When Sydney Chaffee was named the winner of the 2017 National Teacher of the Year award, fellow educators and advocates warned her that because she taught in a charter school, other teachers might not feel like she represented them.
After all, charter schools are often accused of siphoning resources away from traditional public schools and cherry-picking students.
She recalls one time, after giving a talk about the importance of social justice in education, an audience member asked: If you believe in these causes, then why do you work in a charter?
While Chaffee thinks of teaching as inherently political, she never viewed her choice to work in a charter as a political statement ― she went to work and graded papers, planned lessons and mentored students like everyone else. But suddenly her life choices were under scrutiny, especially from those with similar belief systems.
In recent years and even more so in the lead-up to the 2020 election, charter schools have become a political talking point, especially in progressive and Democratic circles. Many charter school educators, like Chaffee, are also progressive. But as the election cycle ramps up, they are watching from the sidelines as their livelihoods have become more politicized.
HuffPost spoke to over a dozen left-leaning charter school educators and advocates to hear how it feels to be under scrutiny from fellow Democrats. Some teachers said they’re paying close attention to Democratic candidates’ rhetoric on this issue and will remember politicians’ specific stances when they go to the ballot box. But others are happy to see their employers under fire and expressed ambivalence about their own involvement in education reform causes. Most started working at charters by happenstance and got into education for reasons of social and racial justice ― some of the same reasons the charter school sector is under scrutiny.
Charter schools, a type of public school that is privately managed, include small nonprofit institutions and large for-profit chains. While they have been controversial since the first one opened in 1992, for many years they were able to retain a rare bipartisan sheen, gaining the endorsement of Democrats like President Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republicans like George W. Bush.
But the sheen has started to fade among both Democratic voters and politicians. Polls from pro-charter groups show that support for charter schools among white Democrats has plummeted, though it has held steady for black and Hispanic Democrats.
So far in the 2020 cycle, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has offered an education plan that specifically targets charters, calling for a moratorium on their expansion and a ban on for-profit ones. Other front-runners like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Joe Biden have also offered measured criticism, attacking for-profit charter schools ― which only represent about 15% of the sector ― and in Biden’s case saying that these schools take resources from traditional schools. In general, around 6% of all public school students in the country attend charter schools, and they are disproportionately black and Hispanic.
Twelve years ago, when Chaffee signed up to work in a charter school fresh out of graduate school, she didn’t even quite understand what it meant. She just knew she liked the Boston-based high school and its kids, and thought she could make a difference as a humanities teacher incorporating issues of social justice into her curriculum. But after serving as teacher of the year ― which required her to travel and act as a spokesperson for the profession ― she’s not surprised by the current discourse. She’s become experienced in finding common ground with other educators and advocates ― even those who may treat her with initial wariness ― and tells them that, for her, it’s less about the type of school you work in than the work you do in that school.
Now, she’s looking for a presidential candidate who will approach issues of education with the same degree of subtlety. She is most interested in candidates’ overall plans for education ― as opposed to their specific takes on charters ― and is watching their willingness to engage with parents and teachers.
“This conversation gets framed in really divisive ways … [as if] you have to be one camp or the other. If you support charters you must not support traditional public education, if you work at a charter you must be anti-union. It’s so much more nuanced than that,” said Chaffee, a ninth grade humanities teacher in Boston’s Codman Academy Charter School.
The conversation has only become more divisive. Since 2017, President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ support of charter schools has further painted charters as a conservative issue. At the same time, teachers unions ― long critical of charters, which are rarely unionized ― have seen a bump in influence. Even Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a presidential hopeful who has championed charters throughout his political career, has started to distance himself from the cause.
While Chaffee is optimistic about finding common ground with critics, seventh grade teacher Lucas Lyons is not so sure he disagrees with all the judgment. Lyons is a teacher at KIPP Infinity Middle School in New York City. He also attended a KIPP middle school as a student.
He believes a national conversation about the flaws of charter schools is overdue.
Back when Lyons was a student at KIPP ― one of the largest nonprofit charter school chains in the country ― rules were strict, pressure was high, and test scores were paramount. The school was constructed out of the “no excuses” model, which emphasizes harsh discipline and academic rigor above all else. The model is still a mainstay in many charters.
But for Lyons, the militant nature of the school ― which primarily served students of color ― felt discriminatory, even as teachers actively avoided the topic of race. Later, as Lyons went on to attend a predominantly white high school and college, he struggled with forging a sense of identity as a black man.
It’s not so much about taking from one and giving to the other. It’s about making sure everybody has. Abdul Wright, Minnesota’s 2016 teacher of the year
“I would be 100% down with KIPP’s mission if it did a better job focusing on the issue of race and deconstructing what it is to be black in this country so our children can have a voice and can advocate for themselves,” said Lyons, the school’s seventh-grade learning specialist and grade-level dean who takes pains to discuss race with his students.
Lyons never thought he would become a teacher ― let alone work for KIPP. Some of his friends question him about his decision. And while KIPP has taken active steps to incorporate anti-racism work, Lyons still feels unsure of his place in the organization. He tries to make change from the inside, but in explaining his conflict, he quotes well-known author and poet Audre Lorde: “Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
So when people like Bernie Sanders call for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools while the impact of these schools is studied, Lyons isn’t sure he’s entirely opposed. There are a lot of bad charter schools out there that have opened quickly and without proper oversight, he concedes. But there are a lot of good ones too that specifically serve black children, and serve them well.
“As far as a moratorium goes, I’m not sure,” said Lyons. “I don’t think completely stopping is helpful ― it’s kind of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some are doing well compared to others.”
Educators like Abdul Wright, the winner of Minnesota’s 2016 Teacher of the Year award, find Sanders’ framing of the issue utterly baffling. Sanders has presented the issue as one of racial justice, noting that the NAACP previously called for a moratorium on the expansion of these schools. Wright is in his eighth year of teaching at a charter school in Minneapolis that specifically preaches empowerment for students of color. Wright, who is black and from Chicago, got into education to give back to kids who are facing the same struggles he did, having grown up in a low-income family and surrounded by violence.
He says he sees a lot of unfair generalizations about charters ― and has a particular grievance with the idea that they’re racially segregated, saying it’s not a “charter thing, it’s system thing.” (Notably, Sanders’ education plan also includes provisions that would help decrease segregation in traditional public schools.)
To Wright, the whole debate seems circular. Candidates claim that charter schools are taking away resources from traditional public schools. So is the solution to then take away from charter school kids? Either way, someone loses.
“They are painting a picture that doesn’t articulate the real message that needs to be communicated in education. It’s not so much about taking from one and giving to the other. It’s about making sure everybody has,” says Wright, who teaches eighth grade English language arts.
But when push comes to shove, even if this issue becomes more visible, he doesn’t expect teachers to have much of a say in the matter.
“We’re the tokens, we’re in pictures. But we don’t get to influence policy,” he says. “And we should have a seat at that table.”