An article in Huffington Post reports on a study by University of Michigan researchers, led by Professor Sarah Reckhow, who found that the rhetoric of charter schools is very appealing to the public, especially to conservatives. Think of it: charters promise high achievement, better graduation rates, student success, all at a reduced cost to taxpayers. They promise that every child will go to a four-year college; not just any college, but an Ivy League college. Promise them anything but give them Arpege (for those not old enough to remember, that was a perfume ad, but lots of other words are substituted for “Arpege,” like “the shaft,” or “tyranny,” or “nothing.”). Promises, very alluring. Put that rhetoric against the reality of public schools, where some students don’t succeed, some don’t graduate, and some have low achievement. Supporters of public schools need to hone their rhetoric; the public likes the idea of non-union schools, at least in Michigan, and they don’t seem troubled by the idea of privatization. The language used by charter advocates has great appeal, even when it is not true. That must be why snake oil salesmen made a lot of money hawking their wares at state fairs in the 19th century, and why diet books continue to be best-sellers. It is the old P.T. Barnum rule.
Although charters are supported more by conservatives than liberals, they have bipartisan support, most notably from President Obama and Secretary Duncan. Add to that the strong charter advocacy of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Rick Snyder, Rick Scott, Nathan Deal, and every other conservative governor, as well as ALEC, and it is a winning combination, politically if not educationally.
Groups against the expansion of charter schools typically argue that charter schools serve to privatize public education, thereby exacerbating existing inequalities. Supporters of charter schools, on the other hand, say that they offer parents a choice, and that employing nonunion teachers can help spur innovation.
The researchers found that self-reported conservatives were more likely to express support for charter schools when they learned that these schools employed nonunion teachers, while liberals were more likely to turn against charter schools when presented with information about the role of private companies in their operations — although this made less of an impact. Arguments against unions seemed to resonate more strongly with participants, and made them significantly more likely to support charter schools….
[Professor Sarah] Reckhow also noted that when people were asked if they support the proliferation of charter schools in their communities versus in the state’s lowest-performing districts, they were more likely to favor increasing the number of charter schools in failing areas. She told HuffPost she thought this was because respondents might be satisfied with their local school options, and might be more likely to support charter schools in places where they feel distant from the schools’ impact.
Still, certain aspects about Michigan politics and the state’s charter landscape may have also impacted the results.
“Michigan recently became a ‘right-to-work’ state,” noted Reckhow. This means that in Michigan, it is illegal to require groups of workers to pay union dues as a precondition for employment. In recent years, union membership in Michigan has dropped.
“This is a visible issue in Michigan,” said Reckhow. “Once you bring unions into the equation, it does affect public perception.”
The survey did not measure participants’ reactions to charter schools after learning about their academic results, although Reckhow said she would have been curious to see that data.
“In Michigan, charter schools run the gamut — some schools are high-performing and do better than nearby public schools, and a good number of charter schools are in the bottom 25 percent of schools in the state, they probably should be shut down but they’re not being shut down,” said Reckhow. “The limitation of the study is we really can’t deal with that type of question.”
Interesting that people liked the idea of charters…for other people’s children.