Professor vs. Billionaire Paid Advocate Debate: “Charters and Vouchers are the Answer”

Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation. Atifete Jahjaga

Last evening we held a Cambridge-style debate at California State University Sacramento. The quick back story on the debate is that I was poking Shavar Jefferies (National President, Democrats for Education Reform) on Twitter about backing out on a debate about charters. Chris Stewart, Education Post staffer, responded to my tweet and stepped up to debate. So kudos to Chris Stewart for coming to California State and for contributing to our open society and democratic process for enlightenment.

The motion under debate was: “Charters and Vouchers are the Answer”

FOR the motion: Chris Stewart, Director of Outreach and External Affairs, Education Post

AGAINST the motion: Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, Professor of Education Leadership and Policy Studies, Sacramento State

We were pleased the debate was moderated by Kitty Kelly Epstein, host of the Education Today radio program on KPFA.

I’ll begin with my 6-minute and 2-minute closing statements. Then I will post the entire debate on YouTube.

6-min intro

Student achievement data in the U.S. show long-standing and persistent gaps between White students and students of color. This hasn’t been by mistake. Paolo Friere suggested that the lack of an adequate education in certain schools is clearly purposeful. It truly is the shame of our nation.

Structural racism and unconscious bias has a history of being born out in public policy and the courts, in housing, and even today in school finance.

Concern about pervasive inequalities in traditional public schools, combined with growing political and corporate support, has created the expectation that school choice is the answer for poor and minority youth.

As a result, many reformers have framed school choice as a “civil rights” issue.

In fact, Donald Trump has proposed spending $20 billion on charter schools and vouchers. In his most recent budget he proposed cutting after school programs, college grants, federal work study for college students and other important efforts so that he could spend $1.4 billion right away on charters and vouchers.

Billionaire philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits have supported Secretary Betsy DeVo$ and she has conjured of the broader Civil Rights Movement as synonymous with market-based school choice.

Now, is a watershed moment for school privatization and private control via vouchers and charters.

It is becoming more clear by the day that Donald Trump and Betsy DeVo$ love privately-managed school choice.

This is despite the fact that the data in Michigan shows that the for-profit charter school takeover of Michigan public schools had coincided with a precipitous drop in my birth state’s national standings on the NAEP.

Civil Rights organizations have taken notice of the research, engaged with investigative journalism and listened to communities. As noted recently by civil rights groups such as the NAACP, Journey for Justice and the Movement for Black Lives, charter schools are far from a civil rights remedy. These groups have even called for a moratorium on choice to pause and take stock of the approach.

Yes, some African American and Latina/o leaders have formed advocacy coalitions with reformers who favor privately-managed and for-profit schools. The school choice movement counts on some prominent African American and Latina/o leaders to support vouchers, charters, parent trigger, and other forms of choice. For example, in Milwaukee, The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), heavily funded by politically conservative-leaning foundations, has lobbied the public for vouchers and charters for more than a decade.

So what does the data say about charter schools? What is surprising is that unbridled choice proponents harp about the limitations of traditional public schools but rarely discuss the predominance of the peer-reviewed research literature that demonstrates limited or no effect of choice (i.e. vouchers and charters) on student success.

Are there examples of student success in charters? Of course, as is there also in public schools. However, the CREDO’s most prominent study of charter schools across the nation showed that nationwide only about 13% of charters perform better than traditional public schools. More recently, the performance impact of charters was  .008 SD’s and .05 SD’s for Latinos and African Americans in charter schools, respectively in CREDO’s 2015 urban charter study. These numbers are larger than zero, but you need a magnifying glass to see them. Contrast that outcome with policies such as pre-K and class size reduction which are far more unequivocal measures of success than charter schools. They have 400% to 1000% more statistical impact than charters. These the BEST possible national results for charter supporters to point to.

How about vouchers? While it is true that you can find a rare peer-reviewed study that shows small effects for vouchers, as discussed this past month by Martin Carnoy at Stanford University, the predominance of the research literature for in the United States and elsewhere in the world from the past 25 years shows that vouchers don’t work. I brought a copy of the Stanford voucher report for you Chris.

Why are politically conservative foundations and organizations such as Koch brothers, American Legislative Exchange Council, Gates Foundation, Walton Foundation, Broad Foundation, Heritage Foundation, and Foundation of Educational Excellence spend millions of dollars funding studies and lobbying intensely for vouchers and/or charters? Why are these the “choices” continually pressed in the public discourse? There are of course other forms of choice that these groups usually ignore such as district charters, community schools, magnets and intra-district choice. What do all of these forms of choices have as a common denominator? The common denominator of the venture philanthropist school choice movement is that they are consistent with political agenda to private-control and privatization of public dollars.

They align with a political philosophy according to Wikipedia “focuses on open markets, privatization, deregulation, and decreasing the size of the public sector while increasing the role of the private sector in modern society.”

Vouchers and privately-managed charters move the responsibility and funding of public education into the hands of organizations external to the traditional democratically-controlled public school system.

Colin Powell once famously stated about the Iraq war, “If you break it you own it.” That’s the end goal for public education for privatizers. They seek to transfer public education from the state budget to the family budget. As is readily apparent in the recent discussion about Obamacare, this approach is no different than their beliefs and tax credit approach to health care. Private prisons are another example.

I have sought to make the case to you in this opening statement that privately-managed school choice is not the answer.

In this debate, I hope to make the case to you that unbridled, unaccountable, non-democratic approaches to school “choice” are not the answer.

Please vote no on the motion, charters and vouchers are not the answer.

2-minute closing

I proffer that the meta reason that school choice is a prominent discussion in our time is simple— our politicians have failed on purpose to provide what is necessary for poor and students of color to succeed in their neighborhood public schools.

Considering this, the choice discussion must be reframed. It is not a mystery in the United States what works in schools. In each city there are successful private schools and public schools on the other side of the tracks/highway/river etc. So what should parents already be able to choose from in their existing neighborhood public school? In some of my prior research I have made the case for a different set of answers that are not market-based, but are instead focused on equity.

  • Curriculum that represent diverse populations
  • An accountability system that doesn’t stigmatize students who score poorly on only one measure of success— high-stakes tests
  • An accountability system that doesn’t hide students who fall through the cracks while simultaneously claiming fantastic results
  • An accountability system that recognizes the unique needs of English Language Learners relative to high-stakes testing
  • Teachers that have more than five weeks of training
  • Schools that have vibrant public arts programs
  • Schools that have low student-teacher ratios and class sizes
  • Districts and schools that actively seek to desegregate schools
  • Schools that utilize innovative and restorative disciplinary approaches to stem the school-to-prison-pipeline
  • Schools that have teachers in every classroom who are teaching in field and have extensive training in classroom management, curriculum development and pedagogy

This concise summary of research is not an exhaustive list of the important choices parents and students should already be offered in their neighborhood schools. Access to these choices and more in our democratically-controlled neighborhood public schools is the civil rights issue of our time— large-scale privatization of education is not. Focusing on equity in our neighborhood public schools is the answer.

One clarification that I missed in the debate and was annoyed that I let go… The reason Flint had the water issues were not due to “democratic” processes as Chris proffered. But instead, due to the appointment and malfeasance of non-democratically elected Emergency Managers who were seeking to save money.

I do need to admit I was wrong about a particular issue last night. Most of what I’ve read attribute the use of the word charter to Albert Shanker in 1988. I checked with Diane Ravitch, my favorite historian of education, this morning. Here is what she said:

Ray Budde used it first in 1988. Shanker used it the same year. He meant a school within a school, staffed by union members, subject to approval by the union and the district board. It was not meant to be permanent. It would show what it could do for five years, share what it learned with the rest of the staff, then either get a renewal to keep learning, or be reabsorbed by the school. I read Shanker’s columns, also talked to him at the time, and read his speeches. I explained this in Death and Life. Shanker renounced charters in 1993, said they were no different from vouchers, would be used to bust unions, privatize schools.
So Chris, you were more correct. I was wronger on this point. Finally, here are the results of the vote.image001.png
We had a few early hiccups on the technology side to get the debate up on Facebook LIVE. So, only 8 people voted in our introductory poll for the debate. We will figure out a better system so we have more even and reliable voting (N=8 for pre-vote and N=44 for post-vote) next time. So no dab.
Check out and follow my YouTube channel here.Please Facebook Like, Tweet, etc below and/or reblog to share this discussion with others.

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Twitter: @ProfessorJVH

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p.s. Update 3/21/17: During the audience Q&A, there was a charter educator and former TFA that claimed his former schools was beating the odds for students. He stated that 100% of his student went on to college. First, Dr. Jameson Brewer, Assistant Professor at North Georgia University, asked the individual about the claims on Twitter.

Then, a series of tweets from Gary Rubinstein today described the attrition of charter students from this charter that was held up as an exemplar. In summary, his school was not a miracle writ large.

This underscores the attrition issue (100% of 60%) that I raised in the debate when I talked about our study in the Berkeley Review of Education.


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  • Hello Dr. Heilig,
    I just wanted to thank you for making the Professor vs Advocate debate public. You made several powerful points on behalf of today’s youth.
    Neither DeVos nor her children had ever attended public school, so her praise of a voucher system that allows for the use of public school funds, generated by tax payer revenue, for student enrollment in either charter or private schools – including religious based private schools – has left the public appalled.
    The wealthy oppose social services, yet support a voucher system that will partially pay to shelter their own children from the realities of society. Once the minority, students of color are now the majority in our public schools, and we need to promote coexistence through a system of equitable education rather than legalized forms of segregation by race, class, or otherwise. The quality of public education remains divided by zip-code, and addressing poverty in the U.S. must take precedence over vouchers that promote a system to divide and conquer society.
    I was raised in a neighborhood of poverty. We are no different than anyone else. We don’t grow up focusing on how poor we are. We have dreams and aspirations just like anyone from any other neighborhood. Those who came into our neighborhood chose not to prepare us to be the engineers or doctors or lawyers like they would kids in other neighborhoods because they – not we – decided what we could and could not learn. THEY made us more aware of our poverty because they chose to teach us differently and that is the disparity in the quality of education by zip code. I’ve lived it, and I continue to see it in schools across the state.
    This disparity will only be enhanced by a voucher system because there are no procedures of accountably for charter schools nor private schools, and most have enrollment criteria that would exclude many of us anyways – not to mention fees and additional expenses. A voucher system, like the one DeVos had executed unsuccessfully in her home state of Michigan, depletes funds from public education and is not vested in success for all students.
    Excellent job on the debate! 

    Liked by 1 person

  • Laaura H. Chapman

    Thank you for the text summary and taking on the issue. All points are clear, concise and relevant to the real civil rights issue of our time, which is not test scores. Thanks also for including studies/experiences in the arts…


  • Pingback: Julian Vasquez Heilig Debates Christopher Stewart at Cal State Sacramento | Diane Ravitch's blog

  • Pingback: Julian Vasquez Heilig Debates Christopher Stewart at Cal State Sacramento | Diane Ravitch's blog

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