Did Bush hurt the charter movement by trying to help it?

It's ironic. The Bush administration, a strong proponent of school choice, may have done more harm than good in its quest to help the charter school movement. At least, the Bush administration failed to meaningfully move the charter sector forward beyond the improvements made under President Clinton. How could that be?

George W. Bush came into office at a time when the charter movement was growing at its fastest pace and it was politically correct for Democrats and even some teacher unions to support charter schools. Fast forward eight years. Although the charter movement continues slowly to grow, new school growth is heavily concentrated in a few states, most people still know little or nothing about what a charter school is, and their politics are divisive in most places beyond the Beltway.

Certainly the outgoing administration supported school choice. Bush's Department of Education quickly sprouted an Office of Innovation and Improvement, whose officials applauded charters and even expanded funding opportunities for them. 

Indeed, many Bush policies were even helpful. NCLB's intense focus on performance and accountability shone needed light on some of the worst charters and provoked action where school districts, authorizers and other oversight bodies had been negligent. 

Yet the administration also gave its blessing to policies that conflict with the charter concept. Subjecting charters to the Highly Qualified Teachers (HQT) provision of NCLB, for instance, was an inappropriate regulatory requirement for schools that are supposed to be free to innovate--in the personnel domain among others--in exchange for results. This was a congressional requirement, but Bush's team should have fought it or found a regulatory path around it. A critical task for allies of charter schooling is to protect this innovative sector from unnecessary re-regulation.

But the larger problem came from actions intended to be charter friendly. A key mis-step, again committed by Congress but allowed, and even promoted, by Bush, was encouraging school districts to "restructure" low-performing schools by converting them into charters, i.e. as a kind of punishment. Though seldom used in practice, this provision of NCLB sent a subtle but powerful message. Charters, which in most states had been started by anti-testing, progressive educators under bi-partisan support, could now be effectively linked to a broader conservative agenda: testing, privatization, and an anti-public school attitude. 

Such messaging, though likely unintended, was a teacher union's dream come true. In Washington State, where I live, charter opponents used associations with privatization and testing effectively in a 2004 public referendum to recall a bi-partisan charter law. Perhaps these tactics would have been tried regardless, but high profile GOP support for charters, from the Bush White House no less, fed that story line--and gave it traction. In states like Washington, it takes careful coalition-building and broad-based support from unlikely bedfellows to move forward controversial issues. In fact, partisanship is a huge handicap for charters in most purple and blue states.

Despite these advertent and inadvertent effects, it would be too easy--and misleading--to lay all blame for the charter movement's woes at the foot of an outgoing and unpopular administration. Charters also suffered from much bad press during the last eight years, much of it their own doing. A 2004 New York Times article announcing poor charter performance on a national test was extremely damaging (despite dubious credibility of the reported study). Charter advocates themselves can also be blamed for being late to admit that too many of their schools indeed suffered from weak or uneven performance in too many states.

Still and all, Bush's support for charters backfired in many ways. By using the bully pulpit to promote the idea of choice rather than to promote policies that support high quality choices, and by making chartering an NCLB punishment rather than promoting it as an opportunity for partnership, the Administration's support for charters became a liability.

With enthusiastic words of support for charters already coming from the President-elect Obama and Secretary-designate Arne Duncan, bipartisanship in the charter sector is on the upswing once again, at least rhetorically. Hopefully, new leadership at the Department of Education will follow up with federal policies that promote high quality charter growth and greater linkages between charters and other school reform efforts. More than anything, however, Democrats can best help this sector over the next few years by making it clear that support for charter schools does not, and should not, fall along party lines.

Robin Lake is executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education's National Charter School Research Project (www.ncsrp.org) and a senior fellow at Education Sector. She edits the annual report "Hopes, Fears, and Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools."

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