The Democrats’ School Choice Problem

Jan 3, 2020 by

Charter schools find their most vocal Democratic support among the least progressive members of the party: centrists and Wall Streeters.

When seven of the Democratic presidential candidates descended on Pittsburgh recently for a day-long forum on public education, one of Pennsylvania’s unlikeliest new political stars was on hand to greet them. Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks, a black single mom from North Philly, won an at-large seat on the Philadelphia City Council this fall, stunning the political establishment. At the heart of Brooks’s insurgent campaign was her resistance to Philadelphia’s two-decade-long experiment with school privatization, including the explosion of charter schools and the mass closure of neighborhood schools. “If we as community members don’t commit to this public institution that we fought so hard for generations ago, we’re going to lose control of it,” says Brooks.

Her message resonated with Philly’s voters, and thrilled the audience of teachers and activists who were on hand in Pittsburgh to hear a long list of presidential hopefuls weigh in on the future of the country’s schools. But just outside of the convention center, on a rain-slicked plaza, the resistance to the Democrats’ leftward swing on education was on vivid display. Over 100 charter school parents, part of the same school choice network that disrupted an Elizabeth Warren campaign event last month, came armed with a message of their own: Black Democrats support charter schools.

Welcome to the Democrats’ school choice wars. For the last three decades, charter schools have attracted bipartisan love, amassing an unlikely—and unwieldy—amalgam of supporters along the way: GOP free marketeers, civil rights advocates, ‘third way’ Democrats, and hedge fund billionaires. But in an era of fierce political partisanship, that coalition is now unraveling.

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama promised to double federal spending on charter schools. Fast forward a decade and both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have pledged to phase out the $440 million Federal Charter School Program, which provides start-up funds to new schools. And even as “moderate-lane” candidates like Buttiegieg, Biden, and Klobuchar try to paint their further-left counterparts as out-of-touch spendthrifts on, for example, free college or Medicare for All, the top candidates are remarkably united when it comes to charter schools: They’re over them.

The go-to explainer for the Democratic candidates’ new-found chill towards charters is that they’re pandering to the teachers’ unions in hopes of winning the backing of a key Democratic Party constituency. “Warren Embraces Teachers Unions Over Charter Schools,” declared US News and World Report in a typical headline. But missing from these takes is the impact of the Republican Party’s sharp shift right on education. Charter schools emerged as a bipartisan alternative to the GOP’s preferred policy: sending tax-payer funds to private religious schools via vouchers. In the Trump-era GOP, vouchers are ascendant once more.

continue: The Democrats’ School Choice Problem | The Nation

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.