Posts Tagged ‘Charter schools’

A Mayor Seeks to Stymie His City’s Only Successful School

November 17, 2018

WSJ OPINION COMMENTARY CROSS COUNTRY

In struggling New Bedford, Mass., the Alma del Mar charter faces opposition to its expansion plan.

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By Tunku Varadarajan
Nov. 16, 2018 6:41 p.m. ET

Ivyanna, Moises, Jenielys, Giselly. The names on the bulletin board of a kindergarten classroom reveal the notably Hispanic demographics of Alma del Mar, a K-8 charter public school in this blighted city that was once America’s foremost whaling port. In fact, the majority of the school’s kindergarten is comprised of students whose first language is Spanish. By the time they get to first or second grade, many will speak better English than their parents.

Housed in a sprawling new building, the school’s interior is a clean, hushed hive of industrious students and teachers. There is no obvious indiscipline, no unruly children bouncing off the walls. At the playground outside, students hop off monkey-bars and swings to greet the principal, who accompanies me on a tour of the school. She greets them back by name.

Alma del Mar (which means “soul of the sea”) is a success story in a city that badly needed one. Started in August 2011, it now has 446 children on its rolls—and even more than that on a waiting list, clamoring to be admitted. There is a lottery every year, explains Kaitlin Goldrick, the school’s 30-year-old principal. Every child at Alma del Mar “is here because their families want them here,” she says. “The lottery can be a heartbreaking night,” says Ms. Goldrick. “There are families that enter the lottery year after year, and never get in.”

Families are drawn to Alma del Mar’s record as well as its optimistic spirit. “They want their children to get a good, serious education, and they know they’ll get it here,” says Ms. Goldrick. That seriousness is evident in the almost obsessive insistence at the school that its students be referred to as “scholars.” On a three-hour visit there I heard a teacher say “students” only once—followed by a sheepish “Oops, I mean scholars.”

The majority of New Bedford’s students must endure dysfunctional district schools that are among the worst in terms of performance in all of Massachusetts. By contrast, says Will Gardner, Alma del Mar’s founder and executive director, “our third-graders performed last year at the same level as a third-grader in Wellesley on the state’s test in math.” (Wellesley is among the most affluent suburbs in Massachusetts.)

For all its success, Alma del Mar is embroiled in local controversy. In August, the school applied to the state to get 1,188 more seats for students, the entire quota for new charter seats for the school district of New Bedford. (Massachusetts, like many other states, puts caps on the numbers of students in charter schools.) The school aims to add two new campuses, one next year and another in 2020. Yet the city’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, has declared he will fight Alma del Mar’s expansion.

“I intend to oppose it,” the mayor said recently, “because I don’t believe that this is the right thing for the city.” He added, without supporting evidence, that Alma del Mar “has demonstrated itself not to be a constructive partner with the school district.” A recent article in CommonWealth magazine by supporters of the mayor and the teachers union criticized Alma del Mar for getting political support from “the think-tank crowd”—a reference to the Boston-based free-market Pioneer Institute, which has promoted the school.

At the root of the resistance, supporters believe, is a panic in the mayor’s office about relinquishing control over education in the city. Alma del Mar reports directly to the state, not to the city’s elected school committee. There are competing petitions online—one for and one against the school’s expansion.

The state will rule on Alma del Mar’s application in February, but the opposition to her school leaves Ms. Goldrick more perplexed than indignant. Speaking of opponents of the expansion, she says, “Their perspective is that they want all of the money to go to the district, because they feel, ‘How can we get better if we aren’t getting the money we deserve?’ They say they need time to get better, and that charter schools make it harder for that to happen.” (Each student at Alma del Mar brings state funding with him, subtracted from the district’s share of state aid. Massachusetts is required to compensate the district.)

“My response to this,” says Ms. Goldrick, “is, ‘Why should these families have to wait for things to get better?’ For our families, New Bedford is a failing school district. So if something doesn’t change, why should a child have to wait 10 or 15, or who knows how many, years? By then they’ll be out of school.

“Besides,” she adds, “isn’t it important that our families—and all the families in New Bedford—have a choice?”

Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at the Hoover Institution.

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The Teachers Union’s Public Enemy No. 1

September 2, 2017

Betsy DeVos is Trump’s stylistic opposite, but she stirs more antagonism than any other cabinet member.

 By

Tallahassee, Fla.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos liked what she saw Tuesday when she visited a pair of schools in Florida’s capital. When we met that afternoon, she had just come from the Florida State University School, a K-12 charter sponsored by the FSU College of Education. “I had a little roundtable with teachers,” she says. They raved about the school’s culture, which enables them “to be free to innovate and try things in the classroom that don’t necessarily conform with the instructor in the next classroom.”

Earlier in the day Mrs. DeVos had been at Holy Comforter Episcopal, a parochial school that serves pupils from prekindergarten through eighth grade. “They started STEM programs before STEM became the cool thing to do,” she says, “and it was just great to visit a variety of the classrooms and see some of the fun things that they’re doing to get kids interested.”

Local officials in this heavily Democratic area were less enthusiastic. “It’s obvious that the secretary and our federal government have very little respect for our traditional public-school system,” Rocky Hanna, Leon County’s superintendent of schools, groused to the Tallahassee Democrat. “And it’s insulting that she’s going to visit the capital of the state of Florida, to visit a charter school, a private school and a voucher school.” (A correction on the newspaper’s website noted that she did not visit the voucher school, Bethel Christian Academy, but rather attended a “private roundtable event” at the church center that houses it.)

ILLUSTRATION: KEN FALLIN

Mrs. DeVos, 59, stirs more passionate antagonism than any other member of President Trump’s cabinet—and that was true even before she took office. Two Republicans dissented from her February confirmation and no Democrat supported it, resulting in a 50-50 vote. She is the only cabinet secretary in U.S. history whose appointment required a vice-presidential tiebreaker.

Since then Mrs. DeVos has hit the road and visited 27 schools. Her first call, three days after she was sworn in, was Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, less than a mile from the Education Department’s headquarters. She was met by protesters, who blocked the entrance and shouted: “Go Back! Shame, shame!” When I ask about that incident, she plays it down: “There were just a few people that really didn’t want to see me enter the school. I don’t think they had anything to do with that school. But we, fortunately, found another way to get in, and I was greeted very warmly by all of the teachers.”

Los Angeles Charter Uprising

May 22, 2017

Voters elect a pro-reform majority on the local school board.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

One reason public schools in big cities are so lousy is union control of local school boards. This has long been true in Los Angeles, but last week charter-school advocates dealt a major blow to the failing status quo by winning a majority on the district’s Board of Education.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has some of the country’s lowest-performing public schools. In 2015 only one in five fourth-graders rated proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While Los Angeles boasts more charter schools than any district in the country, they still account for merely 16% of enrollment. Two years ago the Great Public Schools Now initiative, which is backed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, set a goal of enrolling 50% of the district’s students in charters. The unions naturally went nuts.

As union schools lose students (and thus taxpayer funds) to charters, the school board has become even more reactionary. Last month the board voted to support three bills before the state legislature in Sacramento that aim to limit autonomy for charter schools. One would prevent charters from appealing rejections by local school boards to county and state boards. The appeals process is one reason charters in Los Angeles have been able to expand despite school-board resistance.

Anti-charter board members have tried to convince parents that rising graduation rates show that traditional public schools are improving. But the real explanation is that the board dumbed down graduation requirements and allowed students to pass courses with a D grade. Half of last year’s graduating seniors were ineligible for state public universities, according to the education nonprofit The 74.

School board president Steve Zimmer, who was ousted last week, declared that “teachers are not failing. Students are not failing. Schools are not failing.” Parents who voted in the local elections believe otherwise.

Unions tried to vilify pro-charter candidates Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez by portraying them as tools of Donald Trump, though both were endorsed by President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the state’s progressive former Senator Barbara Boxer. There’s nothing progressive about failing low-income minority kids.

Appeared in the May. 22, 2017, print edition.

Will Unions Cripple Kentucky’s Belated Charter-School Effort?

March 2, 2017

Opponents of reform are pushing a weak bill that maintains the local school boards’ monopoly.

An elementary school in Stanton, Ky., Feb. 18.

An elementary school in Stanton, Ky., Feb. 18. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Kentucky is one of only seven states that doesn’t allow charter schools, making it something of an educational backwater. Republicans have been trying to pass charter-school legislation since 2009, only to be stymied by Democrats, who had a lock on the governorship and state House.

But charters’ time in the Bluegrass State may have finally arrived. In 2015 Republican Matt Bevin, a charter-school champion, was elected governor. Then last year Republicans seized control of the Kentucky House for the first time since 1921 and unseated Speaker Greg Stumbo, a staunch opponent of school choice. Republicans now hold large majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly—64 of 100 seats in the House and 27 of 38 in the Senate.

Even teachers unions and local school boards seem resigned to the inevitability of allowing charter schools. To limit the damage to their interests, they’re trying to exploit divisions among Republicans to keep charters tightly contained by conceding regulatory authority to the local boards.

Kentucky schools rank about average nationwide, though large disparities exist among districts. Last year 77% of middle-school students in the Cincinnati suburb of Fort Thomas scored “proficient” on state math tests. Four miles away in Newport, only 30% did. For Jefferson County (Louisville), the figure was 39%.

“We have a great city, a beautiful downtown, trails,” says Lynn Schaber, a Newport mom whose second-grade son attends a Montessori school. “But people aren’t happy with the school system. As they say around here, it’s trikes, no bikes. People move out of the city once their kids get older than 3 because of the poor schools.”

Like many suburban and rural districts in Kentucky, Newport has only one elementary, middle and high school. Parents in low-performing districts who can afford it send their kids to private schools or move to districts with better schools like Fort Thomas, where the median home price is about twice that of Newport. Thus, public schools and cities become segregated along socioeconomic, and in some cases racial, lines. Nearly 90% of Newport students qualify for free or discounted lunches, compared with about 15% in Fort Thomas.

Such gaping inequities are driving support for charter-school legislation that would bring Kentucky’s education system into the 21st century. Last month state Rep. Phil Moffett introduced a bill that would allow local school districts, college governing boards, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, the Louisville and Lexington mayors, and the state Board of Education to authorize charters.

Multiple authorizers would enable students to travel outside their home districts to attend a charter. By contrast, district authorizers could limit enrollment to students within their bounds. This would be a huge impediment to charter growth in rural and suburban areas where there are fewer students. Newport’s system-wide enrollment is just 1,600 students—fewer than in some big-city high schools.

Mrs. Schaber has joined five other parents to devise plans for a charter school that will enroll students from six small cities across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. She notes that parents frequently move between the cities, depending on their job and housing. So it makes sense to form a regional charter.

Charter opponents are pushing a weaker bill that would vest local school boards with the sole power to authorize and regulate charters. That would let those boards, typically controlled by the unions, throw up roadblocks. While charters could appeal district decisions to the state Board of Education, the process would be cumbersome and costly. Only charters backed by well-heeled donors would have the resources to navigate and battle the education bureaucracy.

The experience of other states is instructive. Iowa, Kansas and Virginia don’t allow multiple authorizers and have few charter schools. Arizona, Minnesota and New York do, and have an abundance. Charters in the latter group of states are among the highest-performing nationwide.

The weaker bill would also require charters to participate in and contribute to the state’s insolvent public pension system, among the worst funded in the country. So they could be forced to pick up the retirement tab for union teachers in traditional public schools.

Local school boards have lobbied Republicans to reject legislation with multiple authorizers and instead back the diluted bill, which they say will hold charters more accountable. “People love their local school board,” says Mrs. Schaber. “They want to support it.”

That may be, but allowing local school boards to regulate their competition is fundamentally unfair. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last year that a law allowing Amtrak to regulate freight trains that compete for track time could not be sustained under the Fifth Amendment: “Giving a self-interested entity regulatory authority over its competitors violates due process.” The same principle should apply when children’s futures are at stake.

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.

Who’s Afraid of Betsy DeVos?

January 17, 2017

Trump’s Education nominee is the top Democratic target.

Democrats are searching for a cabinet nominee to defeat, and it’s telling that progressive enemy number one is Betsy DeVos. Donald Trump’s choice to run the Education Department has committed the unpardonable sin of devoting much of her fortune to helping poor kids escape failing public schools.

Progressives and their media allies have spent the last week roughing up Mrs. DeVos in preparation for her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, which will feature the charms of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Liberals claim that Mrs. DeVos, wife of former Amway president Dick DeVos, is unqualified to lead the Education Department because she’s never been a teacher.

Yet the same crowd howls that bankers shouldn’t be regulating banks. Which is it? Managing a bureaucracy isn’t like running a classroom, though both require a steely resolve. Most Education secretaries have been former teachers or school superintendents—not that student test scores are better for it.

Perhaps Mrs. DeVos’s most important qualification is that she has the courage of her convictions. Progressives are willing to brook billionaires who use their wealth to expand government or augment their political influence. Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker, whose family is a major Democratic patron, served as President Obama’s Commerce secretary. But a conservative who’s dedicated her private fortune to liberating poor kids trapped in lousy public schools? The horror!

The DeVoses have donated tens of millions of dollars to charity including a children’s hospital in Michigan and an international art competition in Grand Rapids. They’ve also given to Christian organizations, which the left cites as evidence of concealed bigotry. Yet education has been their main philanthropic cause.

During the 1990s, they patronized a private-school scholarship fund for low-income families and championed Michigan’s first charter school law. In 2000 they helped bankroll a voucher initiative, which was defeated by a union blitz. The DeVoses then turned to expanding charters, which have become Exhibit A in the progressive campaign against her. Unions claim Michigan charters are inferior to the state’s public schools and that 80% are run for profit.

These claims are spurious. Detroit charters are low performing—only 19% of students are proficient in English—but they’re better than the alternative. Charter students in Detroit on average score 60% more proficient on state tests than kids attending the city’s traditional public schools. Eighteen of the top 25 schools in Detroit are charters while 23 of the bottom 25 are traditional schools.

Two studies from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2013, 2015) found that students attending Michigan charters gained on average an additional two months of learning every year over their traditional school counterparts. Charter school students in Detroit gained three months.

Eighty-percent of Michigan charters utilize a private education service provider. Yet only about half are operated by a for-profit entity, and almost all of these are mom-and-pop businesses run by Michigan residents. While unions have fought to keep failing public schools open, Mrs. DeVos backed a 2009 law allowing the state to close public schools—charters included—that scored in the bottom 5% of the state for three consecutive years. Only seven of the 54 schools with two strikes in the past two years were charters.

The real reason unions fear Mrs. DeVos is that she’s a rare reformer who has defeated them politically. Prior to being tapped by Mr. Trump, she chaired the American Federation for Children (AFC), which has helped elect hundreds of legislators across the country who support private school choice. Last year AFC and its affiliate groups spent $5 million on elections compared to the teachers unions’ $138 million. Yet 108 of the 121 candidates AFC supported won their races.

AFC has built a broad coalition that includes black and Latino Democrats, undercutting the union conceit that vouchers are a GOP plot to destroy public schools. In 2000 four states had private-school choice programs with 29,000 kids. Today, 25 states have vouchers, tax-credit scholarships or education-savings accounts benefitting more than 400,000 students.

Even if they can’t defeat Mrs. DeVos’s nomination, unions hope to leave her so politically weakened that she won’t be able to implement her agenda. The character assassinations—e.g., that she supports anti-gay groups—are primarily intended to turn the bureaucracy and public against her.

Yet their nasty campaign reeks of political desperation. You know progressives have lost their moral bearings when they save their most ferocious assault for a woman who wants to provide poor children with the education they need to succeed in America.

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Betsy DeVos’s School Mission

November 25, 2016

One promise of the Trump Presidency is that it will try to break up Washington’s political cartels. Among the worst is the Education Department, and Betsy DeVos is well positioned to take it on as Mr. Trump’s nominee to run that wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions and cultural left.

Mrs. DeVos is a philanthropist who has devoted years and much of her fortune to promoting school reform, especially charter schools and vouchers. She chairs the American Federation for Children (AFC), which has fought in the trenches across the country for more school choice to liberate kids from failing schools. By trenches we mean hand-to-hand political combat in state legislative races against the teachers unions.

AFC was especially successful this year, as 108 of the 121 candidates it supported won their elections. AFC candidates in Florida won 20 of 21 targeted races. The group’s biggest coup was ousting a scourge of school choice in a Miami-Dade Senate district where Democrats are a majority. The teachers union dumped $1 million into the race but still lost.

The union hoped to demonstrate diminishing public support for Florida’s tax-credit scholarships—the largest private-school choice program in the country—which is under review by the state Supreme Court. AFC ran ads with parents of scholarship recipients demanding that opponents be held accountable.

Choice advocates scored other big victories this month in what is an underreported election story. Indiana Republican Jennifer McCormick dislodged State Education Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who attacked charters and vouchers during her four-year term. Republican Mark Johnson also defenestrated a union-backed superintendent in North Carolina.

Teachers unions fanned public fury over North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law to exact retribution against GOP Governor Pat McCrory, who repealed teacher tenure, expanded charters and established vouchers. Even if Mr. McCrory loses his tight race for re-election, the legislature has locked in funding for vouchers that will escalate over 12 years.

New York Republicans maintained their state Senate majority, which is a crucial bulwark against the union-controlled Assembly. At least nine of the 10 Republican candidates supported by the pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY prevailed.

Charter groups even racked up victories in California, where many legislative races featured two Democrats due to the state’s nonpartisan primary. In an East Bay Assembly seat, Democrat Tim Grayson beat Mae Torlakson, who is married to the state’s union-friendly superintendent of public instruction. Charter groups also helped elect Democrat Anna Caballero and former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra to reclaim the seat he lost two years ago to a union frontwoman. California Teachers Association president Eric Heinsfrets that the freshman legislators could have a long-term impact.

One of Mrs. DeVos’s tasks will be leveraging her bully pulpit and federal dollars to extend this progress to the states, where most education money is spent. She will be the most pro-choice secretary since Bill Bennett in the Reagan years, and she is a particular improvement over George W. Bush’s secretary Margaret Spellings. The National Education Association union blew a gasket at Mrs. DeVos’s appointment Wednesday, which qualifies as high praise.

Mrs. DeVos will have to study up quickly on higher education, where the ObamaAdministration has done so much harm. This means revisiting rules on for-profit colleges and especially the destructive “guidance” on enforcing Title IX that has forced schools to jettison due process for accused students and faculty.

The union and progressive backlash will be ferocious, so it’s good that Mr. Trump has picked a nominee in Mrs. DeVos who knows how to fight and to make the moral case for reform.

Trump’s School-Choice Fight

September 19, 2016

His plan to let money follow the child is a moral and political winner.

 

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 17.ENLARGE
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 17. PHOTO: REUTERS

If Donald Trump knew that promoting school choice would cause such a ruckus on the left, maybe he’d have weighed in sooner. The Republican nominee has found a winning issue by pitching a plan to “provide school choice to every disadvantaged student in America.” Amen.

During a visit to the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, Mr. Trump proposed a $20 billion block grant for states by redirecting federal education money to support charter schools and vouchers. He also endorsed merit pay for teachers and said he’d support local candidates who champion school choice.

Most of the $50 billion or so that the federal government spends on K-12 education is targeted to particular programs like teacher training, and rural and STEM education. About $14 billion in Title I funds are earmarked for disadvantaged students. However, this money doesn’t follow kids to private schools, and states often shortchange charter schools.

Mr. Trump wants to let states use federal funds to boost voucher awards, so parents rather than governments get to choose where the money goes. As he noted in Cleveland, “there is no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly.” Judging by the panicky reaction on the left, you’d think he’d proposed eliminating public education.

Hillary Clinton said his block-grant plan would “decimate public schools across America.” Yet $20 billion is merely 3% of what states spend on K-12 education each year and less than the increase in school spending in California since 2012. By the way, charters are public schools—freed of union control.

Mrs. Clinton is showing how far left she has moved on education. President Obama has been hostile to vouchers; recall former Attorney General Eric Holder’s efforts to shut down Louisiana’s voucher program that principally benefits poor black kids. But at least Mr. Obama supported charters, while Mrs. Clinton is now openly hostile to these reform public schools.

Unions and their friends are trying to deflect attention from Mr. Trump’s speech and minority outreach by saying the charter school where he announced his plan received a failing grade on Ohio’s school-progress report card last year. But the charter flunked due to a switch in state tests last year that caused student scores to slump nearly everywhere in the state.

In 2014 about 71% of third graders at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy were proficient in reading. On the new test 55% rated as proficient. Yet the share of students at Cleveland Arts who scored proficient was still more than twice as high as at Harvey Rice Elementary (which has a similar demographic makeup) down the block. That school got an A on student growth.

It’s ironic that progressives are howling about the charter’s performance on standardized tests, which they usually insist are a poor indicator of school and teacher quality. Why is it that the only schools that unions believe should be held accountable for student performance are those run by their competition? That’s a question Mr. Trump should ask from here to November.

Poor Children Need a New Brown v. Board of Education

August 29, 2016

Students deserve federal protection from the twisted logic of tenure rules that undermine learning.

By THEODORE J. BOUTROUS JR. and JOSHUA S. LIPSHUTZ
Aug. 28, 2016 5:50 p.m. ET
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The California Supreme Court announced Aug. 22 that it would not hear Vergara v. California, a landmark case fighting for the educational rights of public-school students. The court’s unwillingness even to consider an issue that Justice Goodwin Liu called “one of the most consequential to the future of California” demonstrates why the federal courts must intervene and recognize that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a fundamental right to education.

Julia Macias, 13, a plaintiff in Vergara v. California, in Los Angeles, June 10. ENLARGE
Julia Macias, 13, a plaintiff in Vergara v. California, in Los Angeles, June 10. PHOTO: NANCY PASTOR/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In Vergara, nine students challenged teacher-tenure and dismissal laws that make it nearly impossible for school districts to remove grossly ineffective teachers from the classroom. We were part of the team, along with our partner former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who represented the student plaintiffs. After an eight-week bench trial in 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down the statutes under the state constitution because their twisted logic is “unfathomable” and they inflict harm so severe that it “shocks the conscience.”

Judge Treu’s decision attracted national attention. Then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that the decision “presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.”

The state of California and California’s two largest teachers unions appealed. In its decision, the California Court of Appeal acknowledged that the laws are a “problem,” agreed that they likely lead to “grossly ineffective teachers being in the educational system,” and described the situation as “deplorable.” The court sided with the unions anyway.

The case seemed destined for the California Supreme Court, but on Aug. 22 the court declined to hear the case by a vote of 4-3. Pursuant to its ordinary procedures, the court did not explain why. Yet two justices took the extraordinary step of issuing dissenting opinions decrying the majority’s failure to act. Justice Liu wrote that “[t]he nine schoolchildren who brought this action, along with the millions of children whose educational opportunities are affected every day by the challenged statutes, deserve to have their claims heard by this state’s highest court.” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar described the laws as “staggering failures that threaten to turn the right to education for California schoolchildren into an empty promise.”
California’s refusal to protect its young citizens has made federal protection essential. Public education meets the U.S. Supreme Court’s fundamental-right test, as articulated in Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), because it is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Laws that impair that right should be subject to strict scrutiny under the Constitution’s due-process and equal-protection clauses.

Public education has been a fundamental pillar of U.S. society since the nation’s founding, when the Continental Congress set aside public lands “to support a system of schools in a state.” As the Supreme Court put it in 1954’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling: “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.”

Two decades after Brown, the Supreme Court in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) held that education is not a fundamental right in the context of school funding. But it expressly left open the possibility that a right to education might be recognized in another situation. In Papasan v. Allain (1986), the court made clear that whether education is a fundamental right is “not yet definitively settled.”

Such a right would not be an open invitation for federal courts to manage schools or for litigants to bring every education policy question to federal court. Rather, it would protect children across the country against state laws and policies that actively and knowingly deprive them of essential educational opportunities and create egregious inequality, like the California statutes in Vergara.

The day after the denial of review in Vergara, we filed a case in Connecticut federal court, Martinez v. Malloy. We argue for a federal constitutional right to challenge laws that force inner-city children to attend schools that the state knows are failing to provide a minimally acceptable education. These laws are especially cruel because Connecticut has some terrific public schools, including in urban centers.

Magnet schools and public charter schools achieve outstanding results for students. Yet Connecticut has defied reason and imposed a moratorium on magnet schools and an effective cap on charter schools. The state also punishes high-quality public schools that accept transfer students from failing schools. Inner-city kids have to win a lottery to gain access to decent schools.

In Brown, the Supreme Court described education as the “very foundation of good citizenship,” and proclaimed that the “opportunity of an education . . . is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” The federal courts should transform these powerful words into a reality and enforce the fundamental right of children to education in this country.

Messrs. Boutrous and Lipshutz, partners at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, are counsel for the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California and Martinez v. Malloy, and for Students Matter, the nonprofit sponsor of both lawsuits.

Hillary Clinton’s School Choice

August 1, 2016

WSJ Review & Outlook

She used to support charters. Now she’s for the union agenda.

No one would call the 2016 election a battle of ideas, but it will have policy consequences. So it’s worth noting the sharp left turn by Hillary Clinton and Democrats against education reform and the charter schools she and her husband championed in the 1990s.

Mrs. Clinton recently promised a National Education Association (NEA) assembly higher pay, student-loan write-offs, less testing and universal pre-K. She had only this to say about charter schools, which are free from union rules: “When schools get it right, whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working” and “share it with schools across America.”

The crowd booed, so Mrs. Clinton pivoted to deriding “for-profit charter schools,” a fraction of the market whose grave sin is contracting with a management company. Cheering resumed. When she later addressed the other big teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), she began with an attack on for-profit charters.

We remember when Mrs. Clinton wasn’t so easily intimidated by unions. Bill Clinton’s grant program took the movement from a few schools to thousands. In Mrs. Clinton’s 1996 memoir, “It Takes a Village,” she wrote that she favored “promoting choice among public schools, much as the President’s Charter Schools Initiative encourages.” And here’s Mrs. Clinton in 1998: “The President believes, as I do, that charter schools are a way of bringing teachers and parents and communities together.”

But now Mrs. Clinton needs the support of the Democratic get-out-the-vote operation known as teacher unions, which loathe charter schools that operate without unions. The AFT endorsed Mrs. Clinton 16 months before Election Day, and the NEA followed.

Shortly after, in a strange coincidence, Mrs. Clinton began repeating union misinformation: “Most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids,” she said on a South Carolina campaign stop in November. But Mrs. Clinton used to know that nearly all charter schools select students by lottery and are by law not allowed to discriminate. The schools tend to crop up in urban areas where traditional options are worst. A recent study from Stanford University showed that charters better serve low-income children, minority students and kids who are learning English.

There’s an irony in Mrs. Clinton’s pitch that schools should simply share best practices. In 2005 the United Federation of Teachers started a charter school in Brooklyn, N.Y., to prove that unions weren’t holding up success. The school rejected the hallmarks of charter schools like New York’s Success Academy: order, discipline and other concepts progressives view as oppressive. Principals, for instance, were renamed “school leaders.” So how’s that experiment working out? Grades K-8 didn’t meet state standards last year and closed.

Mrs. Clinton’s switcheroo follows the pro-union turn of the Democratic Party platform. This year’s original draft was at least mildly pro-reform, but the final version opposes using test scores to evaluate teachers, encourages parents to opt out of testing for their kids, and endorses multiple restrictions on charters that would make them much less effective.

The education planks caused Peter Cunningham, an assistant secretary in President Obama’s Education Department, to lament that the platform “affirms an education system that denies its shortcomings and is unwilling to address them.” He called it “a step backwards” that will hurt “low-income black and Hispanic children” in particular.

In this election year of bad policy choices, the Democratic retreat from school choice and accountability is the most dispiriting.

Detroit’s Public School Plague

January 23, 2016

A teacher walkout highlights the need for radical reform.

Jan. 22, 2016 5:55 p.m. ET
The Wall Street Journal

As if Flint’s water crisis wasn’t bad enough for urban Michigan, on Wednesday 88 of Detroit’s 100 public schools shut down, after 800 some teachers called in sick purportedly to protest their abject working conditions. Many Motown schools are a picture of poverty, but the root of the rot is the lack of accountability for failure.

Unions orchestrated Wednesday’s teacher “sick-out,” the latest of more than a half dozen this school year, to coincide with President Obama’s visit touting the White House auto bailout. Their goal is to draw political steam from Flint, flog supposed Republican racial animus—95% of students are black or Latino—and impel a bailout.

Media accounts of Detroit schools have documented rodent infestation, caving ceilings, black mold and putrid air. Emergency manager Darnell Earley, who previously ran Flint until being redeployed this month to Detroit by Governor Rick Snyder, has become a scapegoat. But the collapse of Detroit’s schools has been decades in the making.

Enrollment has fallen by two-thirds since 2000 due to population flight and charter-school expansion. Public schools have lost about 71,000 students in a decade while charters have gained 23,000. About 53% of Detroit students attend charters compared to 20% in 2006.

Detroit Public Schools have $3.5 billion in liabilities including $1.3 billion for pension and retirement health benefits. Since 2009 the public school system has been under the guardianship of a state emergency manager. Although 100 schools have since closed, deficits persist. This year’s $215 million hole is nearly a third of the district’s general fund revenues.

The district has repeatedly borrowed to balance its budget in lieu of making capital repairs and improvements. Legacy costs have diverted money from instruction, while good teachers have left for charters that offer more freedom and class discipline. Seniority-based layoffs force out promising young teachers while tenure protects the worst. Collective bargaining agreements block reforms like longer school days. The union contract also prohibits strikes, so instead teachers call in sick.

No surprise then that Detroit has ranked at the bottom of 21 large urban public school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2009. Last year only 4% of Detroit eighth graders were proficient in math and 7% in reading. A Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcome study last year found that Detroit charter students on average gained 65 days of learning in math and 50 days in reading per year over their public school counterparts.

Mr. Snyder has proposed spinning off Detroit Public Schools’ debt, which would be paid down over time with state aid. A new debt-free district would be created with state funds. Financial engineering and more aid may forestall bankruptcy, but they won’t improve math scores.

Detroit schools need radical reform, and the expiration of the teachers’ collective-bargaining agreement in June gives state guardians an opening. One model is New Orleans, which converted nearly all of its schools to charters after Hurricane Katrina. Strict accountability should require low-performing charters to close. Detroit’s poverty is real, but it doesn’t excuse continuing educational failure.