Education

Bernie Sanders Launches a Deeply Misguided Attack on Charter Schools

Sen. Bernie Sanders at the “We the People Summit” in Washington, D.C., April 1, 2019. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
The Vermont senator’s message to parents is clear, and repugnant: I and my teachers’ union allies know better than you what schools are best for your kids.

One of the great benefits of living life well outside the Beltway is that it’s easy to take my eyes off the swamp, look to the states surrounding me, and see places where politics actually function as they’re supposed to. I can even, occasionally, see those issues on which Democrats and Republicans might work together, united in common purpose, for the common good.

Exhibit A: the charter-school movement. It’s 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.

There are times when it seems like everyone likes charter schools. The Trump Department of Education has issued hundreds of millions of dollars in charter-school grants. The Obama administration invested in charter schools. As Newark mayor, Democrat Cory Booker “bet big” on charter schools, and athletes and celebrities have personally invested in their success, often with outstanding results.

Of course, not every charter school is good. Not every charter school is a success. But if there has ever existed anything like a broad point of left–right agreement in the American education debate, it’s that charters represent a vital piece of the educational puzzle, an option that can and does transform students’ lives.

So why did Bernie Sanders announce last week that, if elected president, he would declare war on charter schools? His poorly named Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education (after all, urban, nonwhite students are among the prime beneficiaries of charter-school choice) would “ban for-profit charter schools,” and “halt the use of public funds to underwrite new charter schools” until they complied with a series of federal conditions that would change their governance and facilitate their unionization (many charter-school faculties aren’t unionized). In so doing, it would remove many of the distinctive qualities that helped make charter schools truly competitive with conventional public schools.

It’s tempting to explain the plan as little more than coalition politics, Sanders’s effort to cozy up to the teachers’ unions at the expense of student welfare. But that’s unfair. I know enough people in the greater Bernie orbit to know that they sincerely believe a unionized public-school monopoly in K–12 education represents the best chance for new generations of kids. They believe that, properly funded and led, such a system would facilitate academic achievement and social cohesion.

But here’s the core problem: The interest in a collective solution to a series of individual educational challenges understates the reality that choice, by itself, is a vital value in a child’s education. And the power of choice cannot be measured by test scores alone, even though the best charter schools yield spectacular results.

I think about my own parenting experience. Like many millions of American families who take their power over their kids’ education for granted, we enjoy multiple privileges a poor family doesn’t. We have the job flexibility to live in any number of places, and we can afford housing in a good school district. If we lived in a county or town with a struggling school district, we could afford modest private-school tuition. And back when we lived in Center City, Philadelphia — at a time when we couldn’t easily move and couldn’t afford private school — we were fortunate enough to win a lottery to put our oldest child in an outstanding charter elementary school.

With each of the choices we’ve made for our kids’ education over the years, test scores were among the least important factors we considered. We wanted to know the culture of the school and the character of the teachers. We wondered about athletic opportunities. We were concerned with peer and parental influence. The school was going to play a part in raising our children, and a slight percentage change in a math or language test score was meaningless compared to our concern with the growth and development of their personal characters.

The Sanders approach wouldn’t take away choice from parents like us. We could still find private schools. We could still move to better school districts. We could still home school. Charter schools exist in the suburbs and in rural America, but they haven’t had the same impact there that they’ve had in American cities. We’d barely feel the effects of the Sanders policy; its brunt would instead be borne by America’s most vulnerable families. Sanders’s plan tells those families that he knows what’s best for them, that his partners in the unions know how to build the schools they need better than they do.

This is anything but equity. It’s anything but fairness. One of the enduring challenges of American public life is the sad reality that children face fundamentally different educational opportunities through the accident of birth. The existence of choice itself is a luxury. It’s a thing of immense value, and many millions of parents can’t even comprehend a life where they don’t have the true, final word over their child’s education.

I’m writing these words as I fly to give a series of speeches in Texas sponsored by the Texas Charter Schools Association and the National Review Institute. I’ve been writing and speaking about school choice for much of my adult life. I’ve been litigating on its behalf for just as long. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the desire to choose what’s best for one’s own child crosses racial, religious, and partisan lines. It’s a broadly felt human need.

Bernie Sanders makes his intentions crystal clear. In his plan, he writes, “We do not need two schools systems; we need to invest in our public schools system.” This is exactly wrong. One size does not fit all. Sanders looks at parents and declares that he knows best. Parents should look back at him and respond, quite simply: I know my child, and I want to shape his destiny. Your collective solutions cannot meet my family’s needs.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article contained a reference to the success of LeBron James’s I Promise school in Akron, Ohio, as an example of celebrity support for charter schools. The I Promise School is not a charter but a nontraditional public school that operates within the Akron public-school system. We regret the error.

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