In her education plan, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren says she supports charter schools, but wants only local school districts to authorize them.
Photo: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Photo: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Opinion: Democratic candidates risk alienating voters with anti-charter stance

Charter school advocate says both parties make mistake catering to extremists on education

Andrew Lewis is an education and political consultant, on the board of a charter school and spent 12 years as the executive vice president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.  

In this piece, Lewis assails candidates for president who reflexively slam charter schools, offering the history of the charter movement as evidence of its progressive roots.  He focuses on Democratic front-runner Elizabeth Warren, who recently issued a position paper on education.

By Andrew Lewis 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts released her education policy for public consumption recently and those of us who consider themselves progressive public education reformers are forced to shake our heads with bewilderment. The proposal is far from progressive and risks alienating critical voting blocs who see public charter schools as a needed outlet for their children. 

Warren, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders before her, has forsaken the minority families and economically disadvantaged children across our nation who have freely chosen a charter public school. The senator, who’s presidential campaign website proudly proclaims, “put economic and political power back in the hands of the people” has conveniently forgotten the progressive roots of chartering and the broad support for charter schools by minority and economically disadvantaged families. Unfortunately, the senator’s education platform is less of an attempt to improve k-12 education and more of an attempt to gain support from the furthest reaches of the education political spectrum within her party – teacher unions.  

For clarity sake, I am not opposed to teacher unions. I believe a healthy education system includes traditional education settings and public charter schools. I strive for the day when communities in need are empowered by quality within both traditional and charter. The two have the ability, as we see in many communities across the nation, to complement each other. Unfortunately, teacher unions, as a whole, wield their influence with an anti-charter/anti-parental public-school choice position. 

Andrew Lewis

Apparently, the longtime Democrat’s policies on k-12 education have not been enough to appease the extremes within the Democratic Party and Warren is listening. We have reached the point when the education policies of President Barack Obama, supporting high-quality charter schools within the fabric of our nation’s k-12 education system, are in the eyes of education extremists, hand-in-hand with the education policies of President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  

While both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of pandering to the furthest extremes of their party during any primary, for the 2020 Democratic candidates running for president, this tactic encourages browbeating anyone who dares to support progressive education reform policies beyond the views of teacher unions.  

In her education policy position, A Great Public School Education for Every Student, Warren uses a cup of political rhetoric and a spoonful of legitimate policy concerns to batter the role of charter schools in k-12 education today. When Warren declares, “My administration also will crack down on union-busting and discriminatory enrollment, suspension, and expulsion practices in charter schools, and require boards to be made up of parents and members of the public, not just founders, family members, or profit-seeking service providers” she shows her true motives – to throw red meat to her union base in the same way President Trump tosses out red meat hyperbole to his conservative base on a daily basis.  

Unfortunately, Warren, Sanders and many of the Democratic candidates running for president feel compelled to kowtow to the extremes within their party, forgetting the history of charter schools and those progressive Democrats who have been willing to support the necessary reforms in k-12 education. These candidates have embraced a perverse view that only traditional public education institutions are capable of providing a quality education for k-12 students. The facts prove otherwise. 

The protectionism afforded to traditional public education, failing far too many of our children, is lauded as safeguarding students, parents and communities from a reckless raiding of public-school coffers. This monetary boogeyman is a scapegoat for Democratic candidates protecting long held allegiances to teacher union voting blocks.  

Warren is either ignorant or intentionally absentminded to some enlightening facts for Democrats as the 2020 elections loom. In the first five years of charter school laws being passed by states in the U.S. (1991-1995) 10 of the 18 states (56%) that passed charter school laws were states won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

Warren’s and Sanders’ views are unequivocally out of line with the 3.2 million students being served by public charter schools. Public charter schools serve a higher percentage of students eligible for the federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program (54.7% vs. 51.9%), a higher percentage of African American students (28.6% vs. 14.7%) and a higher percentage of Latino students (31.7% vs. 25.6%).  

 In late August, the journal Education Next released its 13th annual nationwide survey of public opinion on a range of education issues, including charter public schools. In the survey, 58 percent of Hispanic Democrats and 53 percent of African American Democrats supported charter public schools.  
In his policies around charter schools, Sanders takes a sledgehammer approach to address some legitimate and numerous arbitrary areas of weakness within the charter schools sector. There are valid reasons for Senator Sanders to shine a light on for-profit education management organizations. But his approach conjures up the old adage of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” 

Perhaps the harshest criticism by Sanders has been directed at charter schools managed by for-profit management organizations. Here Sanders has a legitimate concern that requires a more nuanced conversation. Unfortunately, Sanders’ sledgehammer is not nuanced.  

For-profit education management vendors provide management services to the boards of about 15% of charter schools across the nation. Broadly speaking these vendors have failed to show acceptable academic results. While there are pockets of high-quality charter schools utilizing the services of an education management organization, these examples are far too few. 

There are policy answers to issues within the charter schools sector that both Warren and Sanders do not consider. Strong, reform-minded education organizations and individuals have been and continue to offer policy solutions.  

In the scathing 2016 report, A Call to Action: To Improve the Quality of Full-time Virtual Charter Public Schools, three national organizations, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 50CAN, blasted for-profit virtual education providers and noted that most full-time virtual charter schools are operated by for-profit entities. The report said that compared to traditional public-school students, full-time virtual charter school students have much weaker academic growth overall and perform worse than traditional public schools in most states.  

In 2014 in my home state of Georgia, I helped Democratic state Rep. Rahn Mayo pass House Bill 405 requiring the boards of charter schools to receive mandatory governance training on an annual basis. This policy change has provided boards of Georgia charter schools with a foundational understanding of their own roles and responsibilities, including holding vendors accountable for results.  

At what point will Democrats like Warren and Sanders follow the lead of leaders like President Obama and place progressive education policy above tiresome political pandering? The 2016 election should have been a wake-up call for Democrats. Making assumptions that disenfranchised voters will automatically vote for the Democrat running for president is a recipe for disaster. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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