Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has issued his “Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education.” His ten-point plan
addresses the serious crisis in our education system by reducing racial and economic segregation in our public school system, attracting the best and the brightest educational professionals to teach in our classrooms, and reestablishing a positive learning environment for students in our K-12 schools.
Sanders’s plan calls for “a transformative investment in our children, our teachers, and our schools and a fundamental re-thinking of the unjust and inequitable funding of our public education system.”
Some conservatives are particularly upset with what Sanders wants to do with charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately managed, schools established by teachers, parents, organizations, foundations, or community groups under the terms of a contract or charter with a state or local governmental authority. Charter operators may include local school districts, universities, non-profit corporations, or for-profit corporations. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “There are now more than 6,800 charter public schools enrolling an estimated 2.9 million students throughout the country.” Charter schools are not autonomous. Although they are subject to fewer rules and regulations than traditional public schools when it comes to staffing, curriculum, and instruction, they are tied to state academic standards, curriculum frameworks, and testing requirements. Like traditional public schools, education at charter schools is provided at no charge.
Point two of Sanders’s plan is “End the Unaccountable Profit-Motive of Charter Schools”:
Recognizing the problems in a one-size-fits-all model of education, teachers’ unions and parent activists established alternative, experimental “charter” schools to better serve kids struggling within the traditional system. But few charter schools have lived up to their promise. Instead, billionaires like DeVos and the Waltons, together with private equity and hedge fund executives, have bankrolled their expansion and poured tens of millions into school board and other local elections with the hope of privatizing public schools. Charter schools are led by unaccountable, private bodies, and their growth has drained funding from the public school system.
The damage to communities caused by unregulated charter school growth must be stopped and reversed.
As president, Bernie Sanders will fight to
Ban for-profit charter schools and support the NAACP’s moratorium on public funds for charter school expansion until a national audit has been completed to determine the impact of charter growth in each state. That means halting the use of public funds to underwrite new charter schools.
Existing charter schools must be made accountable by:
- Mandating that they comply with the same oversight requirements as public schools.
- Mandating that at least half of all charter school board members are teachers and parents.
- Disclosing student attrition rates, non-public funding sources, financial interests, and other relevant data.
- Matching employment practices at charters with neighboring district schools, including standards set by collective bargaining agreements and restrictions on exorbitant CEO pay
- Supporting the efforts of charter school teachers to unionize and bringing charter schools to the negotiating table.
The conservative editors of National Review (“The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website”) issued a statement in response to Sanders and in defense of charter schools. Although they acknowledge that charter schools are “a class of public schools,” “with a mixed record,” that “have many things in common with the conventional public schools,” and “are not the answer to every educational problem, nor the solution for every family or community,” they conclude that “charter schools are one way to open up the monopolies and provide some alternatives to those desperate for them.”
In “Bernie Sanders Launches a Deeply Misguided Attack on Charter Schools,” French maintains that the charter-school movement has “granted an invaluable degree of educational choice to families who long lacked the flexibility that prosperous suburban and upper-middle-class parents take for granted, and its extraordinary growth is a bipartisan achievement.” Although he doesn’t specifically assert that charter schools are still public schools, he does acknowledge that “not every charter school is good” and “not every charter school is a success,” while concluding that “charters represent a vital piece of the educational puzzle, an option that can and does transform students’ lives.”
In “Comrade Sanders Targets Charter Schools,” Lowry asserts that “Sanders thus seeks to kneecap what has been an astonishingly successful experiment in urban education because it doesn’t fit nicely within his ideological preconceptions.” He explains that “charters receive public money but have more leeway to develop policies outside the regulatory and union straitjacket of traditional public schools.” He also acknowledges that some charter schools “don’t serve their students well, especially online charter schools, and the performance of suburban and rural charter schools hasn’t been very impressive.”
French’s and Lowry’s articles were widely reposted or referred to by conservative media outlets.
Whether charter schools are “better” than regular public schools in some, many, or most cases is not the issue. Whether charter schools are “more successful” than regular public schools is irrelevant. Whether charter schools are “safer” than regular public schools is immaterial. Whether charter schools are “less unionized” than regular public schools is beside the point. Whether charter schools are “more accountable” than regular public schools makes no difference. Whether charter schools are “cheaper” than regular public schools is of no consequence.
None of that matters because charter schools are still public schools. The fact that a charter school can receive private grants and donations doesn’t make it less of a public school. Charter schools operate the way any public school operates: the government forcibly takes money from people (many of whom don’t have any children) through compulsory taxation and uses it to pay for the education of other people’s children.
It is up to parents to educate their children. Just as it is up to parents to feed, clothe, shelter, love, and take care of their children. If parents can’t, or choose not to, educate their children by themselves, then they have a variety of options: parochial schools, Montessori schools, Christian schools, independent private schools, private tutors, home-schooling, community schooling, online schooling.
In addition to conservatives, some libertarians have pushed charter schools in the name of “school choice.” But choosing where to spend other people’s money to educate your children is immoral and unjust. Parents have educational choice just as they have food choice, housing choice, clothing choice, vacation choice, car choice, and recreation choice.
Conservatives should devote their time and effort to completely severing education from the state, and especially at the federal level. After all, the Constitution nowhere delegates any authority to the federal government to have anything to do with education or interfere with the educational programs of the states. No candidate for office on the federal level should even be talking about education.