Ignored, Uninformed and for the GOP, Crazy for Charters: Presidential Candidates Get an F Grade on K-12 Public Education

With all the presidential campaign talk about inequality and making Wall Street bow down to Main Street, you might think candidates—at least Democrats—would have lots to say about one of the biggest privatization trends in America today: the takeover of K-12 public schools by billionaire-backed, corporate-style charter schools.

But they don’t. As Diane Ravitch, a nationally known public education advocate, author and blogger recently said, “The 2016 presidential campaign is notable for the near total absence of discussion of K-12 education.” Ravitch, who was Assistant Secretary of Education from 1991-'93 under President George H.W. Bush, has extensively noted how federal policies in the past 15 years have been a disaster for public schools, from overreliance on standardized tests to the taxpayer-subsidized growth of privately run charter schools, especially the national franchises dominating the industry.

“With all this turmoil in the nation’s schools, caused by Washington policies, you would think that the candidates might have something to say about their plans to bolster the public schools,” Ravitch said. “If you thought so, you would be wrong. The Republicans all endorse both vouchers and privately managed charter schools, which are heavily funded by the Koch brothers, the Walton Foundation, and others who see them as a way to get rid of teachers’ unions. The Democrats, with only minor digressions, have avoided talking about schools, although they are quite eager to talk about preschool and higher education.”

Actually, it’s murkier than that. On the Democratic side, the last time Bernie Sanders was asked about charters (in Ohio just before its March 15 primary), he so badly bungled the answer, mangling the distinction between locally created charters from those privately run by national chains, that it led to articles asking, “What does that mean?” In prior remarks, however, such as when answering an American Federation of Teachers’ questionnaire last summer, Sanders was clearer, saying, “I believe charters should be held to the same standards of transparency as public schools, and that these standards should also apply to the non-profit and for-profit entities that organize charter schools.” And before the New Hampshire primary, he said, “I’m not in favor of privately run charter schools… I think we invest in teachers and we invest in public education.”   

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, who has a long history of backing trends such as more student testing and embracing the charter industry, is now saying—like the nation’s largest teachers’ unions that endorsed her last year—that the corporate-run side of the privatization movement has not been positive for public education. In South Carolina last November, Clinton noted that she had “supported the idea of charter schools” for many years, but pulled back as she cited some glaring shortcomings.

“Most charter schools—I don’t want to say every one—but most charters, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids. Or if they do, they don’t keep them,” Clinton said. “And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.”       

As is often the case when presidential candidates give an issue glancing attention, charter lobbyists were quick to condemn Clinton’s remarks, while hoping she would return to their fold. Politico.com reported a campaign spokesman “did not address the evolution in Clinton’s views, but instead said… she had for decades ‘been a strong supporter of both public charter schools and an unflinching advocate for traditional public schools.’” 

In other words, Clinton’s spinners tried to appease both sides. On the anti-charter side are public school advocates and teacher unions; on the pro-charter side are billionaire funders like Arkansas’ Walton Family Foundation, underwritten with profits from Walmart (whose board Clinton once sat on) and Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Eli Broad, who has a long history of supporting charters and the Clintons dating back to 1990s. Broad was so upset by Clinton’s South Carolina remarks that he refused to donate to a pro-Clinton super PAC, the Wall Street Journal reported in December, “and only changed his mind after personal reassurances from former President Bill Clinton and campaign chairman John Podesta that Mrs. Clinton will support charter schools.”

These less-than-ideal positions are from Democrats, who, when compared to Republican presidential candidates, are at least saying there are problems with corporate charter schools, including a lack of transparency; private and for-profit operators running schools; cherry-picking better students; and diverting scarce taxpayer funds away from deserving schools. The Republicans, in contrast, seemingly have little patience or respect for the American tradition of public education and locally elected school boards.

Republican Candidates

The Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s statement on public education has left “experts fearful, curious… and baffled,” according to EdWeek.org’s recent summary of his thoughts, which it called “mostly a black box.” According to the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which tracks education policy, Trump previously has called public schools “competition-free zones” and embraced charter schools, along with vouchers, in which parents get taxpayer funds to send their kids to any school, including private ones. “We’ve got to bring on the competition, open the schoolhouse doors and let the parents choose,” Trump said.

But just what federal education policy would be under Trump largely remains a guess, although it appears that he is quick to oppose federal involvement. Last fall he told Fox News that eliminating the U.S. Department of Education was one way he’d cut federal spending. Trump has also railed against the Common Core testing standards for English and math, calling them a “disaster” in his June 2015 speech announcing his campaign, largely because he perceives them as more federal government overreach. 

Texas senator Ted Cruz has taken a series of similar right-wing views. He too wants to abolish the U.S. Department of Education and has called school choice “the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” according to the Fordham Institute’s summary. Cruz wants to access taxpayer funds for parents to send their kids to any K-12 school—public, charter, religious, or be home-schooled. “Education reform, school choice, and home schooling have been passions of mine for decades… Every parent has the right to educate his or her children—to provide the home, to teach the values that the parents believe are right.”        

The third GOP contender is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose website’s page on education page touts his “experience and results like no other”—an astounding statement, since Kasich’s record on charters is marked by some of the sector’s worst scandals. “His home state’s notoriously problematic charter school sector is often held up as an example of what can go wrong,” wrote Politico.com, which cited Ohio’s charter program director omitting bad online school test scores in multimillion-dollar federal grant applications, “mid-year school closures, allegations of financial improprieties and charter schools ‘sponsor shopping’ to avoid scrutiny,” among other issues.

Last year, the Ohio legislature pushed back on Kasich’s deregulated charter school regime and imposed new accountability standards—after the owners of a school that closed kept assets bought at taxpayer expense, fueling a corruption scandal. But as Politico noted, while Kasich eventually supported the reforms, they did not originate with him. Indeed, even conservative Ohio columnists have said their charter industry has been a showcase of mismanagement and self-enrichment—even as they’ve gone on to defend their governor.

“Ohio’s overall reputation is of a place that cares more about protecting for-profit charter school operators than it does about children who attend those schools,” Brent Larkin wrote in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “And Kasich hasn’t been nearly as outspoken as he should be in attempts to repair that reputation.”

When it comes to the 2016 presidential campaign trail, none of the candidates—including the Democrats—have been as outspoken on charters and privatizing education as public school advocates like Diane Ravitch would like.

“Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton… are notably silent about the Bush-Obama policies that have put standardized testing at the center of schooling and about the federal government’s favoritism toward charters, despite the ongoing revelation of charter scandals, frauds, and lack of accountability,” Ravitch said. “Clinton has been equivocal about charters. Sanders was asked about them at the Ohio Town Hall, and he responded that he supports ‘public charter schools.’ This was an incoherent response since all charters call themselves ‘public charter schools,’ even when they operate for-profit and are run by national corporate charter chains.”    

“There has been a lack of discussion of K-12 issues, and much of the discussion has been confused,” said Brandon Wright, Fordham Institute’s editorial director. “No president, for example, could ‘end Common Core,’ as some Republicans have said. And there are no ‘private charter schools,’ a phrase Bernie Sanders recently used. I wish there was more discussion, because what candidates say can influence policies, or at the very least draw attention to them.”


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