Why Don’t Democratic Presidential Candidates Talk about Charter Schools?

I was chatting with a group of women last month about the presidential race. All of these women identify as Democrats, and all of them are eager to off-load the current resident of the White House.  We meet monthly, to discuss a current topic, and lately, have closed our gathering by checking in with our current favorites among the candidates. Cory Booker’s name came up.

There was admiration for his smooth, polished presence and rhetoric at debates and on news shows. He was doing well in the debates—and maybe could stand up to Trump, make him look foolish. I interrupted the happy talk: His record on education is terrible. He’s an avowed charter school supporter who nearly destroyed the Newark Public Schools. He’s a big fan of school choice, even vouchers.

I looked around the table at a lot of blank faces. One voice spoke up: So? Why is that so bad?

And then I realized. These women—lovely, principled, left-leaning women—haven’t been fighting the education policy wars for years. One has a grandchild in a charter school.  They want good schools for all kids, but they’re agnostic about alternate school governance. Even a local charter founder spending 41 months in federal prison for tax evasion, having improperly handling millions of public dollars in his quest to establish a lucrative charter chain, didn’t really have much of an impact. That school remains open, drawing over 1000 students from local public districts.

Me? I believe charter schools have done untold damage to public education, and I’ve had twenty years to observe the public money/private management ideology establish itself in Michigan. First, a scattering of alternative-idea boutique schools, another ‘choice’ for picky parents. Then they go after the low-hanging fruit, the schools in deep poverty—and then the healthier districts.  There is now agreement with an idea once unthinkable in America: corporations have a “right” to advertise and sell education, using our tax dollars.

So—no, I cannot be agnostic. In the end, I’d like to see charter schools go away, one at a time, forever, because mountains of evidence have proven that they’re ripe for fraud and malpractice, and because there are far better public-school options, in every city and neighborhood. I think that’s preferable to trying to extinguish or ban charter schools outright—although ending all federal financial support for charters is Step One. That will necessitate a new Secretary of Education. The rest will mean changing hearts and minds—a long, slow process.

Which is why I’m not surprised that most Democratic candidates have not made bold proclamations about charter schools. In the Democratic debate Thursday night, Andrew Yang—a long-time, vocal charter supporter– was the first candidate to field a question about charter schools, a barbed inquiry that also incorporated Yang’s negative comments about teacher unions.

Yang dissembled with a series of talking points all viewers are likely to agree with—we need to pay teachers more and stop focusing on standardized tests, blah blah. When the question was tossed to Booker, he—surprise!—did the same, burying his long-time pro-charter viewpoints under a flurry of unsubstantiated claims of amazing, transformative success in Newark—his own personal fake news.

Aside from Julien Castro’s remark that charter schools were not better than public schools, a truth that a fair segment of America does not recognize, having been subject to media campaigns saying just the opposite, the rest of the candidates steered clear of the charter question. Lots of them said the right stuff about education, from pre-school and HBCUs, to teacher pay and college loans. But even Bernie Sanders, whose comprehensive platform is openly anti-charter, was mum on charters.

I know why we’re not hearing a lot about charters. Approximately six percent of American schoolchildren attend charter schools. It’s not just Betsy DeVos who’s cheerleading for charters—the Obama administration was charter-friendly. Charter school parents are voters. Charter school policies are made at the state level, and unlike Donald Trump, most Democratic candidates seem to have a clear grasp of the idea that they can’t shut down charter schools, en masse, with a stroke of their Sharpie, should they become President.

For many progressive-side parents, charter schools are a fringe issue. They might live in a state where there aren’t enough charters to change the public-school ecology. Or—they know a family that’s happy with their charter school. Or they’re laboring under the decades-old illusion that schools are locally controlled, and nothing will ever happen to destabilize their public school system.

Asked why they send their children to a charter school, parents in my town talked about things like the young, enthusiastic teachers, the brand-new building, and—uniforms.

Charter teachers are young because there’s a great deal of turnover there; spanking new graduates often can’t get jobs in public schools because staff and programs are being cut, so they turn to charters for employment. That impressive new charter building is entangled in financial malfeasance (with my tax money).  And why aren’t parents more interested in the curriculum, programming and school climate, rather than plaid jumpers and polo shirts? Who knows.

Our citizenry is trained in consumerism—promoting education as just another choice to be made was easy, like FedEx or Blackwater instead of the USPS or the US military. Got a problem with the local public school? Don’t invest your time and money in fixing what’s already there. Pick a new school! It’s the American way.

Education is my issue, but charters are a mere slice of a bigger pie. It was gratifying to simply hear candidates talk about education on the stage. Here’s what I would like to hear from a candidate:

Let’s invest more in fully public education—the kind that’s community-based and has elected oversight. Let’s acknowledge the places where it has crumbled and rebuild them, instead of abandoning them. Let’s work toward more economically and ethnically diverse schools, making them places where building an informed citizenry and developing individual talents—not test scores—are our highest goals.

Did I try to change the minds of my friends? Yes, of course. I told them that Cory Booker palled around with Betsy DeVos. They’re long-time Michiganders, and that was all it took.

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5 Comments

  1. You can’t have forgotten — since you wrote about it — that education advocates who raised questions about Elizabeth Warren’s choice of a charter teacher to introduce her at a rally in Oakland, Calif., earlier this year were ripped apart by Warren supporters, including high-profile leftist writer Rebecca Solnit.

    To recap: Warren’s rally was held shortly after a strike by Oakland teachers, and one well-informed Warren enthusiast who attended the rally wondered why the teacher who introduced her hadn’t even alluded to the strike. So she and others Googled the teacher. Oakland schools have been ravaged by charters, with the charter push promoted by a billionaire-funded “reform” operation called Great Oakland (GO) Public Schools. We also learned that that teacher had volunteered for GO Public Schools and appeared in an ad promoting the organization. And we also learned that Warren’s education adviser (I believe as a senator, not just for her campaign) came up from Teach for America — as I recall, from a program TFA runs to put its people in government policy positions, to promote TFA’s favored policies.

    As noted, those of us who raised those issues got ripped apart by Solnit and others. Solnit’s take was basically: She has said she’s against *for-profit* charters, so what is your problem? She clearly didn’t understand the landscape herself.

    Discuss among yourselves, in context of wondering why candidates don’t mention charters.

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  2. No, I haven’t forgotten any of the small scraps of information that separate most of the Democratic candidates from ideological purity and forthright declarations on the topic of charter schools. And there are plenty of scraps: the relatives who have a declared interest in charters, the clueless things they said in the last campaign about ‘public’ and ‘for-profit’ charters, the commentary from a dozen+ years ago, when charters were seen as a viable way to fix public education, or the really egregious stuff (Yang, Booker) mentioned in the column. Voters will decide what’s relevant, and what is a campaign mistake.

    I wrote the blog to reflect on why candidates who freely make statements about other issues, from whether Brett Kavanaugh should be impeached to whether we should consider starting a war with Iran if Saudi Arabia says they want us to–just to mention a couple of au courant questions– would refrain from taking a hard, explicit line on charters. They don’t want to lose votes of people who support (or are agnostic) on charter schools. Because the parents who support charters aren’t the bad guys. Charters won’t go away via fiat. They’ll go away when the public schools are seen as a better option.

    Am I concerned about this? Yes. I’d love to see a Town Hall on education, where each candidate gets 30 minutes to stretch out on the importance of public education, and their policy-specific beliefs. Where a questioner could probe an issue, rather than giving candidates 60 seconds to frame a grab-bag of things they think the public would like to hear. Are we likely to get this? Ha ha ha.

    In the meantime, I’m trying to look at my options, and choose the best person–for all the issues, not just charter schools.

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  3. […] In this post, she wonders why the Democratic candidates are mostly mum about charters. At the last Democratic debate, when the question of charters was raised, Andrew Yang was the only one who openly expressed support for charters. The good news is that Andrew Yang will not be the eventual candidate. Even Cory Booker avoided the subject. Bernie Sanders, whose education policy is sharply critical of charters, did not take the opportunity to express his views. He should have. […]

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