet many schools have found ways to mold their admissions processes to get the students they prefer.”
Q. Your book gives the example of an incredibly long application consisting of dozens of pages. Can you give some other examples of how this is done?
Ferman: By making the application process particularly egregious. Like requesting that parents come in at 11 o’clock in the morning for a meeting, but if you’re on an hourly wage, working three jobs, you probably can’t do that. …
I think, also, even if a parent makes it through all those hurdles — if you come in as a parent, and staff are talking to you, they’re not going to tell you “I don’t want your kid,” because they can’t tell you that, but they might make it so onerous for you that you change your mind. Or they’ll say that this might not be the best decision for your child and paint it in a positive light, saying that they’re thinking about your child’s well-being.
From the book: “Many of the small, independent schools are being weeded out as charter management organizations are becoming dominant. … This process actually reduces rather than expands choice.”
Q. How does this limit parent choice?
Ferman: There are some really good charter schools. There are some really bad charter schools. I think FACTS charter school is really wonderful, for example. But it’s like anything else: Once upon a time, we had a lot of independent bookstores, but then came Barnes & Noble, and then came Amazon, pushing all the smaller independent stores out because they can’t compete at scale with massive business models.
A lot of the chain charter schools, like KIPP, they leverage a ton of philanthropic dollars. … And they’re spending a fortune on this advertising, but it works to convince parents.
Any Mastery school that you go to has the same model. So if every school becomes Mastery or becomes KIPP, I have no choices but those two, because it’s not like KIPP in West Philly is significantly different than KIPP in North Philly. When the big-box department store puts all the small stores out of business, you have no choice left but that one store.
From the book: “This emphasis on high-stakes testing creates incentives for charter schools to ‘encourage’ lower-performing and special-needs students to leave the school.”
Q. What do you mean by students being “encouraged” to leave school?
Ferman: All schools, including charters, have to report on expulsions, and it’s not going to look good if a school expels a lot of kids. Instead of expulsion, they’ll call you up and say, “Your son is not doing too well here. There’s a chance he might be expelled, and that would go on his permanent record, but if you transfer to another school, nothing goes on his record.”
Parents are intimidated by this because they think “Oh my God, I don’t want that on my kid’s record.”
If you go on the District’s website, you can see the code for discipline. It outlines when students can and can’t be expelled. But charters don’t have all the same policies, and they don’t have to be transparent about them. … If you put a parent in an uncomfortable, intimidating situation, they will likely get nervous. That could happen in a District school, but a neighborhood school can’t legally keep expelling all these kids.
From the book: “Funders such as the Gates, Walton and Broad Foundations are much more interventionist than past philanthropists, pushing for specific structures — notably charter schools instead of traditional public schools — and funding research and policy advocates.”
Q. Can you elaborate on this and what interventions they’re pushing for?
Ferman: Typically, most foundations will say “these are our funding priority areas,” and then you submit a proposal within those areas, and if they like it, they’ll fund it. So foundations are typically reactionary, whereas [in education] that’s not what they’re doing. They’re saying they want Common Core and more standardized tests, and they want to fund charter schools specifically. … All the money that the Waltons have given — funding something like 25 percent of all charters in the country — they’re shaping education policy directly.
Bill Gates, by pulling together politicians in a number of places, basically got Common Core off the ground, which he later admitted to. They’re pouring money into political advocacy, like PennCan and ALEC; that’s a wholesale change in the way philanthropists have operated. …
Gates announced in October that his foundation is going to invest $1.7 billion in public education. … Sixty percent is for curriculum development and creating networks among schools; 15 percent to charter management organizations; and the other 25 percent is going to what he calls “big bets” that are going to “change the trajectory of public education” in this country.
I find that frightening, because nobody elected Bill Gates. Why do you think you should be changing the trajectory of public education? Especially when the Gates Foundation admitted itself that its work was not a wild success. … Look at all the money spent by states on gearing up for Common Core. Oops, they made a mistake. Well, look at how much taxpayer money they just wasted. He’s engaging public dollars and changing a whole system — I don’t think that a private individual should be entitled to do that.
And it’s interesting because the people he surrounds himself with don’t come out of an education background. That would be like recruiting me to work on software development. Ridiculous.
From the book: “Democratic control over public education has not and does not guarantee improvements or academic achievement for all. Many cities with elected school boards have not realized these outcomes, which sets the stage for market-based reforms in the first place.”
Q. Can you give an example of such a city and why you think it failed to improve academic achievement despite having an elected board?
Ferman: A lot of major cities — New York, Chicago, Boston. And that’s part of the problem. Public education in many cities has not been doing a good job in terms of educating black and brown kids, which is why charters appeared to be the answer because they’re an alternative to a failing system. Neither me nor education activists are defending failing schools. What we’re saying is we have to look at why these schools are the way they are.
There’s been a huge disinvestment in public school districts that are black and brown. … When Philly laid off all the guidance counselors and nurses, that was outrageous. How many kids have asthma? How can you not have a nurse in these schools?
There’s been huge disinvestments in [areas with] concentrations of poverty. … In a lot of cities, the education systems did decline significantly, and then it creates this vacuum for promoters of charter schools and vouchers and all that. … Why should a parent be forced to send their kid to a school that’s not safe and not working? You have then this justification out there for vouchers and for charter schools.
If charter schools were doing a great job of providing a holistic education, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but they’re not. But there are school systems that work well in other countries and they’re very different from the one in this country — none of them use market-based reforms. … None of those other countries have charter models, and they don’t have high-stakes testing, and they invest heavily in their teachers while we treat our teachers like dirt.
From the book: “Ironically, charter schools were originally proposed with the goals of flexibility and innovation in mind, goals that were sacrificed on the altar of market efficiency.”
Q. Can you explain the discrepancy between how charter schools were originally pitched to the public and the role many of them currently play?
Ferman: I grew up in New York. So Al Shanker, who was the head of United Federation of Teachers — the New York City teachers’ union — he was one of the first to propose a charter school. He said something like:
“Look, there’s some kids in New York City schools that we are not reaching, and we’re failing them miserably. Let’s experiment by giving teachers and principals autonomy to experiment with different ways of teaching. And if they’re successful, let’s replicate that.”
It was grounds to experiment with innovative ways of teaching, because what we’re doing isn’t reaching some kids, and that’s not right. But the idea was not to create a parallel system of education. … If an idea works well in the school, it can be applied throughout the school district — it wasn’t about just continually creating more charter schools.
When they started becoming what they are now, Shanker totally distanced himself, because that’s not what they were supposed to do.
With FACTS charter school in Philly, they were largely parents who stood up because they felt their kids weren’t being served by the District. And that’s it. One charter school. I can understand why they did that — it’s a great model.
What is motivating these huge management networks to create more schools and spread themselves more thinly? It’s not about education anymore. That’s what happens in the market: You expand and expand. That’s why we can’t apply market principles to certain things like education or health care — not to these basic human needs.
From the book: “A majority of American public-school parents consistently rank insufficient funding as the reason for low-performing schools, support paying higher property taxes for schools, consider the quality of teachers the most important determinant of school quality, and support paying teachers higher salaries.”
Q. So where did the school choice movement come from if it had no correlation with public opinion? Did it have anything to do with money in politics or was everyone involved sincerely convinced that the invisible hand of the market would improve public education?
Ferman: I think it has to do with both of those and a lot of other things. … The rhetoric of choice — competition, empowerment, freedom — those are powerful words in this country. Many of our strongest values and myths are about the rugged individual and that individual’s freedom to choose. People think they want more choice naturally. … The language of these reformers sits very well with American political culture, and it’s interesting because one of the things the organizers in the opt-out movement did was appropriate that language and say to parents: “You have a choice, your kids don’t have to take this test. You have the power to opt out.”
A lot of schools are struggling, so if you’re offering this shiny new thing, promising it will be better, most parents will take that gamble. For most parents in Philly, their first priority is a safe school. Parents in Lower Merion take that for granted. …
At the level of the individual parent, choosing a charter is totally rational, but in the aggregate, it’s totally irrational. You’re now funding two parallel school systems with what was never enough money to adequately fund one school system.
From the book: “While grassroots activity is essential for increasing awareness, enhancing visibility, and building community, it is not sufficient. In the five international cases discussed above, there was typically a political party or individual leader who championed the reform agenda, provided consistency over time, and ensured that support did not wane. The market-based reform agenda has benefited from similarly strong and committed champions.”
Q. While the Republican Party has supported market-based reforms, the Democratic Party is divided on this issue. Do you think a few individual champions of public schools are enough, or will the whole party need to commit to supporting public schools?
Ferman: I think it would be great, but you don’t need the whole party behind it. You need prominent people who can champion this. … You need both the grassroots and somebody up there championing this stuff. The free market people have always had those champions, and politically they’ve been very successful.
Getting people — and I know that POWER is trying to do this, and the William Penn Foundation is funding a campaign for equitable funding — to organize statewide to get folks out to rural areas, to get those people to realize they’re in the same boat, because if it remains just a Philly issue, it’s dead in Harrisburg. The opt-out movement kind of did that by crossing so many lines among different groups. It’s pushed the testing stuff way back.
But it’s hard to communicate across the boundaries of, not just geography, but race and class too.
But I definitely think we need a national champion. Until No Child Left Behind, education was always a very localized area of policy, probably the last that was so localized. But these corporate reformers have created a national framework in this country, and now that they’ve done it, we need another national framework to challenge it. That’s not going to come solely from someone like Kelly Collings [of the Caucus of Working Educators], who I think is amazing, but she needs a champion with resources.
Q. The mayor is replacing the SRC with the same mayoral-appointed board that existed before the state takeover. Many activists prefer an elected board, while others worry that school board elections would invite outside money. Personally, which you prefer and why?
Ferman: In theory, an elected board would be the most democratic, and presumably the most transparent. However, in a lot of places, that dark money has come in, although in L.A. they pushed back and defeated it. My fear is the dark money, but to counter that one could say, “Look, we’re at a great point in Philly right now, because it took a shitload of effort to get the SRC to dissolve itself, so we are at a state of heightened organizing — maybe we could be like L.A.,” but the operative word there is maybe. So that risk looms in the background and makes me hesitant.
There was a wonderful piece in the Inquirer about why we should have an elected board. He suggested making sure you have different neighborhoods represented on the board. I think that would be great. I thought he had some good ideas. But I’m still weary of the dark money — that’s my only reservation.