Activist Ignites Heated Debate Over Whether Charter Schools Can Save Baltimore

As protesters marched in the streets of Charm City, a tweet from Jeanne Allen sparked an education reform dispute.

(Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

May 1, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

As the nation watched the unrest in Baltimore over the mysterious, police-involved death of a young black man from a poor inner-city neighborhood, education activist Jeanne Allen saw an undeniable symptom of a failing public school system in desperate need of reform.

So she expressed that notion with a simple message on Twitter:

“Baltimore riots and community dysfunction remind us that we must fix school and make #edreform a reality 4 all. #Charterschools save cities,” Allen tweeted.

She didn’t realize it at the time, but Allen, an outspoken advocate who is the senior fellow and president emeritus of the Center for Education Reform, had just thrown a 140-character brick through a virtual public-school window. Her message triggered the equivalent of a Twitter riot; Allen took so much heat from public-school advocates and charter-school haters—ranging from stinging insults to death threats—that she bailed out of the debate she had inadvertently started.

“I was so dismayed and so disappointed and, frankly, sad about the level of discourse to which people will go when they disagree,” Allen said in a phone interview. “The vast majority of responses are this notion that education reform is white, rich, and antagonistic toward public education, and any of us who support it are monsters.”

“It goes against the grain about everything we know of who is succeeding, and why.”

The images of Baltimore’s high school–age kids clashing with police placed the issue of inner-city school reform on the national agenda. It spurred an intense online debate between charter-school proponents and advocates for traditionally run schools. As Baltimore burned, the debate grew more intense, and Allen found herself in the hot seat.

Both sides believe that decades of poverty, inequality, and frustration embedded in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods fueled the riots, and that education can lift the next generation out of that cycle. But that’s the only common ground between the two.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, Florida’s former governor and a staunch education reformer, said Wednesday that charter schools can give at-risk children a chance at a better life. Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer declared Baltimore schools the “worst on earth” and said parents deserve alternatives. Robby Soave, an editor at Reason.com, agreed: “When families have the freedom to send their kids to better schools—and when those kids have the freedom to make mistakes without going to prison—we’ll have less rioting.”

(Twitter)

But Perdido Street, a pro–traditional education blog, mocked Allen’s tweet and pointed out that Bush’s record as an education reformer has a few blemishes.

Although nearly all the pro-reform commentators insist Baltimore schools are failing, statistics suggest otherwise. According to the school district’s website, 83 percent of pre-kindergarten students emerged ready to learn, state standardized assessment reading test scores jumped nearly 20 percent from 2004 to 2013, and math scores climbed more than 25 percent during that same time frame.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged that Baltimore received an award as top urban school district by the Council of Urban Boards of Education.

Despite the pushback on Twitter, Allen refuses to back down. She insists that lack of access to a quality education is the lock for underserved communities like the riot-torn ones in Baltimore—and taxpayer-funded charter schools, created with buy-in from parents and a union-free, streamlined system of accountability, are the key.

An educator in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, Allen recalled that the city was then ravaged by crime, balkanized by have- and have-not neighborhoods, and “I could not go in any of the four directions without taking my life in my hands.” Since then, she said, there has been “an epic revolution” in a revitalized, more integrated Washington, driven largely by an education overhaul with school choice at its center.

“Now you have white parents fighting over charter schools,” she said. In the District, she adds, “almost 50 percent of students [have] some school choice,” a strategy that has had “an enormous ripple effect” and is being replicated in places like New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Boston.

Things aren’t perfect, Allen acknowledged: Charter schools in Washington and Chicago have had problems, statistics show charter schools expel students at a higher rate than traditional schools, and a pending lawsuit in Delaware alleges charter schools foment racial segregation. And a joint report by two organizations that support traditional schools found waste, fraud, and abuse in systems nationwide.

Allen, however, said you’re bound to find bad apples if the barrel is big enough, and “not everyone is capable of or should be involved” in education. Those thoughts, she added, are difficult to express in the intense, compact, fast-moving space of a Twitter debate.

“It’s hard to talk about education coming out of a tweet,” she said, “but my premise is and remains that as long as schools are failing our kids and our people, it’s impossible for them to have hope.”