Originally published in The Intercept on September 30, 2019.
IN A RECENT Facebook video, Nina Turner, co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, touted a key component of the senator’s education platform: ending the for-profit charter school industry.
“Unregulated charter school growth is damaging communities and what we are not talking about are our children with disabilities,” she said. “While the original idea of charter schools was designed to bring more equality to our system, modern-day charter schools have often been corrupted by profit motive and deep lack of accountability. Wall Street executives, Silicon Valley CEOs, and billionaires like [Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos and the Walton family have been using charter schools as a way to siphon public money out of public schools, privatize the public education system, and bust teachers unions.”
Turner’s remarks represent a sharp shift for the former Ohio politician who helped build her political career by promoting education reform in Cleveland.
As an Ohio state senator in 2012, Turner played a leading role in shepherding a package of policies through the legislature to bring Cleveland schools under a more robust system of mayoral control, to expand charter schools in the city, and to weaken teacher job protections. The so-called Cleveland Plan was styled off the portfolio-model of school reform pioneered in New Orleans, Denver, and Hartford, Connecticut, and had the backing of business leaders and philanthropic organizations. Both for-profit and nonprofit charters can operate in Ohio.
Over the next several years, Turner would launch an unsuccessful bid for Ohio secretary of state and become a close political ally of the Clintons. Former President Bill Clinton endorsed Turner’s 2014 race, and in early 2015, she headlined a “Ready for Hillary” fundraiser. But Turner shocked the political establishment in November of that year by endorsing Sanders, citing his positions on voting rights and wages. She became a prominent Sanders surrogate and was tapped this past February for a top position in his 2020 campaign. In that role, she helped craft Sanders’s Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education, a wide-ranging set of proposals that includes ideas such as setting a $60,000 minimum teacher salary and requiring charter employment practices to match those at neighboring traditional schools. Turner told The Intercept that she’s “definitely evolved” since her time in the state Senate.
Most Democrats who embraced education reform just a decade ago have been “evolving” too, as the politics around the ideas have shifted rapidly. When Barack Obama was elected to the White House, he came in as a proud charter school supporter, and his administration pressured states to adopt reforms like tying teacher evaluations to test scores. But today, nearly all Democratic presidential candidates have distanced themselves from the charter school movement to varying degrees, a reality stemming in part from the substantial drop in support for charters among white voters and increased public support for unions. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who praises Boston’s charter schools but voted against a statewide ballot initiative to expand them, has said she would not support additional federal funding for charters if elected president. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who otherwise aligns himself very closely with Obama, didn’t mention charters in his education plan, and recently criticized the schools for siphoning money from traditional public schools. Sen. Cory Booker, who supported not only charters but also private school vouchers, has also recently renounced those too. “The evidence has become clear that vouchers do not help — and in fact, hurt — the cause of educational equity,” he told the Washington Post.
Still, Turner remains proud of the Cleveland Plan, which she told The Intercept was “a way to allow the Cleveland schools to be a little more creative,” at a time when the city was in need of “transformational” changes to the school system. “We had to do some things to help guarantee that the residents would get a big change, and it was kind of hot at first, but at the end all the parties came together,” she said. “The unions were not happy at first, but everyone came together for the betterment of the children, and we ultimately succeeded.”
THE ORIGINAL VERSION of the Cleveland Plan, which Turner introduced in the state Senate, included a provision to gut existing union contracts and renegotiate everything from scratch. The “fresh start” provision, as it was known, would have also given the school district the power to unilaterally impose a contract if the two sides failed to reach an agreement.
Cleveland’s school district had been greatly struggling for years, and there were rumblings that without dramatic improvement, the Republican-controlled state legislature might just take control of the city’s schools. “We as a union were faced with a choice about whether to try to make a horrible piece of legislation less horrible, or do we just say no and let the state take us over and let the chips fall where they may?” said David Quolke, who has been president of the Cleveland Teachers Union since 2008.
Backers of the Cleveland Plan eventually dropped the polarizing “fresh start” provision but along the way pressured the union to agree to a number of other reforms like ending seniority-based layoffs and tying teacher compensation to student test scores. Teachers were “stunned” by Turner’s leadership on the Cleveland Plan, Quolke said, especially since she had played a major role in opposing a statewide bill to weaken public-sector collective bargaining, which had been overturned by Ohio voters on the ballot only months earlier. “She tried to characterize [the Cleveland Plan] as she pulled the union together, but she wouldn’t even talk to us,” said Quolke, who described Turner as “absolutely unapologetic” and said his union has “a horrible relationship” with her to this day.
Quolke praised the Democratic House sponsor of the legislation, then-state Rep. Sandra Williams, for at least working with the teachers. “Sandra Williams was the only one of the original co-sponsors who said, I will not support the bill if it has ‘fresh start,’” he said.
Another controversial measure included in Turner’s bill was a provision to allow charter schools to share in funds raised by local school levies. As the Plain Dealer reported at the time, “In a matter of six months, state Sen. Nina Turner has evolved from a heroine of organized labor in Ohio to becoming embroiled in a bitter fight with one of the state’s largest teachers unions.” The Ohio Federation of Teachers objected to the unusual provision, which, as OFT President Melissa Cropper said, would set a “precedent of local levy money going to support charter schools.” The political fight escalated, to the point where Turner “lashed out” at the union and “accus[ed] them of threatening her political career.” The bill ended up passing with the charter measure included.
Quolke agrees with Turner that voters were unlikely to approve a new school levy without the city making some changes to its schools. Cleveland schools were in desperate need of more funds; the last time Cleveland voters had approved a school levy was in 1996, and before that, 1983.
Michael Charney, a union activist and Cleveland public school teacher who retired in 2005, spoke highly of Turner. “I think Nina’s moved really away from those [reform] positions given her being co-chair of the Bernie Sanders campaign and his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Education,” he said. Charney and his wife, C.J. Prentiss — who also served in the Ohio state Senate — are both Sanders supporters and served among his delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
TURNER WAS LAUDED by charter and voucher advocates for her work passing the Cleveland Plan. In June 2012, School Choice Ohio, a statewide advocacy group, gave Turner the Fannie M. Lewis Courage Award, named after a longtime city council member who helped establish Cleveland’s private school voucher program, the second of its kind in the nation. The controversial program, which allowed public dollars to flow to private and religious schools, launched in 1996 and was narrowly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. Nearly 7,500 Cleveland students used private school vouchers in the 2018-19 school year.
“It doesn’t matter whether our young people go to public, private, religious schools — it is all about choice, and it is all about high quality,” Turner said in her award acceptance speech. “We should demand high-quality schools, no matter how they come. … And to the parents, I want to salute you, because choice is something that God almighty has given us as human beings.”
Turner also praised the proposed school levy that had angered the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “God bless you Ohio Choice … and if you live in the city of Cleveland, you vote for this levy that we are going to have to put on the ballot and make sure the model that we are using in the city of Cleveland, thank goodness … is to make sure that high-performing charter schools are part of the equation in educating our children. We don’t run, we don’t run, we don’t run from doing the right thing in the city of Cleveland. We want to continue to be a city and not a cemetery.” (The levy passed that fall).
A few months later, at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Turner participated in a panel sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter group, in which she talked about how she dealt with upset teachers unions as she promoted the mayor’s school reform plan. Following the event, DFER’s Washington state director, Lisa Macfarlane, published an effusive post describing Turner as her “new crush.”
“Ms. Turner is a ferocious and articulate advocate for school reform,” wrote Macfarlane. “And there was nothing I could agree with more than her prediction for the next 4 years. She thinks President Obama will be even bolder on education reform in his second term.”
The following month, in October 2012, Turner would be one of roughly 100 candidates nationwide to receive a political endorsement from the American Federation for Children, a national advocacy group that promotes private school vouchers. DeVos long funded the group and previously served as its chair until she stepped down in 2016 to join the Trump administration. The organization acknowledged Turner as “an outspoken voice for school reform in her hometown of Cleveland.”
When asked if she thought the kinds of reforms implemented under the Cleveland Plan would work elsewhere, Turner said she wasn’t sure. She defended Cleveland’s existence under mayoral control, an education reform strategy in which power is concentrated in the executive branch and generally stripped away from elected school boards. Supporters of mayoral control argue that it can increase political accountability for struggling school districts by making mayors more singularly responsible for the success or failure of schools. Turner noted that while the state placed Cleveland schools under mayoral control in 1998, residents voted to keep it that way in 2002. “So when you ask me would that work somewhere else, it depends on the uniqueness of that area and, ultimately, the residents of the city to decide,” she said. “I applaud the way that residents ultimately got to weigh in on [mayoral control] aye or nay.”
Turner would not directly answer if she still supported the Cleveland private school voucher program, but she noted that Lewis — the city council member who helped fight for the original program — had been a mentor. “The schools were failing and [Lewis] fought really, really hard, speaking to the pain that some parents were feeling,” said Turner. “There was a lot of suffering and that’s why she really bucked the system.”
Turner referred to herself as “a public schools person through and through” and said that since public schools educate the vast majority of students, that’s where political energies should be focused. But she stressed the need to understand what motivates parents, grandparents, and other caregivers to want to put their kids in different systems of schooling. “From the vantage of someone elected to serve all children, I tried my best not to minimize those concerns,” she said.
On the question of charters, Turner emphasized that the publicly funded, privately managed schools should be held accountable, and said that the current system in Cleveland is working pretty well. Outside of Cleveland, in Ohio and across the country, Turner said “the vast majority” are not working well, but she pointed to Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone as an example of school reform she does support. “That community needed to do something different, and that different thing is working for those children,” she said. “In education, you’ve got to be open to those opportunities, but you have to hold those schools accountable for learning, development, and growth.”