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Jacques: Elizabeth Warren wrong on Michigan charters

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a fundraiser for the Nevada Democratic Party, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Las Vegas.

One of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign fundraising gimmicks has been to offer fans a chance to have a beer with her. I would like to propose Warren sit down and have a cold one with Ember Reichgott Junge.

And sooner rather than later.

Warren, the Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate, is quite misguided about charter schools — especially charter schools in Michigan. 

Junge could help clear some of the confusion. A former Minnesota lawmaker, Junge authored the first charter school law in the country nearly 30 years ago, and she’s devoted much of her career to spreading the word about charter schools and school choice. She was in Michigan earlier this month. 

Ember Reichgott Junge

Junge is also a Democrat, and is dismayed by how partisan the divides have become over the alternative public schools she helped create.

“It was really bipartisan from the very start,” she says. 

And if you pick up a copy of her book, “Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story,” you’ll find praise from both liberals and conservatives. Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, is one of them. 

“When President(s) Clinton and Obama were in office, they were strong charter supporters,” Junge says. “That gave cover to Democrats politically and really helped keep the bipartisan notion going.”

Those days are gone. 

With school choice advocate and Michigan native Betsy DeVos serving as U.S. Education Secretary, Democratic presidential contenders have given up any pretense that they value offering families options — including the many black and brown families who have benefited from charter schools in cities like Detroit. 

Rather, Democrats are throwing their support behind teachers unions, as Warren made clear when she released her $800 billion education plan this fall. It’s a boon to unions. Warren targets charters by promising to cut off a federal grant program and ban all “for-profit” charters. 

At a recent event in Atlanta, Warren raised the ire of some charter school enthusiasts and made a couple gaffes, including stating her child went to a public school and didn’t attend a private school (which has been clearly documented).

She also bashed Michigan’s charter schools, claiming they aren’t held accountable.

“As you know, in Michigan, charter schools don’t have to meet the same standards as public schools,” Warren said. 

“First of all, charter schools ARE public schools,” countered Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, in a statement. “And to be clear, charter schools not only have to meet all the same standards as traditional public schools, they have to meet quite a few more.”

True. Charter public schools face all the same state mandates as district public schools. And they have additional oversight built in with authorizers, most of which are public universities in Michigan, as well as charter school boards. And authorizers actually close down low-performing charters, something that never happens (but should) with failing district schools. But parents are the biggest determining factor behind a charter’s success or failure. If they don’t like a school, they leave. 

At the event in Atlanta, former Milwaukee Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller and a parent leader of the Powerful Parent Network, met with Warren afterward and asked her to reconsider her attacks on charters. She responded with her quip about Michigan, which was caught on video.

Warren now joins a large list of candidates who criticize charter schools and education choice options even though they sent their own children to private schools. That’s hypocrisy at its finest.

Part of Junge’s work is dispelling myths about charter schools, such as those propagated by Warren. She is working with the National Charter Schools Institute to create a library of original documents and interviews with charter leaders so that the facts behind the movement won’t be forgotten in this anti-choice environment. 

“It’s about creating freedom of choice and equal opportunity for every student,” Junge says. “Parents are going to the options that are best for their children.” 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques