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Bernie Sanders’ Education Plan: Unions and Desegregation Win, Charters Lose

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 18, 2019 7 min read
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The new education plan from Sen. Bernie Sanders is an all-you-can-eat buffet for teachers’ unions, backers of school integration, and supporters of traditional public schools. But fans of charter schools don’t get a seat at the table.

It’s perhaps the broadest plan for education any 2020 candidate has released so far. For that and other reasons, it will be very tough for Sanders to turn it into a reality.

A $60,000 minimum salary for all teachers that follows applause for recent strikes. A national floor for per-pupil spending. A commitment for Washington to cover half the costs of special education. A tripling of federal Title I aid for disadvantaged students to nearly $48 billion. A pledge to execute federal desegregation orders.

In all, the Vermont lawmaker’s Thurgood Marshall Plan for A Quality Public Education for All, released by the 2020 presidential candidate on Saturday, covers those and a huge number of other K-12 issues. His plan ranges from specified spending increases to promises to protect black students from unfairly falling into the “school-to-prison pipeline” and the juvenile-justice system. He unveiled the plan the day after the 65th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling, during a speech in South Carolina, an early-primary state in 2020 with a large share of black Democratic voters. Sanders struggled among older black Democrats in the 2016 primary, although he fared better among their younger counterparts.

Leaks about the plan on Friday touched off fierce debates about the place of charter schools in the Democratic Party, which isn’t the same as it was when President Barack Obama and his education team promoted charters.

Addressing the ‘Serious Crisis’ in Education

The plan, named for the U.S. Supreme Court justice and famed civil rights attorney, is so broad and ambitious that it’s hard to see how a lot, or even the vast majority of it gets done. Even if Sanders wins the presidency and the Democrats retain the House and—improbably—achieve a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, it would be tough. House Democrats are close to passing a spending bill for the U.S. Department of Education that reaches nearly $76 billion, yet it falls short of Sanders’ vision by tens of billions of dollars. And many of Sanders’ big ideas would need approval from Congress or a sign-on from states first.

Yet narrower ideas from Sanders’ Democratic rivals wouldn’t be easy wins either; think of of the plan to raise teacher pay from Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., for example. And Sanders’ Thurgood Marshall Plan is bound to excite portions of the Democratic base who don’t look back on the last primary very fondly.

Remember: After the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association backed Hillary Clinton early on in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, some union members were upset, claiming that they had failed to give Sanders a fair hearing. Sanders didn’t talk much about K-12 in 2016. might have designed his vision for schools to put pressure not just on his opponents, but on unions, especially during their endorsement process. AFT President Randi Weingarten lauded the proposal as “robust” shortly after its release.

“Bernie’s education plan addresses the serious crisis in our education system by reducing racial and economic segregation in our public school system, attracting the best and the brightest educational professionals to teach in our classrooms, and reestablishing a positive learning environment for students in our K-12 schools,” his website states.

Taking Charter Schools Down a Peg

In his plan, Sanders makes it clear he really wants to rein in charters, and blasts their “unregulated growth.” He wants a moratorium on new charter schools until a national “audit” of charters is wrapped up. He seeks to ban “for profit” charters (some charters are operated by for-profit entities). And he wants to halt public funding for new charter schools.

And he wants changes for the ones that stick around. They’d have to have the same “oversight” as traditional public schools. And for each charter school management board, half would have to consist of parents and teachers. (Charters are publicly funded, tuition-free, independently managed schools. More here.)

In 2016, the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter school expansion, a call Sanders is directly echoing here. And he might also be leaning on a 2018 Education Department Office of the Inspector General’s report stating that charter school closures haven’t gotten enough attention.

There’s no direct federal path to accomplish these proposals, however. Right now, the Education Department provides $440 million to help charter schools get off the ground and for other aid to charters. Yet states still control a big part of the policy Sanders is addressing here. Another detail: Charter schools run by for-profit entities make up less than 15 percent of all charters, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Here’s Democrats for Education Reform’s Charles Barone, who captured some of the pushback to Sanders from charter school supporters:

Less than four years ago, Sanders expressed support for “public charter schools,” although his exact meaning was unclear. And some Democrats remain charter school fans; recent polling by Democrats for Education Reform found relatively high support for them among blacks and Hispanics. Yet Sanders is likely making a bet that support for charter schools among Democratic primary voters has shrunk to the point where his attacks on them won’t hurt him much.

“We do not need two schools systems; we need to invest in our public schools system,” Sanders said in his plan. With this phrase, Sanders places charters somewhere outside the realm of publc schools.

But what specifically does Sanders, who’s technically an independent in the Senate but caucuses with the Democrats, want for education? Let’s look at a few key elements from several categories:


  • Sanders says he’ll “work with states” to ensure teachers earn a salary of no less than $60,000 “tied to cost of living, years of service,” and other factors. Closely related to this, he plans to expand collective bargaining.
  • He wants to triple the tax deduction teachers can currently take for their personal expenditures on things like classroom supplies. Right now that federal deduction is $250. (Lawmakers considered eliminating this deduction in the GOP-led 2017 tax legislation but ultimately left it alone.)

Desegregation and Civil Rights

  • Sanders says his administration would build on the Strength in Diversity Act (passed by the House education committee on Thursday but far from a done deal) and provide money to help school desegregation efforts, fund transportation to aid in desegregating schools, and provide $1 billion in annual federal aid to magnet schools. It’s also a shot across the bow of Joe Biden, one of Sanders’ top primary rivals who opposed busing as an integration strategy decades ago and hasn’t changed his views.
  • Sanders also promises to address disciplinary practices that “disproportionately affect Black children.” That’s a reference to Obama-era discipline guidance that the Trump administration scrapped. He also says his Education Department’s office for civil rights won’t “arbitrarily dismiss” complaints; although he wants to increase funding for that office, he doesn’t say by how much.

School Funding

  • The senator keeps two key pledges here pretty vague: He wants to “rethink the link between property taxes and education funding” and “establish a national per-pupil spending floor.” He doesn’t say how he’d rethink or break the link regarding property taxes and K-12 funding—perhaps because the president has no direct power over those fiscal arrangements. (Sen. Kamala Harris said something similar at an AFT town hall earlier this month.) And Sanders doesn’t say what that per-pupil funding floor would be.
  • Sanders also wants to “shrink class sizes” and spend $5 billion annually on career and technical education. Right now, the Education Department spends $1.2 billion on CTE.

Need a visual for just how much more spending Sanders wants? Here’s your answer in chart form: