Sanders’s Education Plan Renews Debate Over Charter Schools and Segregation
When Senator Bernie Sanders delivered a wide-ranging speech on education Saturday, he became the first major Democratic candidate to propose a detailed plan to racially integrate schools, calling for $1 billion in funding to support local integration efforts, such as magnet schools and busing.
It was the type of robust agenda that integration advocates say they have waited decades for.
But for some, those ideas were overshadowed by more divisive elements of the proposal: Mr. Sanders’s plan to freeze federal funding for all new charter schools, and the link his plan made between charter schools and segregation.
Many Democrats, most notably Barack Obama, support charters as a way to provide more options to families, especially those that are too poor to move to a higher-quality school district or pay for private school. The impact of charters on school segregation is hotly disputed in education circles, and by linking these elements, Mr. Sanders touched a nerve in a highly charged debate within the party.
Blaming charters for school segregation is “galling,” said Amy Wilkins, a vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and a longtime advocate in Washington for racial equity in education. “What Brown v. Board of Education did was say that government can’t tell black parents which public schools they can and can’t send their kids to. What Senator Sanders is saying with his attempt to limit charter schools is telling black parents, who overwhelmingly support charters, that they can’t send their kids to charters anymore.”
Mr. Sanders’s advisers say they based their plan in part on the position of the N.A.A.C.P., which has asked for a moratorium on the expansion of the charter sector, and has critiqued the schools for contributing to segregation, expelling students and lacking transparency.
Named after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Mr. Sanders’s plan was announced the day after the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 desegregation case that Mr. Marshall argued. In addition to the charter freeze and push on integration, it promised big increases in teacher pay and in funding for disabled students and schools that serve poor children.
Mr. Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, also vowed to diversify the teaching force, renovate school buildings and expand access to free meals at school.
Most of the policies are uncontroversial among Democrats. But the party has spent years arguing over the growth of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, and are mostly non-unionized. They educate about 6 percent of the nation’s public school students, some 3 million children.
School segregation is caused by a complex web of factors, including housing policy, how school boundary lines are drawn and the ability of white and wealthy parents to opt out of sending their children to schools alongside low-income students of color.
The Sanders plan lists a number of causes of school segregation, such as inaction from the courts and federal government. It also cites data from a 2017 Associated Press investigation, which found that 17 percent of charter schools had student populations that were 99 percent nonwhite, compared with 4 percent of traditional public schools.
While no one disputes that charter schools serve high concentrations of black, Hispanic and low-income children, many charters were founded explicitly to serve that population of students, some of whom would otherwise attend segregated district schools with track records of academic failure. Urban charter schools have demonstrated solid performance, but not without drawing critique for harsh discipline practices and for serving fewer students with special needs.
Some integration advocates celebrated the Sanders proposal, and said its focus on charters was fair.
“I am actually one of the people who thought Bernie Sanders really missed the boat on dealing with issues of race in his campaign last time,” said Gary Orfield, a leading researcher on segregation and professor of education at U.C.L.A. “But this is a very forward looking plan and a dramatic break.”
“I hope it is picked up by other campaigns,” he added.
Professor Orfield cited research finding that in cities like New York and Washington, charters are more intensely segregated than district schools. A large body of scholarship shows that nonwhite and poor children perform better academically at integrated schools, and go on to have higher incomes as adults.
The Sanders proposal would ban for-profit charter schools — about 15 percent of the sector — a position that has backing among many progressives who view these schools as ripe for abuses. It would also freeze federal funding for all new charters while their impact on the broader education system is studied, a proposal that is much more divisive. Many Democrats and progressives send their children to charter schools, work within the sector or donate money to the movement.
Teachers’ unions, an important constituency to Democrats, have long considered them a boogeyman, arguing that charter schools draw students and funding away from traditional public schools. The issue helped fuel a weeklong teacher strike that roiled Los Angeles in January — one of a wave of educator walkouts that have taken place across the country since 2018.
The grass-roots activism generated by that movement is something Mr. Sanders and other Democratic candidates are seeking to tap into. He is competing for endorsements from teacher unions — which generally dislike charters — along with candidates such as Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Taking a skeptical stance toward charters could enhance the potential for support from unions.
Ms. Warren has opposed the expansion of the charter school sector in Massachusetts. Ms. Harris has little history speaking about nonprofit charters, but as California attorney general, she investigated and won a large financial settlement from K12 Inc., a for-profit charter chain. She has drawn wide praise from unions and teachers for a broad proposal to raise educator pay, which is historically a state, not a federal, issue.
Several other Democrats in the race have a history of supporting charters, including Senators Cory Booker and Michael Bennet.
Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said insofar as the Sanders plan adhered to the organization’s own opposition to charter schools, “We love it.”
“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.
But there is no uniform view of charters among civil rights organizations, and in recent weeks, three N.A.A.C.P. chapters in Southern California passed resolutions expressing support for charter schools and asking the national organization to change its position. A 2018 poll from Education Next, a school reform journal based at Harvard, found that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to support charter schools than whites.
The plan’s focus on combating segregation and racial discrimination, and where Mr. Sanders chose to unveil it (South Carolina) suggest it is part of the campaign’s deliberate efforts to appeal to black voters.
Mr. Sanders stumbled significantly in South Carolina in 2016, where black voters made up roughly 60 percent of the state’s Democratic primary vote, and he has been repeatedly criticized for his failure at the time to connect with African-Americans. With his success in 2020 largely hinging on whether he can do better this time, he is more deliberately courting their vote.
“He still has some mountains to climb in the black community,” said the Rev. Joe Darby, a pastor and prominent booster of Democrats. “But public education is a good start.”
“It’s hopefully a sign that the senator is either getting a clue or surrounding himself with people who have a clue about issues of interest in the black community,” he added.
During his speech announcing the plan, delivered in Orangeburg, S.C., Mr. Sanders grew animated while tying charter schools to his broader critique of an economy dominated by the rich. The crowd booed when he mentioned the name of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who, as a philanthropist, invested heavily in charters.
“Wall Street executives, Silicon Valley C.E.O.s and billionaires like Secretary DeVos and the Walton family have been using charter schools as a way to privatize the public education system,” he said.
While acknowledging that some charter schools are high performing, he accused business people of profiting off them, saying, “We are going to restrict the pay of charter school C.E.O.s so public money is supporting students and not subsidizing huge payments to a handful of executives.”
Jarrod Loadholt, a Democratic strategist who has worked on education policy in South Carolina, said he appreciated many elements of Mr. Sanders’s plan, including its support for expanding funding for schools that serve large numbers of low-income students — “That’s how you break the cycle of poverty,” he said — and a proposal to invest in school infrastructure.
But while the charter-school issue might be relevant in cities, Mr. Loadholt said, it was hardly top-of-mind for voters in the state’s expansive rural areas, where charter schools are rare.
“To a hammer, everything is a nail,” he said. “And to Sanders, everything is an issue created by millionaires and billionaires.”
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