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Democrats’ Obama-to-Sanders shift on charter schooling

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The shifting status of charter schools has been a subject of much recent commentary. Not so long ago, President Barack Obama enthusiastically championed charter schools, and charter schooling enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. Now, Democrats in the U.S. House have moved to zero out the $440 million Charter Schools Program, and leading Democratic candidates (aside from former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg) have beat up on charters.

Even the Trump administration has proposed to put an end to the Charter Schools Program by including it in a proposal to block grant most K-12 education funds, much to the ire of charter school advocates. While polling shows that charter schooling is still broadly popular on the right and among black and Latino Democrats, charter schools have cratered with white Democrats, especially the kind of progressives who’ve fueled the presidential bids of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg.

But is it possible to put a finer point on this shift? In particular: Is the break from Obama to today as sharp as it seems, or is the familiar narrative perhaps shading our collective memory?

To examine this, we took a look at news coverage of what Democratic presidential candidates said about charter schools during the last six months of 2011, 2015, and 2019, during the run-up to the Democratic primaries in each of those three cycles.

Three findings stood out.

First, attention to charter schooling in the Democratic primary has been exponentially higher this election than it was in the run-up to 2012 or 2016. A comprehensive search of news coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Education Week, and USA Today (we were unable to search the Wall Street Journal due to missing coverage in the Lexus Nexus database) turned up only 11 mentions of a candidate’s stance on charters during the last six months of 2011 and only 5 mentions during that period in 2015. This cycle? From July to December 2019, candidates’ positions were mentioned 45 times. While the Democratic field in 2019 was huge, the increase in coverage does not appear to be merely the product of more candidates running — most of these candidates weren’t getting much attention, and most weren’t talking about education. In short, it appears that charter schools were a smaller piece of the story in the run-up to 2012 and 2016 than they’ve been this time.

Second, it’s clear both that Democratic candidates have become much more critical of charters over time and that reporters have been more inclined to regard stances on charter schooling as more potentially controversial. In 2011, the handful of articles that mentioned Obama’s support of charters did so matter-of-factly and with a sense that the issue was largely anodyne. By 2015, the media began to depict charters in a more controversial light. As Sanders took the occasional shot at charter schooling in 2015, front-runner Clinton equivocated, suggesting that she still supported charter schools but also opining that charters “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids” and cautioning that they ought not be regarded “as a substitute for the public schools.” In 2019, the field was more explicit about criticizing charters, with the off-and-on exception of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and (the not-yet-announced) Bloomberg.

Third, through the second half of last year, the Democratic field did not rely on a single, shared rationale for its concerns about charter schooling. Rather, candidates offered a variety of concerns, including the fear that charters: worsen racial segregation, take money away from “public schools,” and are unaccountable. Conspicuously absent was any mention of the Trump administration’s support for charters or the teacher unions’ vehement opposition, although reporters routinely noted that close observers thought both factors were playing a significant role.

The bipartisan support that charter schooling enjoyed for two decades was exceptional, and it was perhaps inevitable that things would change as the political landscape shifted.

Democratic presidential candidates have indeed grown more critical of charters; their criticism is drawing much more notice in news coverage, and charter schools — once depicted as a centrist and easy-to-like cause — have become increasingly controversial. What this means in practice for charter schooling and for Democrats’ approach to schooling in 2020 and beyond, we’ll have to wait and see.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Matthew Rice is a research assistant in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders charter schools Cory Booker Democratic Party Education policy Elizabeth Warren Michael Bloomberg Pete Buttigieg presidential politics

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