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Biden would be nowhere without black voters. Will he accommodate black charter school parents?

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Parents and kids lobby for charter schools in this Oct. 19, 2018, file photo.

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union, endorsed Joe Biden for president over the weekend. Earlier the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT) hedged its bets by encouraging its members and affiliates to support and help Biden as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

The NEA’s endorsement comes on the heels of last week’s “Big Tuesday” primaries in Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, North Dakota and Washington. For Biden, those felt like the grand finale to his Super Tuesday smash hit with African American voters, even outside the South. According to exit polls, 66 percent of black voters in all-important Michigan turned out for Biden. It confirms the intense loyalty to the Democratic Party that was on display the previous week, when more than 50 percent of black Democrats chose Biden in every southern state — and close to 40 percent did so in California and Massachusetts.

Collectively, black voters saved the Democrats from what previously seemed inevitable: Bernie Sanders’s nomination and a potential November blowout, not only against Trump but also down ballot.       

It is high time, then, for Democrats to stop disrespecting millions of black voters on an issue important to them: Charter schools.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools operated – usually by a nonprofit organization – independently of a school district. Charter schools’ independence from district bureaucracies and union contracts gives them freedom to design schools around the needs of the children they serve. In exchange for their autonomy, their charters – their performance contracts – can be terminated if they fail to educate their students. 

Chartered public schools currently serve well over three million children nationwide. Two-thirds are children of color. Without the opportunity to choose a charter school, many of these children would be stuck in the cycle of intergenerational poverty many urban education systems perpetuate.

Right now, charter schools offer two million low-income, minority children the chance to move up the socioeconomic ladder. Many charters have long waiting lists. Indeed, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimates that five million more students would attend charters if they had the opportunity.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that so many minority parents are passionate about advocating for their right to choose these schools. On surveys, 55-60 percent of African American voters support charter schools, while only about 30 percent oppose them. About half of Latinx Democratic voters also support charters.

Three decades ago, Democrats were the original champions of charter schools. Unfortunately, the teachers’ unions are threatened by charters, since most charter teachers choose not to unionize. And no interest group has more clout or more money in a Democratic primary than the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). In the last presidential election, they spent a combined $64 million.

So, it’s no surprise that most of this year’s many Democratic candidates denounced charter schools as a “threat to public education.” (The exceptions were Corey Booker, Michael Bennet, Andrew Yang and Michael Bloomberg.) Some black and brown parents got so angry about being abandoned by their party that they created the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, took long bus rides and doubled up in cheap hotel rooms to protest at almost every Democratic presidential debate.

This leaves Biden in a tricky situation. He served under President Obama, a strong charter supporter, yet he has always maintained close relationships with the teachers’ unions’ leaders. “Vice President Joe Biden was our north star in the last administration,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told a union rally last spring. “We didn’t always get along with the Obama administration on education, but we had a go-to guy who always listened to us… he’s with us because he is us.”

And yet, sometimes, you have to dance with the one who brung you. And sometimes tricky situations can be an opportunity for leadership.

Biden’s campaign was almost dead – his lead in South Carolina had shrunk to single digits and his campaign funds were so low that he had opened just a single field office in California – when Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest ranking African American in Congress, endorsed him. Analysts agree that Clyburn’s endorsement sparked the chain reaction that turned one state after another “Biden blue” in a westward sweep across the South and into the North on Super Tuesday, creating momentum that spilled over into Big Tuesday, almost sealing his nomination.

And Clyburn supports school choice. After a 2007 visit to New York’s Harlem Success Academy, he editorialized, “I believe every parent should be given the right to choose a public school or program for their child that is the best environment for that student.” In a 2008 display of support at Charleston Development Academy Charter School, he spoke glowingly of school choice and charters. 

Clyburn knows the unions’ power. With the primaries limping along during the coronavirus pandemic and public health – Sanders’s signature issue – the priority issue of the moment, Biden can’t antagonize the unions. Getting through them, then beating Trump, keeping the House and taking the Senate is, correctly, the primary objective.

Perhaps the leadership opportunity for Biden is to let it be known that he will work to solve this rift in the party between the desires of the unions and the needs of vulnerable minority kids.

He could tell protesting parents that he understands that education affects virtually all of life’s choices and chances, including life expectancy. He could acknowledge that the consignment of poor, often minority children to failing schools is a clear and present danger to millions of American families. With his famously big heart, and without poking the unions, he could signal that he really listened to those parents’ concerns during his meeting with the Powerful Parents Network in South Carolina.

Then, when Bernie Sanders finally bows out and Biden accepts the nomination in July, he could repay African Americans’ loyalty by repeating Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s energetic support for charter schools.

Tressa Pankovits is the associate director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at Progressive Policy Institute.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that the American Federation of Teachers had made an endorsement for president. It has not. We regret the error. 

Tags 2020 presidential campaign American Federation of Teachers American Federation of Teachers Andrew Yang Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Charter schools in New York Charter schools in the United States Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Michael Bennet Michael Bloomberg National Education Association National Education Association

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