Where Does Bernie Sanders Stand on Public Charter Schools?

2016 Presidential Elections

March 2, 2016

By Marianne Lombardo

Where does Bernie Sanders stand on public charter schools? While he’s typically a straight-talker, it’s a little hard to figure out.

On Tuesday’s Tom Joyner Morning Show, Roland Martin asked Sanders:

What do you think about charters and vouchers, which Black parents are extremely supportive of – almost 80%?”

Sanders responded: “If they are private institutions, I do not support, because they are undermining public education in general. If they are in the context of public education, I do support it.”

Martin: “So you support public charter schools?”

Sanders: “Yes. But not private.

Was Sanders saying that he thinks some charter schools are not public schools (for the record, all charter schools are public schools)? Or was Sanders making it a point to distinguish between public and private because Martin’s question also included vouchers?

Sanders’ historical record is not much help answering those questions. He’s vacillated between strong support for public charter schools and what seems like opposition to charter schools based on a mischaracterization of their being private, not public schools.

1998: Long before he ran for President, Bernie not only voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998; he also entered pro-charter testimony in the Congressional Record from a ninth-grade student who said:

While I am fortunate that my family has been able to send me to private school, it should not be only the economically elite who have access to alternative education. I think a solution to this problem is federal legislation encouraging states to institute charter schools. Options would then open up for disadvantaged students. Because charter schools are still technically public schools, any student could go to the school of their choice. Students, like adults, need options; no school fits all students, just like no company is right for all workers.

Note that even this 9th grade student knew the distinction between a private school and a public charter school.

After he launched his Presidential bid, however, Sanders seems to have flipped.

October 2015: Speaking before the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Sanders seemed to accept the notion that charter schools are private schools. When asked:

You mentioned the need to stop privatizing public education. One way to stop that is to make sure that there is a very strong, very reasonable cap on charter schools. I come from a district … where students are leaving in droves to attend these sort-of “miracle” buildings that are the charter schools – and as a result we’re losing valuable funding in already strained budgets. I would hope that in your campaign that you would continue to strive to keep public funding in public schools.”

Bernie responded: “absolutely.

January 2016: At a Town Hall in Newmarket, New Hampshire, Sanders again seemed to imply that he considered charter schools as private schools stating:

I’m not in favor of privately run charter schools. If we are going to have a strong democracy and be competitive globally, we need the best-educated people in the world. I believe in public education.

Does Sanders, unlike the 9th grader whose testimony Sanders inserted in the Congressional Record, not know that charter schools are public schools? Is he misinformed about the fact that all public charter schools are created under public law as part of the public education system, a system that has all kinds of schools e.g., open enrollment, selective admission, magnet, special needs? Is he not aware that public charter schools, unlike private schools, have to accept all students, can’t charge tuition, and are non-sectarian?

Or is Sanders trying to imply that he only considers public charter schools authorized by local districts as part of the public education system, but not those authorized by the state or other agencies empowered by state government to do so? The problem with this is that it would exclude those public charter schools run by non-profit management companies, such as KIPP, YES Prep, GreenDot, and Democracy Prep. Moreover where, in Sanders’ view of the world, would public charter schools not overseen by districts but run by independent groups of teachers, parents and/or community members – the largest group of charter schools – fall?

Bernie’s got a great reputation for speaking plainly. It would be really helpful if he tasked his staff with giving him all the facts about public charter schools and provided clarity to voters on where he stands.