Bernie Sanders’s Backward Charter-School Proposal

Sen. Bernie Sanders in Washington, D.C., April 1, 2019 (Carlos Barria/ Reuters)

It really is something: The 2020 Democratic presidential primary already has grown so zany that Bernie Sanders has proposed . . . a reduction in federal support for public education.

Strange days, indeed.

Some background: Charter schools are a class of public schools operated with some degree of independence from the school bureaucracy and, in some cases, from the public-sector unions. They are the product of a Clinton-era compromise between conservatives pressing for genuine school choice (including vouchers to support families of modest means who, like the Clintons and the Obamas, prefer private schools for their children — but who cannot afford the tuition at Sidwell Friends) and progressives who for political and ideological reasons defend the monopolistic character of the public school systems, no matter how deeply or comprehensively those schools are failing their students, particularly the poor and the nonwhite.

The public-sector unions have soured on that compromise, and so have the most left-leaning Democrats. And so Senator Sanders, the Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate and who currently is seeking the presidential nomination of a party to which he does not belong, has proposed to eliminate federal funding for charter schools operated by for-profit enterprises (about 15 percent of charters) and to prohibit federal funding for all new charter schools, including nonprofits, indefinitely. Here, Senator Sanders is displaying his comradeship with another Brooklyn socialist, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who also is seeking the Democratic nomination and who also has made every effort to gut certain public schools that are very popular in low-income minority communities.

We can appreciate the allure for these ascendant socialists: The public schools are, after all, one of the few critical enterprises in American life in which the state does in fact own the means of production. Those familiar with the history of this kind of system will not be surprised to learn that it works relatively well for the politically connected — and works barely at all for the least powerful.

Which is to say, the charter-school issue exposes a rift in the Democratic coalition. Black urban Democrats such as former Newark mayor Cory Booker have in the past been energetic advocates of charter schools, but the Democratic party increasingly is the party of relatively affluent white suburbanites who can afford to turn up their noses at school reform because their communities are better served by their public schools. Rich white progressives in the suburbs have the luxury of privileging ideology over reality, since few if any of their children will ever set foot in a public school in Philadelphia or Milwaukee. It is to these voters that Senator Sanders’s proposal — cynically framed as a civil-rights issue — is in fact addressed.

Charter schools have a mixed record — which is to be expected. Some of them perform very well for students in low-income areas and those with particular needs not well-served by the conventional schools to which they have access; some of them perform poorly; a few of them have been managed with active corruption. Which is to say, they have many things in common with the conventional public schools. Charter schools are not the answer to every educational problem, nor the solution for every family or community. They work well for some students and families — and that is enough. This is one of the reasons for keeping control of education local: because conditions and outcome vary from community to community, and a one-size-fits-all, remote-control policy from Washington cannot account for the genuine diversity of American life.

The idea that there is a single model of education that will serve all students, families, and communities is pure nonsense, a product of the society-as-factory mentality that dominates the thinking of old-school socialists such as Senator Sanders.

And what’s the future of a few poor kids in dying cities when there’s ideological fanaticism to be serviced and a primary to be won?

The reality is that almost every family in these United States with access to excellent K–12 schools is paying tuition. Some of them write big checks to Phillips Exeter; others have the expense rolled into their mortgages, paying a very high price for “free” public schools. But many families do not have the means to enjoy the choices available to the Clintons, the Obamas, the Pelosis, the Feinsteins — or the Sanders family, for that matter: Mrs. Sanders attended private schools. Charter schools are one way to open up the monopolies and provide some alternatives to those desperate for them.

Senator Sanders is proposing to foreclose those opportunities, and is doing so for reasons that are as indefensible as they are transparent.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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