Current Affairs

Rachel Cohen on the Great Charter School Controversy

Charter schools were pitched as a solution for America’s broken education system. Have they actually delivered on their promise?

For much of the past year, America’s schools have been at the center of a heated debate: should they re-open for classroom learning, or stick to the Zoom classes widely despised by teachers, students, and parents? But before this conundrum captured the popular imagination, there was a different school-related question that inflamed passions across the political spectrum:

Are charter schools the future of education in the United States, or just another billionaire-backed technocratic scam?

That question was also the subject of a podcast interview featuring our beloved outgoing host Pete Davis and journalist Rachel Cohen. The following transcript of their conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Pete Davis

Hello, Current Affairs listeners. It’s your host, Pete Davis, here [with] Rachel Cohen. Hello Rachel! Welcome to the Current Affairs World Headquarters.

Rachel Cohen 

Hey. Thanks for having me.

PD

So glad to have you here. Listeners, Rachel Cohen is an amazing journalist. She writes primarily now for the Intercept but has been published all over. And though she covers many issues, she’s one of the leading lights covering the education beat, which is why I brought her here today because I have so many questions about American education policy. 

It has been so, so strange following it over the past 10 years, it’s like a hall of mirrors—so many terms, so many interlocking concepts, so many shady things going on, and Rachel is here to unpack it. And the biggest mystery of all is that 10 years ago, I [was] in college and everyone [was] talking about education “reform.” Teach for America [was] the cool thing to do after college. Michelle Rhee [was] on the cover of magazines. Charter schools [were] popping up everywhere. Everyone [was] talking about how teachers’ unions [were] bad and standardized tests [and] beloved data [were] good. This movie Waiting for “Superman” [a documentary about the U.S. public school system] comes out to bring it all together, and Obama is cheering on all of this. 

And then 10 years later, Teach for America and charter schools and standardized tests are viewed with a lot more skepticism. Michelle Rhee has been deposed from Washington—run out of Washington, D.C. Teachers’ unions are striking everywhere to great fanfare. And many Democrats—not all, but many—are taking the union’s side against the charters and the “reform movement.” There is so much going on here. 

So Rachel, I thought you could help guide us through all of this. Let’s start 10 years ago. What was this so-called education reform movement?  Where did it come from?

RC 

Well, that was actually an excellent summary because you are right that in, at least as I think about it, [2009-2011] was the peak. That was really the most powerful time for this movement, and I think to explain how that came it [helps] to go back a little bit further. 

So one funny thing is that there is this myth that charter schools were actually invented by teacher unions. And the narrative goes: Albert Shanker, who was the head of the teacher unions in the late ‘80s, [wrote a] New York Times op-ed where he said we could have this new kind of school that could be called “charters,” where teachers could innovate new educational approaches and have more freedom to experiment out of the rules. And this idea that charters came from teacher unions is something that both reformers and unions say because it is a narrative that could be helpful to both sides. 

Teacher unions can say, “Oh, we have always been for innovation and reformers co-opted it and ran away and took it from us and it was co-opted by billionaires, and our vision of charters was stolen.” And then reformers can be like, “It’s so crazy [that] unions are bashing on charters because it was their idea. They are selling out the thing that they originally supported.” I do not know if this is all making sense, but my point is there is this narrative that is still pretty strong. It is really easy to find both Randi Weingarten, who is the head of the [American Federation of Teachers (AFT)], [and] the head of big charter organizations claiming that charters were really a union idea. 

But the truth is charters actually got their start a decade earlier. They sort of came out of the same movement for deregulation that we saw in other industries, like airlines, in the ‘70s breaking up large parts of the economy. There were these people who were like, “Let’s break up the monopoly of school districts, and we will inject competition into school districts, and then they will compete with each other and improve.” So that was the original thinking. And then while you can definitely find some more progressive people who were like, “Yeah, this could be a way to have teacher-led schools or more progressive [ones], maybe we can use the charter idea to inject new things into education,” the real power behind the movement was never really coming from them. 

And so then what happened was, in the ‘90s, Bill Clinton and the New Democrats—the [Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)], they got very excited by the idea because it was a way to seem creative on education while also not advocating to spend more money, which they did not want to do because they were those people. And it was also sort of this exciting opportunity for them to distance themselves from teacher unions who they cast as “special interests.” So this whole idea that Democrats would [call] teacher unions “special interests” that we should distance ourselves from—that is a very destructive idea that really carried all the way through the Obama administration, and now we are seeing a shift away [from it]. But that really has been a two decade-long journey.

PD

So, we have talked about two strands so far, and I really want to unpack them for listeners. [One] strand is charter schools. On the surface, [the] nicest case for charter schools is the one that they put forward, [which] is a charter school is a way to innovate and try [something new]. It sounds very lefty and dreamy. It says there is a high-bound way we do education. We can experiment with this new way of doing education, with a blank canvas that does not have all this bureaucracy. It sounds like something a utopian dreamer would think up. Usually our listeners would be like, “Oh, that sounds like a great idea.”  But what is the insidious aspect of charter schools? Just back to the basics—what is the problem with [that]?

RC 

Well people have different opinions on what exactly is the problem. But certainly charters—while they do not have to be non-union—the majority are [not unionized]. The big funders behind the movement want to keep them non-union, and I have been [following] the movement by charter school teachers to try to get unions. 

But by and large, the idea is we will not have unions [in charter schools], which can make the schools more flexible. [Most] of them are nonprofits or for-profits. They are publicly funded, but they are not publicly managed like a traditional public school. They are run by private organizations like any nonprofit or for-profit company, and so you have less access and control over that institution than you would a traditional public school. There are a lot of concerns about democratic control, democratic access, privatization, and teacher rights, and things like that, [plus] general oversight and accountability for these schools. So those are sort of some of the main challenges that people have [raised].

PD

So it’s a roundabout way to [break] teachers’ unions. [It’s] kind of crazy that there are for-profit charter schools in the first place. But even if they are nonprofit, there is no democratic oversight, and it is kind of a form of privatization with public money.

RC 

Just to say, some states do a better job with imposing rules over what you can do for oversight. But in Washington, D.C., where I live, I have just been writing and complaining for several years about how we are so bad at [this].

PD

I have heard vaguely that [charter schools’] big claim is that they will be able to do better with this hard challenge of providing quality education in a poor neighborhood or something. But what I have heard from folks like [former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education] Diane Ravitch, is: does the data even show that they are doing any better at achieving ends? What is the state of the data on the outcomes for charter schools?

RC 

For a long time, it was showing that charters were performing no better than ­­traditional public schools and in a lot of cases that is still true. There are some cities, like notably Boston as an example, where the charter schools, study after study, their kids score higher, and they are going to college more. There are some places where charters are doing well. 

But I think what gets really lost in those studies is that when people like [charter school advocate] John Tate cite them all the time, [they obscure the reality] that having some limited number of [successful] charters in a district in a city with above-average regulation and control [does] not mean that if you then triple the number of charters in that city it is all going to still be successful. Even though Boston, for example, has relatively high performing charters compared to other parts of the city, in 2016, voters (including the majority of Boston residents) rejected the idea of expanding them because the proposal would have been to massively accelerate the expansion of charter schools, and all of the reformers were like, “We need to, because Boston charters are good.” And everyone was like, “No, that would be a disaster. Unfettered growth does not mean that the success that we have seen would continue.”

PD

And isn’t the whole idea that the charters could produce experimental results and then the public schools could change to learn from those results? It’s not that you would expand the experiment, it would be that you would take the learnings and bring it back to the [normal school with democratical oversight].

RC 

Yeah. And that does not happen at all. That has not happened. And some reformers try to say, “Oh, well you know, just being around charters spurs the district schools to get better. They have to compete and so they all get better.” I find that research very weak and not convincing. But there are definitely reformers who say, “We just expand charters, and the district schools will feel so stressed that then they will be motivated to be better.” And there is some evidence that sometimes that happens, but I do not think it works as they want to believe. 

PD

So, there is this second element of the education so-called reform movement, which is not just charters—it’s people in the public schools demanding more data, more standardized tests, more accountability, [more Race to the Top-type policy] saying, “We will fund you if you take this data and follow this data.” What was that branch of the education reform movement?

RC 

Yeah. That was a super powerful idea in the Obama administration. Well, it really started with No Child Left Behind, which said we need to collect more data. There’s a positive way to look at it. Civil rights groups are really behind the idea [that] if we don’t know where the gaps are, then we can’t better target resources to where they should go. And underserved, [vulnerable] students are most likely to be missed or overlooked. So there is a big civil rights framing to the drive for data, and that was how the Obama administration and all of the liberal education reformers [see] themselves: as these civil rights advocates for pushing [data-centric policies]. But they went really strongly overboard, in my opinion. 

Because then [the reformers] said, “Well, if the data shows that this school is not producing [good enough] test scores, then we should hold them ‘accountable’ and maybe close their school…. Oh, if your test score says this, then we should get rid of this teacher,” things like that. And collecting data is not bad necessarily, but they all wanted these consequences that very understandably started a huge backlash politically.

PD

You wrote this article on D.C.’s school miracle and the measurement questions around it. [The basic idea of] the article was D.C. had this kind of miracle success. Everyone agreed D.C. was one of the best-reformed school systems. But then when you looked into the data, it gets really, really complicated and there are scholars out there that are saying, “This is way, way overstated.” 

And I am just interested in the theory of measurement. Because here are a few weird aspects about measurement. One is the famous case of “juking the stats,” which [means that] as soon as you start measuring something, everyone starts [focusing on] making that measurement go up without holistically doing things, so they drill and kill for the specific tests while ignoring everything else. 

[Then] there is this other aspect which [that] so much [depends on] demographics. Like if you just have an increase in rich families in the schools your test scores go up. I’m from a wealthy suburb of D.C., Falls Church of Virginia. We brag every year [that] we’re the No. 1 school in Virginia, but then I look, and [we] have the lowest [rates of students receiving] free and reduced lunch. That’s why we’re No. 1, that’s why our SAT scores are the highest—because it is just a measurement of the economy around your school, not of the school itself. So I would love to hear, as an expert in this, what has been your experience of what can we actually measure?

RC 

I mean, we can measure a lot—and that’s also why it was so obvious that the people that were pointing to D.C. were exaggerating it because it was so clear what they were ignoring. While there were some gains for some groups, once you have controlled for demographics, a bunch of the other gains disappeared. 

At the same time that some scores were going up, socioeconomic gaps were widening, and the gaps between white and Black proficiency rates was still 60 points. But there was this push to claim success—and not only claim success but replicate the model being used so quickly—and this was incentivized through Race to the Top, which was the Obama administration’s $4 billion program that pushed states to expand charter schools, tie teacher evaluations to test scores, make it easier to close schools—sort of the gamut of what we think of when we say “education reform.” 

And so, so much of that they pointed to Washington D.C. as like, “Oh, let’s see if it’s working. We’re now going to jangle a lot of money in front of states, so then they do what D.C. does.” [They] were also really overstating the effectiveness of [D.C.’s reforms] at the same time, but no one wanted to talk about that. 

PD

Two more branches of this education reform push. One is TFA, Teach for America. What is the story with them, and what has been their role in this push?

RC 

[So] Teach for America, for basically the first two decades of its existence, was so rarely criticized, critiqued, or thought about skeptically. It was just treated like the way we think of joining the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps or any sort of these public national services. At the same time—and I have actually wrote about this recently for the Intercept—Teach for America is and has been one of the most politically powerful bipartisan education organizations in Washington shaping education policy, and it was very effective at getting millions of dollars in grants and earmarks from federal agencies, from Congress. 

[Sometimes] I think we think all of these organizations are just bankrolled by billionaires, but I think it is also really important to realize [that] the federal government has funded Teach for America’s model to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, and that is not what most nonprofits get. Teach for America… [has] this model where they take recent college graduates, they put them through a short five- or six-week summer training program, and then they put you in schools for two year stints, although not everyone stays two years. It’s not super uncommon for people to stay three years, but they do not expect you to. [You] can stay for longer, but most people do not. So it is generally thought of as a two-year commitment. 

And Teach for America inspired a lot of resentments among long-term teachers. One of the [reasons is that] Teach for America started in the ‘90s by saying, “We are going to help attract people to schools that have trouble attracting teachers, so we are going to help with the teacher vacancy problem,” which is a real problem in a lot of places in the country. But then what became clear was then they definitely shifted that goal in the mid-2000s, where then you had Teach for America teachers going into schools that were not having trouble attracting [teachers], like in San Francisco, in Washington, D.C., and popular cities, till it suddenly became not an organization to fill teacher vacancy gaps, but actually they really thought of themselves as better teachers. Like, “Our candidates are actually more talented than these deadwood, old teachers who are not even trying, and we are going to put bright, young energetic teachers who can work long hours.” 

[Teach for America teachers] also were really tied to charter schools, so the idea was if charter schools are expanding [in] the city, we now have this ready pipeline of teachers ready to go into them. Not all Teach for America teachers go to charter schools, but tons did and lots of Teach for America alumni then started charters. 

[I] remember when I started really following this stuff in 2013, people were barely even critiquing it then. It really started the next couple of years. And then there [were] alumni from Teach for America who started organizing and saying, “Hey, wait, this model has a lot of problems,” and that sort of helped give voice to some of the stuff that unions had been saying for a longer time that people had not been listening to. And so I have thoughts on how the critique of TFA ties into some of the other stuff we have been saying about ed reform, but I can wait and shut up for a second.

PD

No, tell us a bit about that. How is it tied in?  I want to see [how] this whole network—you know, we’re on the bulletin board with the red string—how do they all connect to each other?

RC 

So, the growing criticism and skepticism with education reform is wrapped up in, in my view, a couple other very, very powerful narratives that were unimpeachable a decade ago. And now more and more people are like, “Wait, no, that is actually bullshit,” or “That really isn’t founded.”  

So one of them is this idea of the skills gap. And the skills gap theory, which is so popular in Washington, D.C. among both parties and all the think tanks, [states] that the reason that people are struggling to pay their bills and in the economy is just because they do not have the skills necessary to get good jobs. And so, we need to train and educate workers and reskill them and give them the tools to be successful in the modern 21st century economy. [This] was such a—I can’t even stress how powerful this narrative is, everybody said it. 

And it really was not until maybe 2016-2017, even kind of more recently, [that] people started saying, “Wait, people working in tech and engineering, no one is getting raises in those sectors either. The only people who are getting raises are in the top 1 percent.” And then people also started to notice, “Hey, wait. People with these good credentials and qualifications are actually now taking jobs that previously required fewer [qualifications],” like people with bachelor’s degrees were now taking jobs that would not have normally required a bachelor’s degree. [People] without bachelor’s degrees [were] sort of being forced out [of the labor market]. 

[I] remember I interviewed Marshall Steinbaum, economist, on this when I was at the Prospect. [There] was a study that came out that showed, yes, a STEM degree—a degree in engineering and science—[can] protect you a little bit, but actually what they found was [people with these degrees] are still way less protected than they used to be prior to the Great Recession. So, the idea that just going and learning to code or getting an engineering degree would suddenly give you the security that you deserved or needed was suddenly coming under attack. And that was a very powerful narrative that was also very much tied to the education reform movement which said, “Our job is to give these children the skills they need to be successful.” 

PD

Yeah, I’ve always wondered [about the logic behind] the skills gap [theory]. [It’s] these CEOs saying, “I can’t fill my positions. Therefore the country needs to educate workers to fill my positions.” But the funny thing is, [according to] Economics 101 [doesn’t] it say: if you don’t have enough people wanting to fulfill your positions, you need to raise the wages of the positions and that will induce people to want to fill them? 

But the answer is never, “Let me raise the wages of the position to attract more people.” It’s always, “Socialize my problems and have the government pay for it.”

RC 

Or provide on the job job-training, which companies use to do.

PD

Internalize the cost, yes. We will take you as you [are], and we will train you how to do this. 

RC 

The idea that we should be having first graders learn to code so that maybe when they are 22 they could get a job is actually so sick, because technology is going to change so much in that time. [It] really revolts me.

PD

Amen. 

RC 

The second [argument for charter schools]—which is similar but a little different—… is that the best pathway out of poverty is through education. And everybody says this. Obama said it, like every [time he gave a speech on the topic]. This is the mantra of education reform, of the Democratic Party, and then some people started challenging that. 

I remember reading Matt Bruenig when I was in college, and he was like, “Well, actually Social Security was the most effective pathway to bring people out of poverty.”  I wrote a story in 2017 called “Why Education Is Not the Key to a Good Income,” and it was looking at this growing body of research that showed it was not your level of education that determined your chances of rising economic mobility. It was these other factors—like what kind of industries were in your community, union density, some of it was marriage. 

[So] I just basically [argued that the research’s conclusion] doesn’t mean that we should abandon school improvement, because there are a million other reasons you can think of for why people should go to great schools. But the idea that we should be doing school improvement in order to boost someone’s economic position when they are older is not really an efficient or coherent [strategy]. [It’s] not really the right way to be thinking about society, public policy.

Anyway, I wrote this piece, and I can tell you I have never gotten more vitriolic responses to anything I have written. Reformers hated this piece. They were like, “How could you say this?” and, “This is a blasphemous concept.” And it was so interesting because I have never had that before but now, I think more people are finally being like, “Well the evidence is kind of overwhelming.”

PD

It’s so funny how, when you strike a nerve and people just start irrationally yelling at you, it really reveals the dominant ideology of the day. It’s like it shows you the water that we’re [swimming] in. These things that we take for granted, like “Oh, education is the path to everything,” that is like the meritocratic ideal. 

I’m also interested in—this is maybe one of my weird hobby horses—but I always think that we totally undervalue the network elements of school for the literal things you are learning. The high school movement at the turn of the century that established public high schools was a positive addition, you know. And Bernie pushing for free college and getting more people into college, people seem to love going to college. But [the real value of college is] not what you learn in the classes, it’s not how good you do on the tests—it’s a civic institution that attaches you to a network of the community, so you’re not alone in your house. And that network introduces you to a bunch of mentors and it introduces you to a bunch of things in the community and attaches you to a bunch of possibilities.

[Having] these institutions of community connection seem to be more important than if you are learning to code there. And the problem with these neighborhoods is: if a neighborhood has been completely marginalized and completely disconnected from the broader economy, if it has been deindustrialized, it doesn’t matter how much you are learning in the school. If you’re embedded in a social network that’s not connecting you to the connections that get you into the college, that get you the job, that get you the internship, you are not going to be able to use it as a thing to ascend like the rest of us are. I do not know, does that resonate with your research at all or… ?

RC 

I mean, just personally, I think that totally hits at what another part of the backlash of the past decade. Which is: with the education reform theory and school choice in general, [the goal is to do] whatever you need to do, [to find] the best school… so that you can get the skills so that you can succeed in this highly competitive global economy. 

And there are just a lot of people that are like, “Wait, no, we want to protect our communal institutions that serve the public, that are for everyone.” I think what you said about schools being for more than just skill acquisition, but actually just being parts of society [was correct]. [There] were these waves of school closures that happened because we said, “Oh, if we close these schools, we’ll be able to open up better schools and that’s good,” and a lot of people were like, “Wait, is that good? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s good that this school that was in my neighborhood for a hundred years is now gone and replaced with a charter school.” There were all of those feelings. 

And I also think, speaking to what you said about marginalized communities and networks, the argument was if kids can score a certain level, if we can get kids at a certain level of proficiency, then they can go to college, and then if they can succeed in college, then they will be able to get a certain job, and then they will be living a certain life, and then we will have done our part. [It] was this assemblage of school successes getting kids in the position where then they could get into college and succeed in college. [It’s] not that that is bad, but I think there’s now just a much broader understanding [that] everyone should have the ability to go to college and they shouldn’t drown in debt if they do. [That’s] where the free college movement is really powerful. But there’s also a recognition that if we think just sending everyone to college is going to get you a good job, why do we not just send everyone to law school? Why do we not just send everyone to medical school because doctors make a lot of money? If everyone just got a bachelor’s degree, that would not actually solve the problems of our economy that we have right now.

PD

Yeah, and I guess that’s connected to what you’re saying—which is we have had a lot more people get bachelor’s degrees in the last 30 years, but [because they ended up working jobs that previously didn’t require bachelor’s degrees, they’re not actually advancing]. If the structure of the economy doesn’t have enough slots at the top, you need to change the structure, not just get more people into the slots. 

So here’s a question about [the charter school] movement before we turn to the [argument] against it: how much of it is earnest [idealism] and how much of it is a secret anti-union privatization push? Because this is what’s so hard when you’re looking at it. Like you look at [activist] Geoffrey Canada, and you hear speeches of the [educational organization] Harlem Children’s Zone, and you talk to some of these Teach for America teachers [who say], “I was inspired, I want to be part of the civil rights movement of our time.” They sound very sympathetic, and I think many of them really believe that they want to help with this. 

And then meanwhile you have the [billionaire] Walton family, which has shown no care at all for this country, funding [the push to privatize schools]—so I know there’s something craven going on. So what is the balance inside? … What percentage is ideology and what percentage is grift and what percentage is actual good work among the reform movement?

RC 

It’s a great question, and it is something that people are grappling with all of the time. I know tons of charter school teachers, and they’re all great. Teaching is so hard, and it is so thankless, and… sometimes a lot of charter school teachers are working under even worse conditions than in traditional public schools, because they are nonunion mostly, and they can be fired at will. [I] also think that lots of people who went into Teach for America, like as I said earlier, for literally two decades no one questioned it. It didn’t have any stigma attached. You had a lot of basically young idealistic people who were like, “Oh, here’s an opportunity to teach.” And I think in the past five years there is a lot more awareness going in that maybe you are going to a controversial model. 

But I think that there are a lot of people [working in charter schools] who… don’t appreciate people bashing their schools because they’re like, “You’re not actually in the trenches with kids every day. You’re not talking to families, and the families want their kids at this school, you’re being an armchair critic.” … I take [those objections] seriously when there are people who are working with real kids everyday and trying to teach them. 

But I think that it can’t be denied that some of the biggest financial backers of the movement are individuals who definitely would not want to see the charter schools’ union movement continue. They would prefer to have that go away as fast as possible. I think there are funders of the movement, like Michael Bloomberg, [who do really want] to see schools improve, and [they don’t] really need to make money [off charter schools]. I don’t think [their] interest in school reform was based on [wanting] to get rich, I think [they just have] this business-minded view of how good organizations work… “Oh, we can inject business principles into a school system, and the schools will be better.”  

So, that’s kind of a difference. I think there are some people who come at it from that perspective where they’re like, “Let’s just get schools to operate more like businesses and then they’ll be better.” And then are a lot of Obama-era liberal types who are like, “I’m coming at it from a civil rights perspective, and I want to give poor families the same kind of choice that wealthy suburban white families had when they moved to those communities.” [So] they come at it from that perspective [of], “Why should we deny these poorer families the choices that maybe I had when I grew up.” 

[There] are definitely wings of the coalition that are just conservative and they overlap with the business people. But they are like, “Why would we have these monopolies with teacher unions? [Weakening] all of that is going to lead to better outcomes.” … I think there is a lot of grift in the education reform movement, but actually, in my experience, a lot of it comes from the consultants. There are tons of consultants that [say], “Oh, school improvement. Oh, we’ll help you get your charter renewed. Hire us for all of this money.” Or education technology companies or real estate companies that profit off of getting the land that then the schools can go on. I think a lot of the people who work directly with kids are not doing it for grift because it is actually still really hard work, but it’s a movement and they all [are kind of complicit]. Does that make sense?

PD

[Yes], and of course I was not insinuating at all that any teacher was like this. It’s just [that prominent backers of charter schools like] Bill Gates, [billionaire heiress] Powell Job … kind of bought into the meritocratic mindset.

RC 

Right, like the Waltons are not trying to get rich, exactly–but they definitely think they have a better vision for what schooling should look like, you know.

PD

So let’s move to—now that we have kind of covered the reform group–let’s move to what has changed. [Tell]l our listeners a bit about the teachers’ union strikes that have happened and how that has affected the Democratic Party’s warmth towards charters and the like.

RC 

Yeah. So, the party started trying to warm up more to teacher unions in 2016 during the presidential election. Teacher unions, they hated the Obama administration policies, but they didn’t want to actually be seen as criticizing Obama because Obama [was] popular. So they basically just criticized Arne Duncan, who was the Education Secretary, and those policies. 

But there was certainly a recognition [by Democrats] that how are we going to win in 2016 if we don’t have the support of teacher unions, we need to pledge to do better. And by this time, there wasn’t just a backlash to standardized testing from teacher unions, there was also this really interesting growing backlash to standardized testing from conservatives and red state politicians and parents and communities who viewed Obama-era reforms as big government coming in and telling us how to run our schools. Starting a couple years before the 2016 election, there started to be this big anti-standardized testing movement that was really bipartisan but actually had a lot of conservative momentum. 

PD

I remember being at [the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)]. I went to CPAC one year, in 2014 I think, and there was a table there that was against Race to the Top, or something, that said, “Take back our schools for teachers and students.” And I was like, this could have been at a left-wing conference as well, so. 

RC 

Exactly. I forgot to mention [that] one backdrop of the past decade was a lot of states pulled back funding for schools during the recession, and even when their economies bounced back, they never restored the funding to the same level as of pre-2008. So, public schools in most states have really been struggling because their states didn’t refill the coffers from when they took really intense cuts during the recession. [That] is a huge undercurrent behind a lot of the strikes, and it’s just [the result of] underfunded schools and teachers who have felt disrespected for the past decade by these policies and the lack of consideration for how much more and more and more and more people are expecting teachers to do with less and less and less and less. 

So all of this is happening in [2018, then] the teachers’ strikes break out, and they also happen at the same time that America—especially the Democratic Party and I would say independents too— are starting to realize, “Wait, all of these attacks on unions [lead to things like] like unions voting for Trump, this is terrible, we need to win back labor if we are ever going to get back our country. Oh, we’ve demonized labor for so long, we need to become a party that can support them again.”  

This is all happening, and also—teachers are beloved. Like teachers, public safety officials, the military… these are people [who] in surveys forever have always [been] regarded highly even though we treat them like shit often. But, you know, [seeing] teachers on strike was a very powerful thing for people to also realize how [bad] the conditions that teachers have been working under were. [A] lot of people I think did not realize how many teachers struggle. All of these [things were] happening at the same time. [The] Democratic Party [was] realizing the need to be better on unions, and the Obama administration certainly was not great to teacher unions. [The] teacher strikes [were] a reaction to a whole bunch of things, but certainly [they were] partially [due to a] lack of funding and disrespect, and expansion of charter schools came up in a bunch of states…. 

Actually, as I was preparing for this [podcast], I went back and I reviewed Eva Moskowitz’s memoir [from] 2018. Eva Moskowitz is the CEO of Success Academy, which is a chain in New York City. And it is really amazing. Reading her book, which only came out two years ago, [it] sounds like it is just so wistful for a decade ago… She urges the public to approach the incoming inequality issue “delicately in an age when hedge fund managers can work from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.” And she scolds Bill de Blasio for his class war rhetoric, and she calls it “imprudent” and “dangerous.” And it feels really out of touch. [She’s saying], “Respect the hedge fund managers in case they decide not to fund your schools,” you know. 

….

PD

[I’d love] to end on some notes of hope and action. So, I want to do an open-ended question, but before I do, I would love to just talk about this one model, which is Montgomery County, [Maryland]. And I keep hearing from lefty education people that Montgomery County does something right that other places aren’t doing right. And you’ve written about Montgomery County before as an alternative to the standards and accountability [of Obama’s] top-down movement. Could you talk a little bit about what they do?

RC 

[One] of the interesting things there is that they also wanted to take on teacher evaluation reform, but not in the way that the Obama administration education reformers wanted where it was this penalized ranking of teachers into “bad,” “ineffective,” etc. They wanted to build a more constructive model for teacher reform that was more about helping to support and mentor and add resources. 

And [the] former president of their union, who I know, just really kept emphasizing to me [that] teacher evaluation doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There are ways to make teacher evaluation good and supportive and helpful, and it’s not like teachers don’t want to get better. Of course they do. But for the past decade, teacher evaluation has been associated with measuring a teacher’s worth by how their students do on standardized tests, and so it has become really toxic. 

So, I think [one benefit of Montgomery County’s approach was] getting out of that mindset and saying, “Of course we want to help teachers do better, but it doesn’t have to be in such a punitive way.” And the other thing that Montgomery County [does well]—although there are some challenges to this currently—but they have also taken intentional efforts to do school integration and do thoughtful redistricting and student assignment. They are, I think, grappling with some of that now, but that has been a value that they have brought. 

[In] terms of other models… there are a lot of alternatives. [School] reform has been associated with these narrow sets of things: charter schools, test-based teacher accountability, school closures, etc. But school reform, I think a lot of education advocates would tell you, can be really positive, and I actually think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s education plans both [had] really amazing ideas in them that I think, if even like a quarter of [them were implemented]…

PD

This is why you’ve got to listen to the end of the interview, listeners. There’s always a surprise. 

RC 

[When] I read the plans that they put out—which [were] certainly, I think, influenced by a lot of people—[it shows that people] have just been waiting for a chance to push the country in a different direction. There are a lot of really good ideas there.

PD

I know we’re running out of time, but could you run through a few of the elements of those plans, [very] rapid fire? What are some of the [exciting ideas]? Just to give people a taste so they can look it up later. 

RC 

Oh sure. There [were] a lot of ideas about ways to support teachers and support families to help make schools [better and address]… the kind of issues we were talking about, [to] bring some social services to make schools central parts to the community. School discipline reform to figure out ways that are less punitive in those circumstances. A lot of social [and] emotional support. Lots of schools do not have nurses, and guidance counselors. [Strengthening] libraries, and really [investing] in school infrastructure. That’s a huge problem. 

Lots of schools… don’t have working heaters in the winter or air conditioners in the summer, and it hugely affects a student’s ability to learn. [Reformers] got really tied up with statistical tools to boost learning, but actually a lot of kids need glasses. They don’t have glasses. A lot of kids need non-stuffy classrooms. So there are [a] lot of basic things that we could be doing to make schools more comfortable and accessible and warmer places. 

PD

Well Rachel Cohen, thank you so much for coming to the Current Affairs World Headquarters to talk about this. There [are] a lot of changes happening in this space… So, I encourage all of our listeners to keep following your work covering this. And is there a website or newsletter that you want to promote so that they can keep track with what you’re writing? Or a Twitter handle?

RC 

Well, if you guys want to follow my newsletter, I welcome that…

PD

Thank you so much Rachel, have a good one.

RC 

Yeah, thank you.

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