Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has heard it all before: charter schools are not truly “public” and their very existence is a threat to traditional schools run by districts. Even now, after being out of America’s top education job, he is still hearing that message.

His recent stop at Smith College in Massachusetts became another protest opportunity for union-backed activists fighting a minor holy war against a ballot question that would allow the state to approve up to 12 more charter schools. Those schools would open in Massachusetts’ lowest performing school districts, but resistance is coming from suburban areas that would remain untouched if the ballot measure succeeds.

Outside Duncan’s event, Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association, raised questions about charter schools. “[p]ublic funds going into private hands does not make (charter schools) public…There’s no democratic oversight — local school committees (and) town councils… have no say on whether a charter school can open in their community, and there’s no local accountability for what happens in the school.”

That defies reason. Charter schools are public because the law says they are public, and those schools are accountable to select authorizers overseen by the state.

Here’s what the Massachusetts’ Department of Education says about charter schools: “Authorized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Education Reform Act of 1993, charter schools are independent public schools that operate under five year charters granted by the Commonwealth’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Charter schools are usually proposed by teachers, school leaders, parents, non-profit organizations, or other members of the community.”

That seems pretty public to me.

So why are teachers’ unions and the upscale parents in suburbs that support them at odds with their own democratically governed state.

The politics of privilege.

Let’s be real: teachers’ unions seek to define schools as “public” only when they are under the control of local school boards because it serves the agenda of public workers, not the public at large. School board members are elected in low-turnout elections powered by the very public employees they are supposed to govern and negotiate with about money, expectations, and goals.

When Monsanto loads up the Environmental Protection Agency with its agents we cry foul. When public workers hire their own bosses by dominating election processes, overriding the individual voices of families and parents at the bottom of America’s social hierarchy, we call it democracy.

Why fight opportunity for the least of them?

Duncan is spot on when asked about the “tension” between supporters of charter schools and those fighting them. He says “I’m absolutely in support of high-performing charter schools….I think we need to replicate and learn from them … I think this tension is about adults, not kids. We need to make sure every kid has a chance to be successful.”

So we have to wonder why the “Save Our Schools” types bird-dog reformers like Duncan, but sit mum on questions about serious inefficiencies, classrooms, schools, and districts? Who are these people standing with mostly white public worker unions defending a system fully yoked with indefensible outcomes?

Searching pictures of their rallies and media appearances I feel safe drawing on some generalizations. They are mostly left-wing liberals (who think they’re progressives, but aren’t) and middle-class families with advantaged children who are fawned over by education officials. From their view the system is basically good. All it needs is more money. That’s why they say “save our schools” instead of “save our kids.”

Their schools are doing their bidding with their kids.

This is not to say there aren’t some black “leaders” ignoring the high support for charter schools among black families. Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson laments the budgetary impact on traditional district schools that happens when parents exercise choice and send their kids to schools outside of their districts. But, in a story that has become all too typical of middle class people who aspire to raise themselves in the ranks of politics, he benefited from school choice. Though he grew up in the Grove Hall neighborhood of Roxbury, his parents bypassed local schools for the better ones in another district.

We call that talking out the side of your neck.

And, yes, there are community-based groups supporting anti-charter campaigns too. But on closer inspection, most of them are grantees of either big labor or wealthy white “progressives.” That’s an odd reality given how many of these groups would have you believe the fight for school reform is one that pits a power mad oligarchy against the little people (who are only defended by the altruism of union bosses). Buyer beware on that bit of marketing.

Like most people pushing for new schools and better educational options, I often faced the tired claim that I’m driven by money from reformers. Does that mean charter opponents hold the moral high ground when it comes to motives? Hardly. No one in these fights should assume priestly purity when it comes to money. Both the labor groups and the “grassroots” organizations railing against independently run public schools have taken money from white billionaires (George Soros, hello!). At the same time they seem to have mastered the art of speaking with the devil’s forked tongue, railing against capitalism while sucking from its teat.

The bottom line is our children deserve better schools. Charter schools are often a lifeline for parents who feel trapped the way Jackson’s parents presumably did. No one should stand between parents and schools they want. We should all fight those who defend a system that isn’t working for students and families in poverty. Hard stop.

While no one has devised a kind of school that always gets it right, it should be clear to us that the single-minded fight to limit independent public schools – in this case, charter schools – couldn’t be more wrong.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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