Dennis Persica: Charter school issue divides Democrats

Just as Republicans are split over Common Core education standards, Democrats have been divided on the issue of charter schools.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who took office at the start of the year, has been accused of conducting a war on charter schools. Teachers unions, reliable Democratic strongholds, oppose them.

But de Blasio’s governor and fellow Democrat, Andrew Cuomo, is pro-charter. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, supports charters as well. And charter schools have been welcomed by Obama’s Education Department, headed by Secretary Arne Duncan.

If you want a further example of the split personalities and unusual alliances in the education debate, note that Duncan also is a strong supporter of Common Core. That puts him on the same side as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. That also situates him on the opposite side of teachers unions and their unlikely allies, Republicans, who, like our own Gov. Bobby Jindal, have turned away from Common Core.

Now the divisions among Democrats seem to have sharpened.

Democrats for Public Education was formed recently, headed by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Kenner native Donna Brazile, vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. On its Facebook page, which seems to be the organization’s only Internet presence at the moment, the group says, “Every child deserves access to a high-quality public education, and we’re ready to fight to make sure that’s a reality.”

In a speech to a convention of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s two major teachers unions, Brazile was more direct.

“The very premise of ‘market-driven education reform’ rests on the fallacy that the public school system is in crisis, and that the only solution is to let the market pick winners and losers,” she said.

Such words as “market-driven” — and one that Brazile didn’t use, “corporate” — are code used by foes of the charter school movement, which has been aided along the way with help from the likes of the Walton Family Foundation, created by the founders of Walmart; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, created by the former Microsoft exec; and The Broad Foundation, created by KB Home co-founder Eli Broad.

Meanwhile, the unions are quick to note that a pro-charter group, Democrats for Education Reform, was founded by hedge-fund operators.

The opposition to charters was heightened by a recent ruling by a California Superior Court judge that wiped out teacher-tenure rules, a form of job protection for educators.

Charter schools don’t have tenure protection anyway, since the private organizations that operate charters aren’t bound by those rules. But the California judge ruled that teachers in traditional public schools have no right to tenure either.

The fact that Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative already was trying to weaken tenure rules — and is charter-friendly as well — made the court ruling even more galling for the unions.

New Orleans has the only all-charter public school system in the country. Though there have been some complaints about it, the system appears to be solidly entrenched, especially since education is controlled mostly by pro-charter state officials.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t see those national-level divisions ratcheting up the local controversy. Wherever it takes place, the fight may be fierce.

Democrats for Education Reform Executive Director Joe Williams issued a curious one-sentence statement in response to the creation of Democrats for Public Education. Apparently foreseeing a survival-of-the-fittest battle of ideas, he said, “Welcome to the jungle, baby.”

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.