The Charter School Primary

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 15, 2019.
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When Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running for president, released his wide-ranging education plan in mid-May, most of the media coverage focused on his proposals around charter schools. Commenters specifically focused on his calls to ban for-profit charters, which represent about 15 percent of the sector, and to halt federal funding for new charter schools until a national audit could assess the impact of charter growth in each state.

Many education policy experts suspect that such an audit would eventually lead to banning all new charters, but the Sanders campaign says they are just taking their cues from the NAACP. In 2016, the civil rights group called for a moratorium on new charters until existing ones were brought under the same transparency and accountability standards as traditional public schools.

Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, told The New York Times that his organization loves that Sanders’s plan adopts their language around charters. “If we have a problem with the delivery of our education system, you don’t create ancillary systems for some of the children and not address the comprehensive problem,” he said.

To fight back, many charter supporters have sought to cast Sanders as uniquely extreme on the issue, especially in his efforts to link charter schools with segregation. But it’s hard to target Sanders as extreme when the entire 2020 field has joined and even surpassed Sanders on the issue. The charter school movement’s complete loss of clout in the Democratic Party is one of the more surprising stories of the election cycle.

At the start of July, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released an open letter, imploring Sanders to withdraw his call for a moratorium and “back away from calls for additional regulations that are not in the best interests of schools or students.” The 244 signatories defended the results from charters, citing a 2015 report from the Center for Research on Academic Outcomes, and stressed that charters are in high-demand among families of color. “District-operated public schools have systemically failed students of color for generations,” they wrote.

While the letter didn’t specifically cite Sanders’s call to ban for-profit charters, the signatories included Fernando Zuleta, the president of the for-profit charter management company Academica, and seven board members of National Heritage Academies, another for-profit charter company that operates over 80 schools across nine states.

Sanders isn’t the first mainstream Democrat to criticize charter schools—while campaigning in 2016, Hillary Clinton came out against for-profit charters, as did the Democratic Party platform for the first time. Even many charter leaders, including the president of the Democrats for Education Reform, have condemned for-profit charter schools in recent years.

The pressure to ramp up the rhetoric against charters stems not only from a fierce competition to court teacher unions—an influential Democratic constituency long hostile to charters—but also due to dwindling support among white Democratic voters. According to polling from Education Next, 50 percent of white Democrats now oppose charters, and support among white Democrats fell from 43 to 27 percent between 2016 and 2018. By contrast, charter support among black and Hispanic Democrats remained steady over those two years, and more of both groups support charters than oppose them.

Similar results were found in a recent poll commissioned by Democrats for Education Reform. The group found that 58 percent of black Democrats are favorable towards charters, while 31 percent are opposed. Among Hispanic voters, 52 percent supported charters, while 30 percent opposed. But among white Democrats, 26 percent were favorable, and a whopping 62 percent were opposed.

The candidates’ critical positions seem to be responding in part to this new political landscape. And as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos remains a staunch champion for both school vouchers and charters, Democrats see distancing themselves from education reform as an easy way to contrast themselves with the deeply unpopular Trump administration.

Earlier this month, at a presidential forum hosted by the National Education Association (NEA), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio came out swinging against charters, which educate 10 percent of public school students in his city. While de Blasio has long been known as a charter school skeptic, and has battled with Eva Moskowitz, the leader of New York City’s largest charter network in the past, he also has sought to assure voters that he does not outright oppose charter schools, and can negotiate compromises with them.

At the forum he made clear he was no longer seeking such nuance or compromise. “I am angry about the privatizers,” he told the crowd. “I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.” When asked a question about standardized testing, he responded, “Get away from high-stakes testing, get away from charter schools. No federal funding for charter schools.” His last point goes beyond what what Sanders has called for.

Meanwhile, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, released his education plan this month, which also called for an end of federal funding to new charter schools. He made no mention of a study or even a moratorium. Inslee also called for improvements in charter accountability and transparency, and bolstering diversity at existing charter schools.

Inslee has been critical of charters in his home state, where just a dozen currently operate. In 2012, when he first ran for governor, he opposed a ballot initiative to allow the creation of charters and in 2015 he emphasized that his position remained unchanged. “I opposed the initiative that created charter schools because I did not believe that public money belongs in schools that lack public oversight and accountability,” he said.

Hours after Sanders’s education plan was released, Elizabeth Warren told reporters that she agreed for-profit charters are “a real problem.” She has not yet released her own K-12 plan. While the Massachusetts senator has supported charter schools in the past, in 2016 she came out against a high-profile ballot initiative that would have allowed charters to expand much more quickly in her state. The measure ended up failing, with 62 percent of voters siding against it.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also came out to say he supports Sanders’s proposal to ban for-profit charter schools, though he affirmed a month earlier that charters “have a place” in the education landscape “as “a laboratory for techniques that can be replicated.”

Beto O’Rourke, who opposes a national moratorium on new charters, told the NEA presidential forum that “There is a place for public nonprofit charter schools, but private charter schools and voucher programs—not a single dime in my administration will go to them.” O’Rourke has supported charters in the past, and his wife is a former charter school leader who now sits on the board of a local education reform group that supports expanding charters in El Paso.

Kamala Harris has not yet released any plan on charter schools, though in January a spokesperson for her campaign told me that the senator is “particularly concerned with expansions of for-profit charter schools and believes all charter schools need transparency and accountability.” California lawmakers passed a ban on for-profit charters last fall, and passed new transparency measures this year. As attorney general, Harris launched a probe into K12 Inc., a for-profit charter school company, alleging it used false advertising, saddled its California schools with debt, and inflated its student attendance numbers to collect additional state funds. K12 ended up settling with the state for $168.5 million.

Even Joe Biden has made unusually critical comments about charter schools, notable as the Obama administration was very supportive of them and the former vice president generally seeks to align himself closely with Obama on the campaign trail. “I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period,” Biden said at a Houston town hall hosted by the American Federation of Teachers. He also added that “there are some charter schools that work.” His education plan does not actually mention charters.

Cory Booker, the Democratic candidate most closely associated with supporting charter schools, has also tamped down some of his charter rhetoric. While he continues to defend the educational reforms he led in Newark, including an expansion of charter schools, on the campaign trail he’s also sought to distance his hometown from charter experiments elsewhere.

“I’ve seen charter school models that are outrageous and unacceptable. I’ve seen charter laws propagated by Republicans that just outright dangerous. And so I understand those people, I’m one of them, that wants to stop those kind of movements,” he told the Washington Examiner in response to a question about Sanders’s education plan. “But I’ve also seen in places like Newark, New Jersey, and other places where local leaders are making decisions that elevate the best educational possibilities of their children, and local leadership should be allowed to do that.”

The turn against charter schools within the Democratic primary does not offer the industry an easy way to separate Sanders or Warren from the rest of the 2020 field. It’s part of a larger sea change on education within the party, though one that’s unevenly reflected so far across racial groups.

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On Beto O’Rourke and Charter Schools

Originally published in The Intercept on March 27, 2019.
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WHEN BETO O’ROURKE ran for Senate in 2018, he highlighted the importance of public education and consistently said that he stood squarely in support of teachers. Given that his opponent was Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, that was more than enough to secure endorsements from both the Texas State Teachers Association and its parent union, the National Education Association. Teachers across the country helped fuel his small-dollar donor machine.

There was little reason, then, to probe Beto O’Rourke on charter schools. In the Democratic presidential primary, he is unlikely to get the same gentle treatment — particularly given his wife Amy O’Rourke’s deep ties to the charter community.

Education in general was not a top priority for O’Rourke on the Texas campaign trail, nor did he have a robust record of tackling education issues during his three terms in Congress. Voters had a general sense of where he stood on K-12 education issues: He supported a rollback of standardized testing; he opposed the advent of private school vouchers and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; he believed teachers should be paid more and that the federal government should fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

But O’Rourke stayed conspicuously silent on the topic of charter schooling during his Senate campaign, and his backers in the education establishment decided not to press him on it.

This is not because charter schools are not a growing issue in the state of Texas. Just this year, the Texas American Federation of Teachers called for a pause on the publicly funded, privately managed schools until the state legislature agrees to pass a series of reforms. “We’ve always been against charter expansion and school privatization, but this is the first time we’ve said, ‘Let’s take a time out,” said spokesperson Rob D’Amico.

Clay Robison, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, told The Intercept his union is “very concerned” about charter growth in Texas, “especially the national charter chains that have been zeroing in on the state.” A recently commissioned TSTA poll found 73 percent of respondents statewide said there should be a halt on charter expansion until there’s more evidence of success. The two state teachers unions also filed a lawsuit last summer against a Texas law that encourages school districts to turn struggling schools over to charters or outside operators. That case is pending.

FOR THE LAST couple of years, the Democratic Party has been grappling with voters’ changing views on charter schools. In 2016, the party’s platform, which maintained its support for providing parents with “great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools” articulated, for the first time, an opposition to for-profit charter schools, which are a small but politically powerful segment of the movement. Other elected officials, and presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, also began that year adopting this compromise-seeming position.

In 2016, charter advocates also suffered an expensive loss in Massachusetts, when voters across the blue state rejected a ballot initiative to lift the state’s charter school cap. The measure failed 62 percent to 38 percent, and while the initiative was being led Democrats for Education Reform, the state’s Democratic party had come out against it.

In 2017, with Donald Trump in office and GOP mega-donor Betsy DeVos appointed to lead the Education Department, the politics around charters continued to grow more thorny for liberal school choice supporters, many of whom who had long been hostile to teacher unions. That year, Gallup reported a growing partisan divide on charters, with Democratic support at 48 percent, down from 61 percent in 2012. Republican support held steady over the five years, at 62 percent. Public support for unions, meanwhile, continued to climb — climbing from 56 percent in 2016 to 61 percent in 2017, and reaching 62 percent — a 15-year high — in 2018.

Charters were further thrust in the spotlight in the 2018 midterms, as many Democratic candidates campaigned on reserved or qualified support for charters. Newly elected Democratic governors in Illinois, California, and New Mexico all said they’d back a pause on charter school expansion, and other Democratic officials grew more forthright with their critiques. The teachers strikes that swept the nation also elevated concerns around charter schools, particularly when Los Angeles educators went on strike for six days at the start of 2019.

While most Democratic candidates are likely to face questions about charter schools on the trail to the White House, that likelihood is greater for Beto O’Rourke’s than most, given his wife’s stature in the charter school movement. Amy O’Rourke is a former charter school leader and currently sits on the board of a local education reform group that supports expanding charter schools in El Paso.

“Amy is free to work wherever she chooses, that’s her choice, but I think at some point Beto is going to be asked about that and he’s going to be asked about his position on public schools and charters,” said Norma De La Rosa, the president of the El Paso Teachers Association. “He was asked during his campaign about the more pressing issues like immigration and the wall, but I can assure you, he will be asked about charters now.”

Amy O’Rourke began her education career as a kindergarten teacher in Guatemala, where she worked for one year after graduating college. When she returned to El Paso in 2004, she connected with a local community organization, Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, and helped them launch a dual-language charter. She served as superintendent of the school, La Fe Preparatory School, from 2007 to 2012. In her application to open the school, she wrote that the local school district “failed to create an educational system that can generate true success for all students in the community” and promised to offer “a drastically different educational experience” for Segundo Barrio children. She also noted that “innovation and creativity are the backbone of charter schools” and praised other Texas charters for their commitment to “seeing the underprivileged succeed through hard work.”

Now, Amy O’Rourke serves on the board of the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED, a business-backed organization that launched in 2014 to help push education reform initiatives in El Paso. Amy O’Rourke also directs CREEED’s “Choose to Excel” initiative, aimed at boosting college-readiness and which focuses, in part, on expanding charter schools in El Paso. In 2017, CREEED hosted a two-day summit, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to strategize on how to advance education reform. Several days later, a local philanthropic group, the Hunt Family Foundation, donated $12 million to CREEED, specifically to help boost charter school enrollment El Paso. The foundation’s chair, Woody Hunt, who also serves as vice chair on CREEED’s board, told the El Paso Times that he hoped the big donation “will show large charter school backers, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that the education community in El Paso is committed to school choice.”

The donation was slammed at the time by local teacher unions, and De La Rosa of the El Paso Teachers Association told The Intercept that her organization has been upset with the way CREEED has operated in the city. “If they are as concerned about public education and the kind of education we are providing for our students, then why did they not get involved within the public school system and work with administrators and teachers to see how they could help us change direction here in El Paso and providing those resources we desperately need?” she asked. “We’ve made it clear that their philosophy does not mesh with our philosophy of what a good public school and a good public education for all our students looks like.”

One of CREEED’s focuses over the last several years has been to bring the fast-growing charter network IDEA Public Schools to El Paso. IDEA is one of the largest nonprofit charter networks in the country; it opened 18 new schools this past fall. It’s a “no excuses”-style network, with school uniforms, longer school days, a focus on enrolling in college, and strict discipline rules.

According to Chalkbeat, the IDEA charter network hopes to educate 100,000 students in the next four years and to hit 250,000 students in the next 10. In El Paso specifically, IDEA aims to run 20 schools by 2023, with the first two campuses having opened this past year. CREEED has pledged at least $10 million to help IDEA meet their growth goals.

The Intercept contacted CREEED to speak with Amy O’Rourke about public education and charter schools, and a spokesperson said they forwarded the request to the Beto O’Rourke campaign, which did not return request for comment. Beto O’Rourke’s spokesperson, Chris Evans, also did not return multiple requests for clarification on the candidate’s position on charter schools.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, met with the O’Rourkes recently in Texas. In an interview with The Intercept, Weingarten said Beto O’Rourke asked her “some really good questions” about schools and emphasized that the “value statements he’s been saying and said during the campaign [about schools] are important.” Weingarten said they discussed the educators he met on the campaign trail who had to use their own personal funds to pay for classroom supplies and that they discussed the importance of community schools with wraparound social services.

She demurred on whether they talked about charter schools specifically. “I’ve been very careful to not repeat the content of conversations I’ve had with the candidates,” she said. “But the whole context of how austerity and competition have really hurt public school opportunities is something that he was very aware of, let’s just put it that way.”

Weingarten acknowledged that education issues weren’t so central to the 2018 Senate race, but she expects things to be different in the months ahead. “A lot of issues did not get the same kind of airing that they will in the 2020 presidential,” she said. “And education issues will get an airing.”