Originally published in VICE on December 10, 2019.
On Saturday, surging Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg released his plan for K-12 education, a wide-ranging 20-page document that offers just one paragraph on charter schools.
Up to this point, Buttigieg’s comments on charters, the publicly-funded, privately-managed schools that educate about 7 percent of public school students, have been minimal. He didn’t respond to the Washington Post’s candidate questionnaire on the topic, and he missed an NEA-sponsored public education forum that ten candidates participated in in July. In April, at a Northeastern University event in Boston, he reportedly dodged a charter school question, but then responded to a follow-up by saying they “have a place” as “a laboratory for techniques that can be replicated.” In May, he said on the trail that he supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call to ban for-profit charters.
The problem is that charter schools have become something of a flashpoint in the 2020 primary, as many candidates have criticized them for things like taking resources away from traditional public schools and privatizing education. In doing so, these candidates have been largely distancing themselves from the pro-charter school policies embraced by the Obama administration. The media has not pressed Buttigieg much on charters, or even on public education, perhaps because he was polling relatively low for much of the race.
But Buttigieg, who is now leading in some Iowa caucus surveys, has been holding private fundraisers with a number of prominent charter school supporters, according to invitations reviewed by VICE. While his education plan was enthusiastically endorsed by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who has praised all the leading candidates’ education platforms, Buttigieg’s financial ties with the charter school community raise questions about what policy positions he might adopt if ultimately elected president.
Buttigieg’s plan for charters itself is relatively uncontroversial, which is to say vague. For example, he calls for “equal accountability” between charter schools and traditional public schools, though a few lines later he softens this to a more non-specific standard of “comparable levels” of accountability. While the South Bend mayor says he would “take action” against authorizing entities that produce low-quality charter schools, and that he would work with states to ensure charter school innovations “can be subsequently shared to strengthen the traditional public school system,” he doesn’t provide details on how he would do either of those things.
Notably, his plan steers clear of the Charter Schools Program (CSP), an annual pot of federal money that finances the growth of new charters across the country. Elizabeth Warren has called for an end to funding that program under her administration, and Bernie Sanders said he would put a moratorium on federal funds for new charters until a national audit could assess the impact of charter growth in each state.
(A campaign spokesperson told Chalkbeat this weekend that Buttigieg would stop CSP dollars from going directly to for-profit schools, though a 2014 federal guidance already prohibits this. The spokesperson declined to tell Chalkbeat who advised Buttigieg on his education plan, and did not respond to VICE on that question either.)
While Buttigeig’s standing in the polls has recently improved, especially in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, his ability to win over black voters remains a daunting stumbling block between him and the Democratic nomination. Black voters favor charters at higher rates than white voters, though still only 47 percent of black Democrats support them, according to an annual education opinion survey.
There aren’t many charter schools currently in South Bend, though that might be changing soon. Enrollment in the city’s public schools dropped by almost 700 students in the last year, and the South Bend superintendent is considering the adoption of a so-called “innovation school” strategy—where the traditional school district would run charter schools but those teachers couldn’t join the citywide teacher union. Two other Indiana cities use this strategy: Indianapolis, where 28 percent of students attended charters in 2015-16 and Gary, where 43 percent did, according to a report by the State Department of Education. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a prominent pro-charter advocacy group, has ranked Indiana as having the best state law for charter schools in the country for the last four years in a row.
Linda Lucy, who has served as the president of the South Bend teachers union since June 2018, told VICE she had never met with Pete Buttigieg, and had “nothing to add” about the union’s relationship with the mayor. “Politicians have hijacked the teaching profession in our public schools,” she said.
Buttigieg does appear to have made time for Heather Willey, one of Indiana’s top charter school lobbyists, who co-hosted a fundraiser for Buttigieg in Indianapolis on October 4, according to an invitation obtained by VICE.
Willey served on the board of the Institute for Quality Education, an Indiana school choice advocacy group, for years, and co-chairs her law firm’s “Charter School and School Innovation” group. In 2019, the Institute for Quality Education, Teach for America Indianapolis, and Charter Schools USA, Inc., a for-profit charter company, all listed Willey’s firm, Barnes & Thornburg LLP, as a hired lobbyist. According to her professional biography, Willey “has been intimately involved in the charter school and school reform movements since the inception of the laws in Indiana in 2001.” She did not return repeated requests for comment.
In Silicon Valley, meanwhile, Buttigieg has also had fundraisers with several prominent charter school supporters.
Satya Patel, a venture capitalist who formerly worked as a vice president of product at Twitter, co-hosted an event for Buttigieg in the Bay Area in late August. Between 2007 and 2017, Patel served on the board of KIPP Bay Area Schools, part of the nation’s largest charter school network, which has received tens of millions of dollars in federal grants. He did not return requests for comment.
Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix and one of the nation’s most prominent charter school funders, co-hosted a Menlo Park fundraiser for Buttigieg in late July and maxxed out to his campaign in April.
In an email, Hastings told VICE that he had not spoken with Buttigieg about charter schools, saying, “[I] don’t know where he stands.” The federal role for charter schools and education generally, Hastings added, “is quite small.” In 2018, Hastings spent millions of dollars to unsuccessfully elect a pro-charter state superintendent in California, and this past year he donated $143,000 to 73 Republicans in Missouri to build more support for charter schools in that state.
Camilo Acosta, another San Francisco tech executive, held two fundraisers for Buttigieg—one on October 17, and another on July 24. According to his Crunchbase profile, when Acosta is not working at his start-up, he “does fundraising and advocacy work for education reform efforts, a cause” he “fervently support[s].” Another online bio for an appearance on the Bright Ideas podcast says he “hosts fundraisers for education reform organizations such as KIPP, and political candidates that support the cause.”
Acosta told VICE that he had talked to Buttigieg personally about charters at fundraisers, adding, “The reason I got involved with the campaign and started going to fundraisers and hosting them is because I’m a Latino immigrant and I wanted to be a voice for those inner-city kids and parents who can’t be in those rooms.” Acosta praised Buttigieg’s newly-released K12 plan, saying, “It’s what I had hoped to see, I think it took a very nuanced approach.”
In recent weeks Buttigieg faced criticism over his campaign’s lack of transparency around donors and fundraisers—before the campaign reversed course on Monday and indicated it would open high-dollar fundraisers to the press. (At least until that announcement, the Buttigieg campaign had stopped listing the names of hosts on its fundraiser invitations, making it more difficult to learn who was organizing those events.)
The Buttigieg campaign declined a request for an interview on his approach to charter-school policy. When asked if the campaign wanted to comment on the charter backers who have hosted fundraisers—and whether Buttigieg has spoken about charters at any of these fundraisers—spokesperson Sean Savett referred VICE to a June article published in NBC. That piece quoted Buttigieg saying, “I think the expansion of charter schools in general is something that we need to really draw back on until we’ve corrected what needs to be corrected in terms of underfunded public education.”
His rivals aren’t having as much success laying low on the issue. Warren, whose education plan calls for limiting charter school expansion and holding charters to the same transparency and accountability standards as traditional public schools, was protested by charter school activists at a November campaign event in Atlanta, as the New York Times reported. This past weekend in New Hampshire, Warren who has sworn off high-dollar fundraisers, called on Buttigieg to open his three upcoming fundraisers in New York to the press and said she was concerned about presidential candidates who “sell access to their time to the highest bidder.”
Buttigieg, Warren, and at least six other presidential candidates are expected to appear at a public education town hall hosted by MSNBC in Pittsburgh next weekend.