Thinking about the upcoming election, and what the presumptive candidates’ positions on charter schools says about their general orientation about social engineering — after using the Google to find various public statements by Clinton and Trump on charter schools, education, and related topics:
There are two main rationales given for state investment in charter schools.
The first, and original one (as I’ve mentioned in this space before, with links) is as a laboratory for innovation. On this view, the charter school would be founded by teachers in a school district in order to try out a solution to some deep or long-standing problem, a solution that would not be possible to implement and study in the conventional classroom. Budgeting and other areas of management would be relaxed as needed to support the experiment. The goal would be to identify solutions to vexing problems, and then import the most promising ones into the whole district, so that all students’ education would be improved. Such a strategy would require not only the idea and the charter, but also a plan for the evaluation of the outcomes of the charter effort, and the preparation on the part of the school district to apply the solution broadly. This rationale for charters is not the one we hear most often. This, at least in intent, is a pretty democratic idea, with innovations and research arising locally, tested locally, and applied for the improvement of local education. Nothing prevents wider applicability of such solutions, but it is not hamstrung by the delusion that we must evaluate all school improvement by its potential to be Everyone’s Solution, i.e. “scalable.”
Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump is particularly interested in this vision.
The other rationale for charters generally is founded on “choice.” At a basic level, this approach envisions school systems which provide a marketplace or smorgåsbord of schooling types, so that parents can shop around for the one that most appeals to them on one score or another (ideology, diversity, pedagogical approach, “theme” etc. ). This “market place” version of charters as a key strategy for school improvement is rooted in the neoliberal view that market mechanisms are (in the long run, an interesting idea to examine all on its own) the most efficient and effective way to bring about change. It basically assumes the citizen (in this case the parent) in the role of consumer, and the basic citizen action is selection from among the alternatives provided by various “entrepreneurs,” which will of course (at least for historical reasons) include the traditional public schools. I find this ideological orientation dangerous and wrong, but it’s pretty much the American Way these days, the conventional wisdom. Both Clinton and Trump are on record as “choice charter” advocates. Just on this score, either candidate if elected would deserve scrutiny and principled debate or even resistance.But there are important differences between the two which mean that the educational future would be very different depending on which candidate becomes president.
Clinton, unlike Trump, has made repeated strong statements of support for the public school system as a keystone element of American society. Though her fondness for markets often leads her to take positions that are detrimental to the public school system, it’s my sense from reading speeches and other sources that this is unintentional, and results from not examining conflicting assumptions, and working out a coherent position. It is conceivable that, given her “policy-wonk” tendencies, Clinton could be persuaded to change her views on various points by counter-arguments based on data or other considerations. Whether she will in fact be persuaded of course depends on a lot of things (economic trends, who her advisors are, tides of public opinion such as the “opt out” movement, etc. -make your own list). In any case, Clinton has not (as far as I know) taken the position that education needs to be improved by competition, nor does she countenance union-busting, etc. She does advocate many elements of the “mainstream reform” effort of the past 3 decades or so, but she is not sympathetic to a dismantling of the public school system. Her approach to social change is a planning, technocratic one, which (for all its fondness for some faulty assumptions) at least defines its purposes, methods, and predicted outcomes. In this, her “gradualist” approach to policy change can be seen, and worked with.
Trump, by contrast, has said little about the role of the public education system as a social good, and his positive statements are mostly generalities — Everyone needs a good education, and it’s critical if the US is going to zoom to the top of international competitions (on tests, in economic activity, in innovation, etc.). On the other hand, he is one of those who speaks of public education as a “monopoly,” which should be broken up. In his view, real progress has not been possible because of the entrenched, hidebound power of the teachers’ unions (also despised because they are in the Democrats’ court most of the time, for some reason). He advocates, without any detail, massive return to local control, elimination of the Common Core (which he persists in speaking about as if it were a Federal mandate), and open competition among largely unregulated charters, vouchers, and for-profit schools (oh, and the “government schools,” too) as the path to Top Nationhood Through Education. He has said that schools should be run like businesses; he doesn’t want business regulated by the government (or by the workers), and since his is principally an economic model of society, once he’s broken up the “monopoly” of public education, one can foresee the ensuing market activity to result in all the distortions and concentrations of power towards which unregulated markets tend. This is not social engineering in any sense, but rather will be driven by competing power centers whose principal public engagement is the “manufacture of consent.”
If Clinton’s view is generally a restrained sort of neoliberal view, well within the mainstream as it has flowed in recent years, Trump’s (in this as in many areas) is both incoherent and Hobbesian.