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A ‘Black Men for Bernie’ Activist Backing School Choice, Tougher Accountability

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 26, 2016 3 min read
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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont isn’t famous for promoting school choice—but that doesn’t daunt one of his fans for the Democratic presidential nomination, Wilson Holts, an activist with the “Black Men for Bernie” group.

We ran into Holts, who also described himself as a filmmaker, on Monday at Marconi Park not too far from the site of the Democratic National Convention here. His group is critical of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for not subtantively addressing issues facing black men and black families, and urges people to back Sanders, who lost to Clinton in the primary, as the senator “endeavors to continue HIS FIGHT for a better, more equal, diverse, inclusive, and sustainable” country.

Despite his strong support for Sanders, Holts doesn’t neatly match Sanders’ positions on K-12, reflecting the issue’s complicated political dimensions in some ways.

For example, Sanders has backed local public schools, has sent lukewarm messages about charter schools, and has opposed tuition vouchers for private schools. But Holt said he supports those forms of school choice and other alternative learning environments—as long as kids are getting fundamental needs met in school, he told me:

There should be the availability of choice, in charter schools, in private schools, in different kinds of schools, because kids learn in different ways. I know I failed classes because they didn’t teach the way I learn. Choice needs to be in the system. But where it gets to the point where it drowns out everyone getting the basic education, the foundational education, then that’s a problem. And most of the people that are affected by that are poor black and brown kids.

If “throwing money” at public schools were the true solution, Holts argued, then public schools would be worry-free by now. That closely matches what the GOP platform says about improving education. But that’s not a clear match with how Sanders feels about the issue.

For example, in a response to a 2016 campaign candidate questionnaire from the American Federation of Teachers, Sanders said, “I will work reduce the resource disparities that currently exist between schools in wealthy and low-income areas.” The senator has also backed significant increases for the U.S. Department of Education (along with the Labor and Health and Human Services agencies) in a 2007 appropriations bill.

And Sanders has backed relatively robust federal accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act, although he’s not a fan of standardized testing because of how he feels it often ignores out-of-school factors in student success like poverty.

Holts, 34, who said he attended Los Angeles public schools, pretty much has no sympathy when it comes to teachers and administrators who he says fail to educate children and are too often not held accountable by the system.

“Nobody held any of those people accountable for anything. They barely taught us anything,” he said.

On the same theme, Holts wasn’t the first Bernie Sanders supporter who told us he was unsurprised and unimpressed by the decision of the AFT and the National Education Association to endorse Clinton. It’s just one more facet of a corrupt political system where those who are bought off stayed bought, he told us. (Sanders and his wife, Jane Sanders, have both expressed strong support for teachers’ unions in the campaign.)

In his DNC speech, Sanders promoted a college-affordability plan that would make public college and universities tuition-free for those children from families making under $125,000 annually. But when we talked to Holts beforehand, he said the concept doesn’t go far enough, too closely resembles the loopholes and technicalities of the Affordable Care Act—and he puts the blame for this plan on Clinton.

“We need something that’s simple, which Bernie Sanders talks about,” Holts said.

Photosfrom top: Black Men for Bernie activist Wilson Holts at Marconi Park, near the Democratic National Convention site, in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016 (Deanna Del Ciello/Education Week); Holts in front of his organization’s vehicle (Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)

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