Jeff Bryant writes in the Progressive about the Trump-DeVos budget and their plan to eliminate the federal Charter Schools Program, which incensed the charter industry. The charter industry was certain they had a friend in Betsy DeVos, how could she have abandoned them?

Bryant quotes me as saying that the far-right foundations and think tanks embraced charters thirty years ago because they were easier to sell to the public than vouchers. I was involved in three different conservative think tanks–the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation/Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force. I met with leaders of the voucher movement and the charter movement. Charters were easier to sell because they could be “called” public schools even when they were under private management. And, of course, the charter industry passed legislation in state after state labeling themselves as “public charter schools,” when it would be more accurate to say that they are privately managed schools with a government contract.

Charters were embraced by the right because they did not run the risk of losing in court as vouchers did (at that time). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the charter industry got its start, the courts would have never approved a full-blown voucher scheme (the courts did okay vouchers for Cleveland and Milwaukee, but those seemed to be special cases, since they were supposed to “save” poor black and brown children from “failing public schools.”) Now we know that vouchers did not work in Cleveland and Milwaukee, but that has not slowed the zeal of voucher advocates one iota. From the discussions that I listened in on in rightwing circles, the invocation of “saving poor black and brown children” was a propaganda ploy intended to win the support of liberal legislators. It was a hoax and it was a knowing hoax. And many liberals fell for it.

Bryant explores Trump’s lie during the State of the Union address about the Philadelphia student who was allegedly “trapped” in a “failing government school.” As we soon learned, the student had attended a private Christian Academy, then applied for and was accepted into one of the city’s most elite charter schools.

Bryant writes:

As The Philadelphia Inquirer revealed, Janiyfah Davis was enrolled in Math, Science and Technology Community Charter School III (MaST III), which is part of a popular charter network in Philadelphia with a reputation for being “high performing.” But that designation is also deceptive.

A research study I co-authored with the Network for Public Education on the federal government’s charter school grant program—the program Trump now proposes to cut—spotlighted MaST I and MaST II schools in the network because of the multiple grants, totaling over $1.6 million, the schools received. 

We also found that—though the schools’ grant applications expressed a “vision” to provide access to high-level math and science courses to low income, special education, English language learners, and minority populations—the schools actually served disproportionately higher percentages of white students than Philadelphia district schools. 

Despite any indication that MaST III actually served the groups it purported to, DeVos awarded the school a grant of $1,345,000 in 2019. 

In other words, the MaST network is an example of how charter schools have rigged the game to claim the mantle of “high performing” by serving mostly non-disadvantaged students.

Yet as the charter school industry continues to pour huge sums of money into its advocacy and lobbying efforts, it does little to address, and arguably worsens, the pervasive inequality that is at the root of the nation’s education problems.

Indeed, as the reformers fretted over the elimination of the federal government’s charter school grants, they were completely silent on Trump axing programs that actually do address inequality, such as those that focus on migrant and homeless students, native Hawaiian and Alaskan students, rural education, after-school programs, and full-service community schools.

So sure, Trump lied during his State of the Union address about saving the educational destiny of a young African American girl in Philadelphia, but that lie exposed a much deeper one: That the political establishment, conservative and liberal alike, has been deceiving us about the goals of school choice—vouchers and charter schools—all along. It’s always been about turning education into a private enterprise.