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"I don’t care if Martians are running the charter schools…"

Anyone following the very recent history of education policy might well agree: charter schools haven’t just had a good couple of weeks. They’ve had a good couple of decades.

While the movement celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with a 5% adoption rate nationwide, a staggering 41% of students are actively enrolled in public charter institutions here in Washington, DC.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the public education landscape is now dotted with, roughly, 5,611 charter institutions in 41 states, serving an estimated two million K-12 students in 2012, and growing at an average rate of 480 new schools per year over the last five years.

But if some of the movement’s biggest cheerleaders have it their way, this is only the beginning.

Cue former Mayor Adrian Fenty (D-DC): “We want the whole system to look like a charter school.”

Though Fenty has been out of office since January 2011, his comments around education reform and collective bargaining at-large have been anything but low profile.

When appearing on the Diane Rehm Show last week, Fenty lauded Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for holding his ground against the Chicago Teachers’ Union. “I don’t understand why more people aren’t rallying around him,” he said. “Kudos to Rahm Emanuel, keep it up, maybe do more.”

In 2011, appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, he all but named the Washington Teachers’ Union as he explained why he fundamentally identified with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). “This is kind of what I faced in four years as mayor,” Fenty told hosts Mike Barnicle and Mika Brzezinski. “I tend to agree with him on the need for collective bargaining reform.” 


Shortly after Fenty entered office in 2007, he swapped the “Superintendent” title for the punchier, reform-friendly “Chancellor” label; dumped the school board’s power over the position, making the Chancellor report directly to his office; and redefined the role forever with the appointment of Michelle Rhee—another major advocate of charter education.

“The reason why, Michelle, myself, Joel Klein [former New York City schools Chancellor] believe in charter schools is because they follow a model, the only model that’s really going to change the system,” Fenty says.

Perhaps, thanks to folks like Fenty, Rhee, and Klein, the Democratic and GOP platforms explicitly state charter schools as a viable policy consideration.

For better or worse, Rhee, current CEO of her own ed policy operation, Students First, bridged the proverbial aisle over hor d’oeuvres and a viewing of Oscar-nominated Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “parent-trigger” flick, “Won’t Back Down” at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

But are charters working?

According to one of the movement’s founders, charters aren’t out to compete.

Ember Reichgott Junge (D-MN), the former Minnesota state senator who authored the first charter legislation, says, “Those choices between charters and districts is a false choice.”

Reichgott Junge calls chartering the “research and development sector for public education,” and if that’s so, charters are certainly winning.

“There’s been a lot of response when you look at longer school days, longer school years, individualized learning—many of those strategies have come from chartering,” she says.

And the strategies don’t end with the classroom.

Under the charter system, Fenty argues, “You don’t have collective bargaining rules that prevent you from hiring the best people, firing people that aren’t doing the job, promoting people who have done well and paying them more.”

It was under the influence of these more extreme methodologies that Fenty’s administration roiled education circles and teachers’ unions by instituting teacher evaluations with a 50 percent basis on student achievement, then firing hundreds of teachers because of performance.

“It wasn’t that we had mass layoffs that shocked the nation,” Fenty remarks. “The difference in D.C.[…] was that we were laying off our teachers for performance. And that is why the union was so vociferous against what we were doing.”

But, recognizing the long-held relationship between Dems and unions, Ember Reichgott Junge is careful how she discusses the conflict.

In the original law for chartering, we offered the opportunity for teachers to collectively bargain within their own school. […] They could choose to go with their district contract or they could choose to go with their union in their school, but there was always a choice,” Reichgott Junge says.

According to Fenty, D.C. teachers made that choice.

Nearly 67 percent of educators voted in favor of higher pay over unionization, but the former Mayor still lost his re-election bid in 2010, and the Washington Teachers Union couldn’t wait to accept Chancellor Rhee’s resignation shortly thereafter.

Fenty claims Rahm Emanuel’s defeat in Chicago as his own. “I don’t even know what we were fighting for,” he says.

Though, he’s far from feeling wounded. Ask him about staunch defenders of traditional public education?

“My argument to those people is, ‘Too late.’ The system is wildly broken.”

Ask him about the likelihood of special interest money co-opting the charter movement:

“I don’t care if Martians are running the charter schools. The way the traditional public schools have been run, where less than half the kids are graduating, and of those that are […] huge numbers are 3 and 4 and 5 years behind, and totally unprepared?”

After a beat of total exasperation, he continues: “The last thing I want to do is support anything close to what we have now.”