Charter Schools: Innovation or Amnesia?



Nancy Beadie is a historian of education at the University of Washington. Her books include Education and the Creation of Capital in the Early American Republic (Cambridge University, 2010), which earned the Outstanding Book Award from the History of Education Society, and Chartered Schools: Two Hundred Years of Independent Academies in the United States, 1727-1925, ed. with Kim Tolley, (Routledge, 2002).

UPDATE: As of 9:40 Eastern 11/7, Initiative 1240 has a slim lead in Washington State.

Rally against Initiative 1240 in Washington State. Credit: People for Our Public Schools.

Proponents of charter school initiatives throughout the country portray public education as a stagnant vision wedded to the status quo. But in fact truly public education -- education for everyone, by everyone -- is the product of continual struggle that took generations to create. Before adopting a provision that significantly weakens the public's control of education, voters should remember why states established strong public control of education in the first place.

Many states adopted strong constitutional provision for education after the Civil War, and these provisions were adopted for specific reasons: protecting teachers and students from private profiteering, sectarian division, and systematic legal segregation. The Washington State Constitution of 1889 provides a particularly strong example of this development. Three aspects of Article IX of that constitution stand out. The first is the superlative language used to describe the "paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education for all children residing within its borders." The second is the extent of the vision of equal education "without distinction or preference with regard to race, color, caste, or sex." Third is the Constitution's insistence that schools supported wholly or in part by public funds should be "entirely free of sectarian influence or control."

The strength of these provisions was not accidental but an effort to learn from failures of older states. History taught that in the absence of a strong philosophy of public education, states built legal systems of separate and unequal schools for different groups. At the same time that Washington drafted its constitution, Southern states were busy revising theirs to remove any Reconstruction-era commitments to equity and establish systematically unequal Jim Crow education. Washington responded directly to this failure by adopting the strongest anti-discrimination provision of any constitution to date. Other Western states such as North Dakota and Wyoming adopted similar, though differently worded provisions at the same time.

History also taught that in the absence of strong public control, private corporations exercised undue influence over distribution of public funds. In the 1870s and '80s, people saw how far industrial and financial interests had gone in buying the favor of public officials when it came to distribution of public resources, including "school lands" allotted to states by the federal government for support of public schools and universities. For this reason, Western states admitted to the Union in this period -- including Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah -- adopted elaborate regulations aimed at ensuring that school funds remained firmly under public control.

Finally, history taught that in the absence of strong public control of schools, splinter groups and sectarian interests reproduced division. In many states in the nineteenth century, public funds for higher schooling were routinely divided among institutions with different religious affiliations, with lobbyists arguing that they should receive shares proportionate to their populations. By the 1870s and '80s, however, political reformers saw this division of funds across sects as problematic, exacerbating political contention and undermining state capacity to concentrate funds in institutions serving the public.

In all these ways, then, the need for strong public control of education was a lesson taught by history. Current charter school initiatives threaten to reverse those hard-learned lessons. If Initiative 1240 passes in Washington State at the polls today, for example, charter schools would be supervised by an unelected commission and governed by unelected boards empowered to contract with private for-profit corporations. Initiative 1240 thus siphons off public resources -- including levies, construction funds, and facilities as well as operating monies -- without providing any new sources of public revenue and without providing any direct public control of funds. Moreover, it creates two separate systems of education--one for the vast majority and one for the very few. All these eventualities violate basic principles of many states' constitutions. Finally, these inititatives are being promoted through an influx of large amounts of private corporate funding. When it comes to charter school initiatives, voters should be wary of calls for innovation that require forgetting the lessons of history.

comments powered by Disqus