As the Democratic Party gears up for the 2020 election, Bernie Sanders has pushed the primary to focus on ambitious, progressive policy proposals: universal health care, the Green New Deal, debt-free college, a millionaire’s tax, and more. Conspicuously absent from the conversation, however, has been the issue of K-12 public education. Apart from Kamala Harris’s promise to increase teacher pay and Bernie Sanders’s recent proposal to ban for-profit charter schools and pause funding of new nonprofit charters awaiting an accountability review, Democrats have shied away from formulating substantive K-12 education policies.
Sanders’s K-12 proposal is the most in line with the mood among educators. Pushback to charter schools is growing, and teacher-led protests and student walkouts are spreading across the country. A central demand of the Los Angeles teachers’ strike in January of 2019, for example, was to impose a cap on charter schools. Many of their other demands addressed the wide-ranging consequences of neoliberal education reform: collective bargaining rights, a salary increase, a cap on class sizes, less standardized testing, and improved social services at the city’s public schools. Yet the strike also revealed how Democratic candidates have avoided formulating a substantive position on charter schools. While many of the candidates expressed support for Los Angeles teachers during the week-long strike, none of them acknowledged the anti-charter stance underlying the teachers’ demands.
Until Sanders’s recent announcement, no national figure on the American left had taken a stand against education privatization, even as presidential candidates are vying to be seen as the most “progressive.”
Yet by limiting his critique to for-profit charter schools, Sanders’s policy fails to get to the root of the issue. The mere existence of publicly funded, privately administered charter schools — be they nonprofit or for-profit — is incompatible with the idea of a healthy public education system and with education equity. To remedy the sustained damage caused by decades of charter-school reform, the Left needs to move beyond banning for-profit charter schools and reforming nonprofit charters, and instead formulate a definitive ban on charterization itself.
The spread of charter schools — a prime example of the kinds of neoliberal policies that have been implemented by both parties since the days of the Reagan administration — has wreaked havoc on the public school system. As voters scrutinize potential candidates, charter schools could serve as a litmus test for a candidate’s commitment to tackling issues such as privatization, anti-union policy, money in politics, and racial and economic inequality.
Regressive education policy is not new territory for Democrats. Barack Obama’s neoliberal education program, Race to the Top, was in many ways a continuation of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind. Both policies incentivized the proliferation of charter schools, competition, school choice, and accountability systems centered around standardized testing. And both sought to bolster union-busting education organizations like Teach For America.
The trend has only accelerated under the Trump administration. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has referred to traditional public schools as a “dead end,” has called the expansion of school choice and charter schools her primary mission. More surprisingly, most of the Democratic candidates — including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — have at some point expressed support for, if not outright championed, the expansion of charter schools.
Over the last two decades, the proliferation of charter schools has dramatically transformed school districts across the United States. In the 2017–18 school year, nearly 3.2 million students were enrolled in over 7,000 charter schools nationwide. These changes particularly impact urban areas with a high concentration of low-income students of color. According to figures from 2015–2016, 56 percent of charter schools were located in urban areas, and only around 30 percent of charter school students were white.
Moreover, the rise of charter schools in conjunction with Teach For America, whose recruits are often employed by charters, has had a dramatic impact on America’s teaching force. There are currently 219,000 charter school teachers in the country. Because the vast majority of charters won’t allow unionization at their schools, only 7 percent of the charter workforce is unionized according to a 2012 study. Taken together, the rise of charter schools amounts to a vast transfer of public resources, students, and unionized jobs from the public school sector into the privately administered charter school sector.
The False Promise and Contradictions of Charter Schools
The case for charter school expansion is a classic neoliberal argument for deregulation, privatization, and marketization. Charter advocates argue that a competitive market of privately run charter schools, unchained from the slow-paced, bureaucratic oversight of locally elected school boards, will increase the quality of public education and ultimately eliminate the achievement gap. Families are recast as empowered consumers choosing among education services, and education providers (charter schools and teachers) compete in an education landscape shaped in the image of the market. Entrenched teachers’ unions — perceived as unnecessary, costly, and a hindrance to change and flexibility — have no place in this system.
But introducing private control to a public resource like education creates contradictions that can’t be resolved. The consequences have spurred strikes and protests in places that have been targeted by charterization like Denver, Oakland, and Arizona. In charterized districts, public budgets are being drained, inequality is increasing between schools and among students, social services are being cut, special-needs students and English-language learners are being discriminated against, unions are being undermined and depleted, and school board races are being dictated by billionaires. Altogether — as is common for neoliberal policies — these changes heavily affect low-income communities of color who are the primary targets of education privatization.
Contrary to the claims of charter proponents, charter schools are not academically superior to traditional public schools. A comprehensive 2013 Stanford study demonstrated that charter school students do not outperform traditional public school students. Some charters perform better than traditional public schools on standardized tests, some worse, and most perform at a similar level. Like traditional public schools, there is great variation in quality among charters. For instance, in New Orleans — the first all-charter school district in the United States, often held up as a model for other cities — thirty-four of the city’s eighty-four charter schools were rated a “D” or “F” by the Louisiana Department of Education in 2017. Eighteen of the charters had held a “D” or “F” rating three years in a row.
Charter schools are typically given a three-to-five-year contract (or charter). If they fail to meet certain benchmarks within that time frame, they must close. In the interim, however, many parents are forced to send their children to continually underperforming schools. This illustrates one of the key contradictions underlying the logic of charter school expansion: for students and parents stuck in failing charter experiments, the system is far from the “free market scenario” promised by advocates of education privatization.
In a system where a charter school’s “survival” in the competitive market depends on how students perform on standardized tests, higher-performing students become a superior “commodity.” This points to one of the most troubling — and predictable — consequences of treating public education as a “marketplace”: it incentivizes charter schools to use selective sorting measures, expel and suspend students at excessive rates, and discriminate against English-language learners and special-needs students. In many districts, this skews the data in favor of charter schools, as the charter school population does not reflect the total student body. Instead, reports of charter schools “cherry picking” the most privileged students are widespread.
In 2014, for instance, the Southern Poverty Law Center won a lawsuit on behalf of New Orleans children with special needs who were denied access to certain charter schools and necessary education services. In Los Angeles, one in five charter schools have restrictive admissions requirements designed to filter out certain student groups. These can include proof of citizenship for parents and students, mandated parental involvement and financial donations, documentation of any disabilities or special needs, specific grades or test scores, and interviews. Such requirements exclude racial groups who are more likely to be undocumented, low-income and single-parent families, special-needs children, and students who don’t perform well on standardized tests.
These kinds of exclusionary practices at charters exacerbate inequality between public school students, as more challenging and challenged students are pushed into lower-performing schools. We should expect Democratic politicians to oppose any policy that incentivizes discrimination and to oppose public funding of private institutions that exacerbate racial and economic inequality.
We should also expect Democratic candidates to have the ideological foresight to predict the inevitable consequence of education privatization: importing principles of market economies and competition into a public provision weeds out “undesirable users,” just as we have seen in sectors like health care and housing. Considering how anti-privatization arguments for universal health care have ignited working-class voters, it’s surprising that candidates haven’t applied the same logic to public education.
Money and Charter Schools
Education privatization has exacerbated inequality between schools. With public funding following students to charter schools, the amount of taxpayer money being funneled from public districts into the charter sector is astonishing. The Los Angeles United School District alone loses nearly $600 million annually to charter schools, according to figures from 2015–2016. This financial drain has resulted in significant disinvestment in traditional public schools, fewer nurses, teachers, counselors, psychologists, and librarians, and larger class sizes — issues that were central to the historic January strike.
The spread of charter schools has been fueled by a substantial influx of cash into local elections. Education-privatization advocates (including TFA) have long lobbied for pro-charter policies, and billionaire-sponsored campaigns have become commonplace in local school board races, municipal elections, and gubernatorial runs as charter schools present new profit-making opportunities. In 2017, for example, billionaires Eli Broad and Reed Hastings spent nearly $10 million to ensure the election of a pro-charter majority to the Los Angeles school board — which then hired Wall Street billionaire Austin Beutner as superintendent to expedite the privatization of the district. Pro-charter advocates also donated $23 million to the gubernatorial campaign of charter-friendly former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In Washington, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates has spent millions on campaigns to approve a charter law despite numerous failed referendums. For Democratic candidates who purport to oppose money in politics, the education-privatization movement should be a prime target.
Taking a stand against charter schools would also signal a return to pro-labor politics, and support for a major labor union whose members have been under attack by both parties for several decades and blamed for the state of public education. The widening teachers’ protests and widespread support from communities and families suggest that the time is ripe for an ideological reckoning with charter school reform within the Democratic Party. In addition to capping charter school expansion, and converting charters back to traditional public schools under local control, Democrats should support banning the employment of uncommitted, untrained, and inexperienced educators from union-busting organizations like TFA — especially considering that students of TFA teachers do not perform as well as students of certified teachers, and that teacher experience increases effectiveness.
Formulating Progressive Education Policy
As class politics become increasingly visible on the national stage, voters should demand a paradigm shift away from neoliberal education policies. No left-wing candidate should support a project that has disappeared entire public school systems in places like New Orleans, drained public-school budgets in cities like Los Angeles, shattered local teachers’ unions, exacerbated educational inequality, and used public schools as a vehicle to transfer public funds to private organizations with no democratic oversight. A ban of charter schools would also present an opportunity to bring the electoral left and the labor movement closer, while educating voters about the ills of privatization. And it would signal a stance against money in politics; not just on the national stage but in local, statewide, and school board races as well.
Sanders’s proposal should be cheered for limiting charter-school expansion and helping desegregate public schools. But it doesn’t go far enough in reversing the damage that has already been done by education privatization. It is past time that Bernie, and the rest of the Democratic field, recognize the threat that charter schools— both for-profit and nonprofit — pose to public education.