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“Powerful Interests”

UNITED STATES – FEBRUARY 26: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., listens during the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Did you know that Elizabeth Warren is in the pocket of “powerful interests?” She is if you are a charter school hack like Jonathan Chait, whose wife is a professional charter advocate. He doesn’t mention this of course in his eye-rolling concern tolling post about Elizabeth Warren selling out:

Education reform. There may be no state in America that can more clearly showcase the clear success of charter schools than Warren’s home state of Massachusetts. Professors Sarah Cohodes and Susan Dynarski conducted a study proving the massive gains produced by charter school students in the Bay State. Because Massachusetts has a cap on the number of students allowed to attend charters, it students have to enter a lottery to apply. This allowed Cohodes and Dynarski to compare the performance of students who won the lottery with those who lost, a perfectly randomized sample, across a broad suite of metrics. The students who won the lottery and attended a charter outperformed the lottery losers in every way: state test scores, SAT scores, number of advanced placement classes and test scores in those classes, and college attendance. (Three-fifths of the lottery winners went on to attend a four-year college, as against only two-fifths of the lottery losers.) The gains were equally large or larger for low-income students, students who entered school with low test scores, special-education students, and English-language learners.

The charter sector would like to admit more students in Massachusetts, but the state has a cap preventing more students from enrolling. A state referendum in 2016 proposed to increase the cap so that more low-income urban students can enroll in a charter school. The state’s teacher unions fiercely opposed the measure, and spent millions of dollars to defeat it. Unions oppose charters in large part because charters have largely nonunionized contracts, which allows them to fire ineffective teachers, something that is extremely difficult to do in a traditional public school with a union contract.

Warren opposed Question 2, which was defeated in November in a vote that crushed the chance for thousands of low-income urban students in Massachusetts to have a chance at a great education and a future in college. Given this position, it is fair to infer that she would support the teacher unions on any position, however harmful it might be to the well-being of low-income students.

As we have talked about many times here, at best, the research on charter schools shows no material difference in success over public schools. Charters exist to bust teacher unions and move educational funding into the pockets of highly-paid administrators, using the rhetoric of “saving our students” while often not accepting troubled students and placing huge burdens on teachers without the collective bargaining they need to ensure they teach in acceptable conditions. They are the project of grifters such as Michelle Rhee and the worst tendencies of the DLC-corporate alliance personified in people such as Arne Duncan. Chait presents these charters as the savior of students and teachers unions as defenders of the ineffective the night before Los Angeles teachers are walking off the job to defend not only themselves but the children they teach from underfunded schools, too large classes, and teachers so tired from working second jobs that they can’t teach effectively. He mentions none of this. Instead, he talks about “powerful interests,” i.e., teachers unions. If you know the Massachusetts Teachers Association, this is not a powerful interest. These are highly committed teachers working with communities to create better schools for all students.

This is Chait at his worst, which is basically any time he is talking about Democrats or the left or anything but the modern Republican Party. The Question 2 he lauds above was a billionaire dark money funded attempt to destroy Massachusetts public schools through promoting charters, something he has a vested family income interest in. Chait talks about powerful interests–his beloved Question 2 had a $1.8 million donation from the Walton family of Walmart and $240,000 from Michael Bloomberg. Yeah, it’s clearly Elizabeth Warren and her teacher union allies that are the problem. Let me quote a 2016 piece I wrote about a previous Chait charter school tongue bath:

Yes, actually, alleviating poverty is far and away the most important piece of the solution to school inequality. If Chait spent more time attacking Republicans for their many pro-poverty policies, this would be a lot more useful. Instead, he goes after unions, who are doing what unions are supposed to do, which is protect their own members. Right now, their members have some leeway to choose the school where they work. Why would they give that back in exchange for nothing but more testing and more firings for working in poor schools? I’m sure some 22 year old Teach for America kid straight out of Brown with no training can just replace those teachers!

When reading people like Chait, the question that comes to mind is, “How does he think liberal change actually takes place?” He and so many other nominally left-of-center pundits routinely define themselves as taking the most possibly left position and attacking anyone to the left of that. That’s because, I think, they have dreams of setting policy from nice offices in Washington, creating the Great Society without talking to any of the people this will affect, all no doubt while wearing great suits the likes of which they saw Don Draper wear. But if you want to create liberal policy, and if you look at the history of successful liberal policy making, what has to happen is on the ground activism. That means people in the streets, it means having buy-in from affected people, it means making deals with labor unions or even encouraging unions to take leading roles. The Social Security Act didn’t happen because FDR and Frances Perkins thought it was the right thing. The same with the National Labor Relations Act. LBJ didn’t push for the Civil Rights Act because he thought it was just good policy making. All of these things take social and political pressure from below. And people like Jonathan Chait hate the thought of that because activists can be intense and sometimes say mean things and yell a lot and might oppose you when you are a good smart college newspaper writer.

It’s not as if the teacher unions oppose better schools for poor kids. They think the Obama administration’s ideas are bad for their members. They want more money for poor schools. They don’t want to get fired for teaching in conditions that are out of their control. They reject the testing regime that is failing our students, forcing first graders to spend hours doing test-taking exercises where they once had recess and art. This is a disaster. Teachers’ unions oppose it. I think the Obama administration’s approach here is bad, as it has been on public education through its entire tenure. I think there could be compromises here–providing financial incentives for good teachers to teach in poor districts, disconnecting test scores from employment, etc. But of course, that’s not going to happen because the administration believes in Rheeism. So does Chait. They are both wrong.

Three years later, it’s a different administration and a different time, one when charter schools are under much greater scrutiny, but my take on Chait still holds. Moreover, as Josh Mound notes, Chait doesn’t even understand how to build the necessary power for the Democratic Party to succeed, which requires organizational efforts to promote worker power that gets out the vote and mobilizes everyday people for progressive politics, i.e, unions.

Chait may be good at talking about Republicans, but he’s a net negative in terms of his impact on the broader political dynamic in reviving a robust Democratic Party.

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