The Slatest

Did Elizabeth Warren “Sell Out” to Powerful Interests by Opposing a Billionaire-Funded Charter School Proposal? (No.)

Warren speaks into a mic onstage, with an American flag behind her.
Elizabeth Warren speaks in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Jan. 12. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has a new column about Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who is formally “exploring” a presidential campaign. The premise of Chait’s piece is that Warren, whose central claim as a public figure is that she fights for the underdog against Big Business, has in fact screwed over regular people by “sell[ing] out” to “powerful interests” on two particular issues. One of those issues is medical device taxation, and frankly here’s how much I know about medical devices: nothing. But I do have some familiarity with the second issue, charter schools, and on that end Chait’s argument is misleading and, if anything, gets Warren’s position re “powerful interests” exactly backward.

Chait argues that Warren sold out low-income kids in her state by opposing a measure that would have expanded charter schools, and that she did so in order to please the state’s powerful teachers union. Here’s his case (and sorry for the long quote, but it’s necessary to get into the details):

There may be no state in America that can more clearly showcase the clear success of charter schools than Warren’s home state of Massachusetts. Professors Sarah Cohodes and Susan Dynarski conducted a study proving the massive gains produced by charter school students in the Bay State. Because Massachusetts has a cap on the number of students allowed to attend charters, it students have to enter a lottery to apply. This allowed Cohodes and Dynarski to compare the performance of students who won the lottery with those who lost, a perfectly randomized sample, across a broad suite of metrics. The students who won the lottery and attended a charter outperformed the lottery losers in every way: state test scores, SAT scores, number of advanced placement classes and test scores in those classes, and college attendance. (Three-fifths of the lottery winners went on to attend a four-year college, as against only two-fifths of the lottery losers.) The gains were equally large or larger for low-income students, students who entered school with low test scores, special-education students, and English-language learners.

The charter sector would like to admit more students in Massachusetts, but the state has a cap preventing more students from enrolling. A state referendum in 2016 proposed to increase the cap so that more low-income urban students can enroll in a charter school. The state’s teacher unions fiercely opposed the measure, and spent millions of dollars to defeat it. Unions oppose charters in large part because charters have largely nonunionized contracts, which allows them to fire ineffective teachers, something that is extremely difficult to do in a traditional public school with a union contract.

Warren opposed the passage of the referendum, known as Question 2. Chait thus concludes that she cravenly stomped on the interests of voiceless low-income students in order to gain the favor of a “well-organized interest group,” in this case the teachers union.

There are three big ways that this analysis misses the mark.

1. Question 2 was backed by finance industry billionaires who have historically been influential in the Democratic Party. In reading Chait’s summary of the issue, you would get the impression that the charter school referendum was an asymmetrical struggle between parents in low-income areas and the teachers’ big union machine. In fact, the charter proposal was backed by an organization called Families for Excellent Schools, which ended up paying the largest campaign-related fine in Massachusetts history for, in the Boston Globe’s words, “illegally hiding the identities of its donors.” Those donors turned out to be some of the wealthiest people in the country:

The newly revealed donor list showed the group received checks from Amos B. Hostetter Jr., the former cable television magnate from Boston, who gave $2 million; Seth Klarman, the billionaire chief executive of Baupost Group, a Boston hedge fund, who donated $3.3 million; and Alice Walton, an heiress to the Walmart fortune, who gave $750,000. Paul Sagan, a technology executive who was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker as chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversees charter schools, donated $496,000. Mark Nunnelly, a former Bain Capital executive who was recently promoted from his position as Baker’s chief information officer to a Cabinet post overseeing cybersecurity, gave $275,000. 

The group’s chairman, Paul Appelbaum, works for the investment firm owned by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert. Ultimately, supporters of the charter school proposal outspent its opponents by a 60–40 ratio.

Shame on Elizabeth Warren for selling out the grassroots interests of *checks clipboard* Quicken Loans, Bain Capital, and the woman whose father started Walmart?

For what it’s worth, Chait suggests that the corporate and finance industry millionaires and billionaires who back the charter movement merely have a “philanthropic” interest in the subject and thus don’t count as a powerful interest group in relation to Warren:

Personally I’d argue that megarich finance people do have a strong selfish interest in perpetuating the idea that a partly privatized, “market”-driven model involving mostly nonunion labor is the best answer to any public policy question—not to mention the fact that their associated consulting firms and for-profit education subsidiaries often make out quite well in charter paradigms. I’d also point out that the hedge fund class of “education reformers” has long been the most important influence on Democratic Party education policy. (Chait’s wife works in charter school advocacy, which he’s disclosed in the past, though he didn’t in this piece.) In fact, Obama administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made an appearance in Boston to support the yes-on–Question 2 campaign.

2. The Massachusetts charter proposal was opposed not just by unions but also by activist groups and civil rights organizations—and, in the end, by voters in economically disadvantaged school districts. As a rabble-rousing member of a union (and the child of a teacher) who is nonetheless a dispassionate, rational, and generous intellectual, I have no problem in the abstract with the idea that teachers unions might be wrong, for selfish reasons, on a given issue. But they weren’t the only ones who campaigned for a “no” vote on Question 2. The list of groups who opposed the initiative included social justice organizations, progressive political groups, and local chapters of the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, whose national leaders have called for a freeze on charter expansion. Ultimately the proposal was voted down nearly everywhere in Massachusetts except for a few districts in affluent Boston suburbs and on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Charter education is a Complicated Subject™, but in the end Question 2 appears to have gone down in part because of concerns that an increase in the number of charters creates a sort of fixed-overhead-cost death spiral at non-charter public schools, whose budgets are determined on a per-pupil basis. (Imagine a public school of 10 students that gets $10,000 per enrolled student from state/city authorities. Its budget would be $100,000, of which it spends let’s say $50,000 to keep its boiler running and $50,000 for a teacher. Now imagine that five of its students leave for various charters. Its ensuing budget the next year would only be $50,000, not enough to cover all the necessary costs even though it’s still getting the same amount “per pupil” and still needs heat and a teacher.)

3. The research on charter schools doesn’t say what Chait says it does. A key part of Chait’s case is that opposing the charter expansion initiative requires ignoring the persuasive evidence that charters have been successful across Massachusetts. This evidence, he says, can be found in a study by professors Sarah Cohodes and Susan Dynarski. Judging by his hyperlinks, Chait is in fact referring not to a formal academic study but to a position paper the professors wrote for the Brookings Institution in 2016 that argued for a “yes” vote on Question 2. In that paper they point a number of times to two actual studies, one from 2016 (co-authored by Cohodes, Dynarski, and several others) and one from 2013 (whose co-authors include Cohodes). We can look at those documents to see whether they demonstrate the “clear success of charter schools” in Massachusetts, as Chait contends.

I would argue that they don’t. For one, even Dynarski and Cohodes’ executive summary in the Brookings paper cautions that their data show that “the effects of charters in the suburbs and rural areas of Massachusetts are not positive.” They limit their claims to urban charter schools, and the bulk of their case concerns charter schools in Boston. However, if you look at the methodology of the 2013 and 2016 studies, you find that the studies’ central analyses didn’t even cover every charter school in Boston.* From the 2016 Journal of Labor Economics study:

We set out to study the effects of attendance at six charter high schools in Boston. These schools generated the lottery-based estimates of charter high school achievement effects reported in our earlier study, and they account for the bulk of charter high school enrollment in Boston today. Two additional charter high schools serving Boston students in the same period are now closed. One school that is still open has poor records and appears unsuitable for a lottery-based analysis.

The 2013 study had the same limitation: Its central analysis (comparing the winners and losers of charter school enrollment lotteries) didn’t include data from schools that were closed or that didn’t keep “adequate” records. The 2013 study did note that those schools appeared to be “poor academic performers.” But I couldn’t find any acknowledgment in the 2016 study or the 2016 Brookings paper (or in Chait’s pieces on the subject) that their conclusions about Boston charter school effectiveness should be tempered by the exclusion of Boston charter schools that (for one reason or another) failed or weren’t run competently.*

This doesn’t mean that the charters that were studied weren’t effective. It does suggest that the Dynarski-Cohodes data do not conclusively prove one way or the other that charters in general have in fact been a net positive for Massachusetts students. (Update, Jan. 15, 2019: Cohodes has responded on Twitter, pointing out that the 2013 study included an “Additional Results” analysis in which test scores from the lower-performing charters that had closed or kept poor records were included. Test score gains in this pool of all Boston charters, she writes, were still significant and positive on average. She also says she’s done some quick math using the 2016 data that shows the same ultimate conclusion would have applied if they’d done a similar formal analysis of that data—as in, the gains at the still-open charters were strong enough that including closed/bad-records charters in the sample would not change the overall positive impact. Chait, meanwhile, argues in an update to his original post that the exclusion of some Boston charters from the main 2013 sample and the 2016 sample—and the citation of those data sets in the Brookings paper—does not weaken his point.)

This all leaves aside, meanwhile, the question of whether opening more and more charters is a “scalable” or “sustainable” solution to the problems with public education. At one of the Boston charters Dynarski and Cohodes tout, for example—the Match Charter Public School—classroom teachers are supplemented by a “corps” of tutors who are paid so little that Match’s own website points them to instructions on how to apply for food stamps.

It’s great that those tutors—who are recent college graduates working through AmeriCorps—are basically volunteering to help kids learn, of course, but their efforts are not necessarily widely replicable. Did Elizabeth Warren “sell out” by not believing that the future of education in the U.S. is hedge fund executives asking recent college graduates to make up for public funding shortfalls by working for food stamp wages? Not really, I don’t think!

Correction, Jan. 14, 2019: This post initially stated in error that neither the 2013 nor the 2016 study covered schools that had closed or could not make data available. One section of the 2013 study addressed such schools.