Ford: The dynamics of educational policy discourse in the USA are illustrated by the highly contested positions on charter schools in three arenas: media debates, national policy and local school reform. In media debates, civil society actors – including teachers’ unions, think tanks and print media – engage in polarized exchanges notable for their name-calling and vitriol. In national policy, after two decades of much consensus where charters were viewed as a way of raising standards, policy formation is presently shaped by deep splits on funding and privatization initiatives; charters are increasingly short on the former and seen as potential vehicles for the latter. This manifests itself on the level of local reform, where charters are a component part of numerous school reforms, including a systematic overhaul of the nation’s largest school district. There, a corporate model that emphasizes the chief executive officer’s role in selecting among productive and unproductive employees has been deployed. The title image (wolf, ears) responds to some of the discourse and is taken from Thomas Jefferson’s explanation of the dilemma slavery posed for the USA. As the privatization of standards seems to advance incrementally, the article suggests that a similar dilemma now confronts advocates for public education, especially teachers’ unions, who have previously supported standards-based reform and the use of charters for the purpose of educational innovation.