As the 2020 Democratic presidential primary approaches, candidates are being pressed to weigh in on the fraught question of charter schools—the publicly funded but privately managed schools that enroll about 6 percent of students nationally.
Public school educators and advocates have been working for years for this to become a major campaign issue, but so far, most candidate statements have been conflicted, incomplete, clumsy, and/or vague, while media coverage has been equally as incomplete, inaccurate, and in many cases baldly biased in favor of charters.
When Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar recently visited Yonkers High School for a town hall organized by the American Federation of Teachers, I asked her position on charter schools. I specifically asked whether she supports the NAACP moratorium, which is a proposed freeze on new charter schools until their impacts on traditional public schools can be evaluated.
Klobuchar repeatedly said public schools are the “mainstay” of our system, but that she does support charters that have “high accountability standards” and that would allow teachers to unionize. She dodged the question about the NAACP moratorium.
At another AFT town hall on May 28, former Vice President Joe Biden was also asked by a Houston teacher about “unaccountable for-profit charters.” He said he does not support for-profit charters and had concerns about “any charter school system that does not allow for total enrollment” or “siphons off money for our public schools,” but added, “there are charter schools that work.”
When asked by a journalist to clarify what “total enrollment” meant, Biden’s campaign said “he doesn’t want any charters to be able to have admissions tests.” This was somewhat incoherent, as no charters have had admission exams, ever—but many do require winning a lottery to get in, and then put up well-documented hurdles to weed out certain families. When asked for further clarification on what they meant by “admission tests,” the Biden campaign did not respond.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has also been vague on the issue and has generally avoided the topic throughout her House and U.S. Senate career. Finally, she was asked on CNN by a charter school teacher from New York’s biggest charter chain: “Do you support charter schools like Success Academy? And if so, would you expand funding for charter schools?”
Gillibrand dodged the question: “Success Academies are very successful because they have very rigorous academics, but there’s other schools around the state that are also successful that not only used rigorous academics but do the 360-degree support of each student. And those are the schools that I think really are scalable for all schools.”
At a June 25 AFT town hall in Miami, Beto O’Rourke, who called charter schools “a good idea” in 2012, was asked: “are you willing to join the NAACP, ACLU and 50 other civil rights group calling for a moratorium on charter schools?”
And O’Rourke joined a chorus of Democrats now agreeing there is no place for for-profit charter schools.
O’Rourke would not support the moratorium, replying “as originally envisioned, there is a role for charter schools.” But he then added: “my commitment is to public schools and public school education”—somewhat confusing since charter schools routinely refer to themselves as public schools. Married to a former charter school director, O’Rourke said charters today should let teachers unionize and adhere to the same standards as traditional public schools, and he joined a chorus of Democrats now agreeing there is no place for for-profit charter schools.
O’Rourke might seem to be backpedaling, but he actually went all-in on corporate reform on June 23, hiring veteran policy wonk Carmel Martin, who The Washington Post describes as “in the middle of every prominent education policy debate.” Alternating between stints at the billionaire-funded think tank Center for American Progress and as former assistant secretary to Arne Duncan and to Senator Ted Kennedy, Martin epitomizes the “revolving door,” churning out pro-Common Core and pro-testing articles all throughout the 2015 debate on reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Also on the record in favor of charter schools is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who has taken millions from the industry and has been called a “star fundraiser” for Democrats For Education Reform, a charter PAC created by Wall Street hedge fund managers (few of whom are actually Democrats). Most haunting today might be Booker’s past association with President Donald Trump’s billionaire secretary of education Betsy DeVos, in which he helped the Michigan GOP force charters and vouchers onto Detroit schools.
Recently however, Booker has begun to criticize charter school systems in certain states, insisting he has “…seen charter school models that are outrageous and unacceptable. I’ve seen charter laws propagated by Republicans that [are] just outright dangerous.”
Might he mean Michigan?
Booker isn’t fooling anyone. Articles such as Jacobin’s “Cory Booker Hates Public Schools” serve as a reminder of how he joined forces with the likes of Chris Christie and multi-billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Whitney Tilson to expand charters in New Jersey and even accepted campaign donations from Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
It was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who sparked the current charter debate with a series of education proposals, starting with a brief on his website reiterating his 2016 call to “make sure that charter schools are truly serving the needs of disadvantaged children.”
In mid-May, Bernie Sanders’s campaign unveiled his ten-point “Thurgood Marshall Education Plan,” which included tripling Title I funding to support needy students (Biden would echo this in his plan nine days later) along with increases in funding for teacher pay, afterschool programs, infrastructure, and special education.
All of the media attention, however, would focus on Sanders’s far-reaching new restrictions on charter school expansion, expressly his endorsement of the NAACP’s national moratorium and elimination of federal support for any new charters, declaring “public money should not be going into charter schools.” This staked out bold new terrain in the race, even drawing praise from AFT President Randi Weingarten, who preferred Hillary Clinton for endorsement in 2016.
Other major presidential candidates have been hard to nail down on the issue. Kamala Harris has counted billionaire education privatizers like Reed Hastings, Laurene Powell Jobs, and Eli Broad among her donors. As attorney general in California, Harris investigated K12, a for-profit online charter for fraud and shady business dealings, but the case ended up in a non-prosecution settlement that amounted to a slap on the wrist. In January, she was asked her views on charter school expansion by The Intercept and through a spokesperson said she is “particularly concerned with expansions of for-profit charter schools and believes all charter schools need transparency and accountability.” In California, legislators had already banned for-profit charter schools late last year.
Then there is Elizabeth Warren, a former public school teacher herself. Way back in 2003, Warren advocated for “school choice,” including private school vouchers, in her book The Two-Income Trap. But more recently, the Massachusetts Senator told The Intercept through spokesperson Saloni Sharma that she “believes rapid charter school expansion can pose a threat to the financial health of traditional public schools, which is why Warren opposed a ballot measure in 2016 that would have allowed up to twelve new charters to open in Massachusetts per year.”
Her statement on that 2016 ballot measure read, in part, “Many charter schools in Massachusetts are producing extraordinary results for our students, and we should celebrate the hard work of those teachers and spread what’s working to other schools…But after hearing more from both sides, I am very concerned about what this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth, especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters.”
Warren’s lack of clarity on charters has fueled conjecture that she is somehow under the spell of her senior education advisor Josh Delaney, an “ed reform” proponent and former fellow at Teach For America, an organization funded by the Waltons, Bloombergs and other pro-charter billionaires that fast-tracks teacher training in order to staff schools experiencing hiring shortages. Teach for America was found, according to a ProPublica investigation last month, to be using financial incentives to disproportionately push teachers into charter schools, and TFA also runs a Capitol Hill internship program that places fellows such as Delaney into education policy positions in House and Senate offices, paying them $60,000 per year.
But Warren did raise eyebrows and cheers on July 5 at a presidential forum during the annual conference of the National Education Association, by stating, “we do not need high stakes testing.”
Why all the avoidance and indeterminate, conflicted statements on education policy? As Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams tells me, it’s “smart” for politicians to avoid the subject—why alienate anyone?
Most Democratic presidential candidates are now expressing concern over those charters that displace resources from traditional public schools—but by definition, every charter does.
But as elections approach, it’s time to lay bare the contradictions and double-speak in the positions of the major candidates on charter schools. Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana is a perfect example, first trying to dodge the question, and then telling PBS NewsHour charter schools “have a place,” while at the same time saying they shouldn’t cause “disinvestment” in traditional public schools.
Most Democratic presidential candidates are now expressing concern over those charters that displace resources from traditional public schools—but by definition, every charter does. Not being discussed is the movement’s wealthy anti-union backers, exclusionary practices which segregate children, and inordinately high rates of student suspension and attrition.
At the heart of the dispute is the question of why charter schools were first created. Was it to devise solutions that help the larger system, or was it to compete with and supplant traditional public schools? Thus far, the latter has been the reality.