Champions of traditional public schools won a big victory at the Democratic Party’s final platform drafting session when they pushed the party to adopt new language criticizing charters that are privately run, unaccountable and often part of for-profit franchises.
In less than 10 minutes, charter critics presented and won near-unanimous approval for an amendment that said the party would only support “democratically governed” charters, referring to those run by elected school boards not appointed trustees. The amendment also added wording that charters “should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools,” which happens as taxpayer funds follow the students. And new language also criticized the schools for segregating districts, saying charters “must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”
While the amendment did not go further and call out charter schools for patterns of financial self-dealing and corruption seen in many states, it displaced a policy veneer generally supporting charters—which are subsidized by wealthy Democrats on Wall St. and Silicon Valley. (The charter debate starts at about 31:30 in this c-span video.)
“This amendment talks about democratically governed public schools,” said sponsor Chuck Pascal, a Bernie Sanders delegate from Pennsylvania. “And what that means is we support schools being accountable to the community through having an elected school board, as opposed to an appointed board that is accountable to no one in the community.”
“We also want to make it clear that while we understand charter schools’ original purpose is to be innovative and experimental and small, what we have now is not that,” he continued. “What we have now is a dual system that purports to be equal, but in reality is perpetuating segregation—a segregation by race, a segregation by income and a segregation by opportunity.”
Pascal was not the only charter critic to speak.
Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers leader, emphasized there was a place for locally created and accountable charters, “but we’re also saying that we can’t have what’s happening in Detroit right now, where entities like the De Vos family and Koch brothers are trying to use charters to kill off public schools.”
Louisiana’s Jackie Lansdale, a Hillary Clinton delegate, said that many charters do not “honor the promise” of public education.
“Their promise is to make sure the CEOs of those companies make money,” she said. “Their promise is to ensure the teachers in the classrooms have no due process. Their promise is that those teachers are paid very poorly, at the expense of the increased largesse for the people in the administration… Their promise is not to the children because they have a rotating revolving door of teachers, which is very destabilizing.”
Nobody rose to speak in opposition to the platform amendment, which was approved on a near-unanimous vote. However, after the vote, one of the industry’s support groups, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), issued a statement saying the platform language change was a step backwards—especially as President Obama has embraced the expansion of charter schools. (Charter critics have said that record is one of Obama’s most regrettable legacies).
“After putting forward a progressive and balanced education agenda in the initial draft of the 2016 Democratic Platform, this weekend the Platform Drafting Committee inexplicably allowed the process to be hijacked at the last minute,” DFER President Shavar Jeffries said in a release. “This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
“What happened in Orlando is little more than a bait and switch, one we are eager to fix, and which we hope is unreflective of Hillary Clinton’s priorities, as she has repeatedly supported standards and accountability and high-performing charter schools,” Jeffries concluded. “President Obama has made clear that the best way to strengthen our system is not just with more resources, but reforms that ensure our children are progressing. Our Party’s platform should build upon that legacy.”
However, it is not clear that Clinton is poised to follow Obama in his uncritical embrace of charter schools. When she recently addressed the National Education Association, the nation’s biggest teachers union, she was warmly embraced overall. But one line uncritically placing charter schools in with traditional public schools prompted boos.
In contrast, the Republican Party’s platform languague, such as this excerpt from the Washington, D.C. GOP, embraces charter public schools, privatizing public education and sharply criticizes “public school teachers unions.”
“Republicans should oppose any attempt to unionize or overregulate these schools, ensure that they get their fair share of public funds, give them the right of first refusal when seeking to use public schools that close because of system overcapacity, and, as appropriate, co-locate high performing public charter schools within struggling, underutilized neighborhood public schools,” their current platform states. “Public funds in education should follow the student, whether to traditional neighborhood or charter schools, so that students are not stuck in underperforming schools. Open enrollment policies should be adopted to eliminate caps on charter and digital schools.”
So, while the Democrats are creating a new policy standard opposing some of the problematic areas of charter public schools, especially those associated with rapidly growing franchises and chains, the Republicans would like to accelerate the trends favoring privatization of traditional K-12 public schools.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008).