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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Interview with Representative Donna Edwards

Originally published on April 25th in In These Times as part of a larger interview series with progressive political challengers.
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DONNA EDWARDS

BACKGROUND: U.S. Representative for Maryland’s 4th District since 2008, attorney, and first executive director and co-founder of the National Network to End Domestic Violence

THE RACE: U.S. Senate, Maryland

Donna Edwards, 57, is facing off against fellow Congress member Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the April 26 primary. Of the two, only Edwards voted in favor of the Congressional Progressive Caucus 2016 budget. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Edwards was not endorsed by the famously corporate-friendly Congressional Black Caucus PAC. In response to that failure to endorse, the racial justice group Color of Change began circulating a petition in March asking people to call on the CBC PAC to remake their board, because the current board is dominated by lobbyists who represent corporations “that are notorious for mistreatment and exploitation of Black people, including private prisons, big tobacco and the anti-worker companies that make up the National Restaurant Association.”

KEY ENDORSEMENTS: Progressive Democrats of America and Democracy for America, UNITE HERE, International Association of Machinists, NOW
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Why are you running for Senate?

DONNA EDWARDS: I’m running for the Senate to give a voice to average working people in Maryland. People like single moms and young men who maybe messed up and want to restart their lives, and our seniors and veterans and small businesses and women and minority-owned businesses who need a voice at the table where public policy is made. And my life experience as a working person gives me an important voice that’s missing from the United States Senate.

What are the three most important issues facing America today that should be addressed in the Democratic Party platform and how are you proposing to address those issues?

You start with an education system that’s very flawed, in which depending on what zip code you’re in, you get a better education than the next kid. That hampers your ability to get a job and get a start in the economy and earn your way into the middle class. We have to create jobs and opportunity through investing in our transportation and our infrastructure, and jobs for the 21st century, and stop trading them away to our competitors. We have trade policies that really disadvantage average American workers.

And we have to deal with changing the economic processes in our urban communities. That goes from improving law enforcement and pursuing community-based relationships, to getting guns off of our streets, to educating and training and creating jobs in the urban core. If we do that, we will strengthen the rest of the country.

How have social movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy and climate change activism influenced your campaign?

I’ve always believed in outside movements, because I think that government doesn’t move effectively and elected officials don’t move effectively unless they have a big push from the outside. Black Lives Matter, for example, has certainly changed the conversation when it comes to mass incarceration, law enforcement and improving young black men and women’s prospects.

Look at climate change. We would not elevate these concerns about climate change if the young people around this country didn’t say “we want an earth that’s available to all of us and for future generations,” and really compel us to act. So I very much believe in organizations pushing the envelope for policymakers, holding us accountable. That will make me a better senator, and it will get us better policies.

Bernie Sanders campaign has galvanized young progressive voters across the country and attracted a lot of independent support. What are the lessons here for the Democrats and for your campaign in particular?

My campaign has focused on energizing and organizing people who sometimes sit outside the political process because they don’t believe it’s about them. We have let them know that I intend to have their voice in the United States Senate. And they’re responding to that.

We’ve done that by pushing against this party establishment that really just wants to anoint and appoint the next successor to [incumbent Maryland Sen.] Barbara Mikulski, and people are standing up and saying “no, that’s not the way we do it.” We want to make sure that the voices of working women, black women, young people, our seniors and our veterans are heard in public policy. And they’re showing up in waves of volunteers and small donors.

What is your campaign doing to bring more people into the political process?

We’ve spent a lot of time getting to know people who are running community-based organizations that are under the radar—like those working with ex-offenders and registering ex-offenders, who can now vote in the state of Maryland, so they have a voice. We’ve spent time with single moms and working moms who are struggling to make ends meet. We’ve reached out to some people who say, “You know, I’ve never voted before,” or “I only vote sometimes, but I believe in you and I believe in us and I’m prepared to vote.” And we’ve been organizing and working on college campuses to draw in young people, to make sure that they feel like they’re part of this campaign. All of those things are why I’m ahead in the polls.

Democrats have lost their majorities in both the House and Senate. What do you think the Democratic Party needs to do to gain them back?

Number one, we should not run away from who we are as Democrats and the values that we share. We should be the party standing up to protect and expand Social Security and Medicare; we should be the party that’s creating middle-class jobs and making sure that college is affordable so that our young people can realize their aspirations. We need to be the Democratic Party that works for working people. When we do that, people respond.

I go back to Shirley Chisholm; when she was first elected to the House of Representatives, she said, “If they don’t put a seat at the table, bring your folding chair.” And so we’re going to take folding chairs into the Senate so the voices of ordinary working people get heard.

Why do you think you’re a more qualified candidate than Chris Van Hollen, the U.S. representative from Maryland who is also running for Mikulski’s seat?

In addition to being a lawyer and having worked in the private sector as a systems engineer and analyst for Lockheed Martin, I’m a mom who has raised a child alone. I understand the struggles of working people. Mr. Van Hollen and I have very similar voting records. But we have different priorities. I prioritize fighting against bad trade deals that trade away jobs and opportunities for the American people, fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare from dangerous cuts, standing up to the National Rifle Association to pass sensible gun laws to get these guns off our streets so that 88 people a day don’t lose their lives to senseless gun violence. I’m going to be a fighter for working people.

Republicans have managed to secure important down-ticket and off-year electoral victories; how can Democrats build strong state and local party organizations?

We can start by electing people who understand how to organize and galvanize our electorate, and how to stand for something, so that people know that there is somebody in there who has got their back. I’m that kind of candidate. And when I win that Senate seat, that’s going to translate into down-ballot victories all across our state, in the off-year, off-cycle election.

We lose elections because our voters stay home. So our challenge is to make sure that people are mobilized and organized and energized on Election Day, because we have candidates out there who are speaking to their concerns, speaking to their needs and willing to go to bat for them. When voters know that, they’re willing to come to the polls on Election Day.

Sanders has struggled with winning over people of color and a generation of women who find inspiration in the Hillary Clinton’s struggles and accomplishments; Clinton has struggled with youth voters and the party’s left base. What sort of bold, progressive platform can unite these constituencies in November and in years to come? 

I think the primary race and the battle that is being fought in the Democratic Party is one that’s about substance and values. I’m absolutely confident that if either of the two candidates wins the nomination, that they will win the general election in November because they do have bold ideas. Sometimes they differ, and this primary race has really brought to the fore some of those really bold ideas—on college affordability, on how to bring back jobs and opportunities to the middle class, on how to deal with income inequality. So I feel really confident about our candidates, about their messages, and about the boldness of the ideas that they have.

I endorsed Hillary Clinton. I believe in her candidacy, and frankly, I believe in the candidacy and the power of women. I am running for the U.S. Senate; there are 100 senators, and 20 are women, and only one is a woman of color. There hasn’t been a black woman in the Senate in 22 years, since Carol Moseley Braun. I am proud that she [Braun] has endorsed me and supports my campaign, and I am going to be the next one.

We need more women, not fewer, in political power, and I would like to see that in the highest office in the land, the presidency.

When the Democratic Party chooses its nominee in Philadelphia, the party will come together for the November election. What stands in the way of Sanders supporters and Hillary supporters working together under the Democratic Party big tent?

Nothing. We have a set of shared values as Democrats that are really about fighting for the interests of middle-class families and people who have struggled to enter the middle class. Senator Sanders carries that commitment, and Secretary Clinton carries that commitment. Come November 2016, not only are we going to be on the same page, but we’re going to be winning an election for working people.