Last week Sen. Michael Bennet stood on the floor of the Senate and delivered his first significant policy speech. Fittingly, it was on education reform.
A number of Bennet-watchers had been speculating on what Michael’s speech would cover, and the betting was that he would, at best, go lightly on the issue of charters. In that, he exceeded our expectations, devoting precisely ZERO words to the subject.
On Saturday, Michael held a town meeting at the old Baker Middle School aimed at folks in education, supported in part by DFER (Dems for Ed Reform). I thought I’d pay a visit and inquire why the Senator, in contrast to Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, Michelle Rhee, Joe Klein and virtually all the other folks DFER endorses, didn’t think charters were part of the solution.
Not a question he wanted at the love fest, I suppose. His “dog ate my term paper” answer was that he drafted the speech at midnight and he simply forget to include charters. Warming up, his real answer was that he was focused on systemic change, and because he felt charters weren’t replicable at scale, they weren’t a core part of the answer.
Bennet is a brilliant and complicated guy, and his attitudes towards charters reflect that. He’s conflicted on the subject. On the one hand, as DPS super he acknowledged that schools serving low income and minority students like KIPP, West Denver Prep and Denver School of Science & Technology were outperforming district schools, and he used that fact as a bludgeon to further the discussion of systemic district reform and to build support for the Denver Plan.
On the other hand, during the early years of his DPS tenure he opposed expansion of charters within the district, on the grounds that charters “stole” students from the district and thus were costing the district money. This reached its nadir at the New Schools Venture Fund Summit in New Orleans a few years back, where Michael was the only person on the keynote panel who opposed expansion of charter schools, and got blasted for it.
More recently, he seemed to have changed his mind somewhat. The most compelling evidence was that, while high performing charters may arguably have been costing the district money, they were saving the taxpayers a fortune. When an urban district high school loses 50 percent of its students, and only 10 percent are able to graduate and attend a four year college without remediation, most taxpayers would prefer investing in a high performing urban charter that sends 100 percent of a similar demographic to four year colleges.
Based on that reasoning, Bennet in his last year as super moved in the direction of trying to encourage the replication of high performing charters within his own district. He certainly supported West Denver Prep, DSST and KIPP in their expansion plans.
So why omit charters as a component of a national solution? Let’s assume he really doesn’t think charters can effect systemic change. This is a mystifying position, because it conflicts with other parts of his overall strategy.
First, he often points out that R&D in education is dismal. This is true not only in terms of data collection and analysis, but in developing new approaches to teaching at-risk populations. But, from Obama on down, almost everyone in the ed reform movement will say that the most effective clinical settings for the development of new and better teaching practices for at-risk kids has been at high performing charter programs like YES, IDEA, KIPP, Harlem Childrens Zone, High Tech High, etc.
Moreover, the marginal costs associated with expanding these programs are minimal…so why not encourage the proliferation of high performing charters as an R&D multiplier? When it comes to R&D, is the Senator really expecting ed schools to save the day?
Charters have broken new ground in terms of coming up with cost-effective strategies for building design, co-location of facilities, linkage to other health and social programs and so forth. The best charters are saving the taxpayers money, and are improving systems at the same time. Presumably that’s what reform Democrats think good governance is supposed to do.
I share Bennet’s skepticism that charters can scale up sufficiently to provide a comprehensive solution to systemic change. The KIPP experiment in Houston and the New Orleans charter district will be instructive, but I wouldn’t place big bets that charters can proliferate fast enough, and at the right level of quality, to dramatically change the equation.
But charters can be game changers at the local level by putting constant pressure on districts to change their practices. There hasn’t been a DPS teacher who has visited West Denver Prep or DSST who hasn’t felt that some of the core school culture practices couldn’t be applied to their schools as well.
The advisory model at many high performing charters can be relatively easily adopted to a wide number of district schools. These are low cost/high impact measures that can drive systemic improvement.
The Senator appears to be more comfortable with district-generated alternative school models, such as “Innovation” schools and “Beacon” schools. Politically, they are a much easier sell. The question is whether he thinks they can generate results comparable to that of the best charters, and, if so, as an advocate for data-based results, what does he base that conclusion upon? Does he think they obviate the need for high performing charters?
The great irony in Bennet’s speech was that it was couched in terms of international competition. As a nation we must create the best educational system in the world so we can stay economically competitive. But when it comes to encouraging competition at the local level, the Senator draws a blank.
Remember, this is Phil Anschutz’s guy…but he’s against local competition? Passing strange, eh?
I’ve been (and remain) a big Bennet fan since before he became DPS super. But when one aspires to claim the national mantle of Education Senator, there’s an obligation to be very clear about what you believe in, and what you don’t. When it comes to charters, he needs to clarify things.
After the meeting on Saturday the Senator mentioned to me that he intends to attend an upcoming meeting of a group creating a charter caucus in Congress. Be interesting to see which Michael shows up.
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