Bloomberg Offers Subdued Backing for Charters at Democratic Debate

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 03, 2020 4 min read
From left, Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at the Gaillard Center, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C., co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, who oversaw a dramatic expansion in the number of charter schools as New York City’s mayor and was one of their more vocal supporters, expressed subdued backing for them during the most recent Democratic presidential primary debate in South Carolina.

Moderator Bill Whitaker of CBS pointed out that state’s poor performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He then asked Bloomberg whether he would support the growth of charters during his presidency the same way he did during his time leading the Big Apple as a solution to struggling schools.

“I’m not sure they’re appropriate every place,” Bloomberg responded at the Feb. 25 debate. He went on to say that charters provided an alternative for parents, and that both charters and traditional public schools “helped each other” and were “mixed in with each other.” That was a relatively oblique reference to the battles between charters and traditional public schools over space in New York City, during which Bloomberg often sided with charters. And he stressed that in New York City, charter schools are also public schools.

See Also: Education in the 2020 Presidential Race

Those comments don’t precisely match Bloomberg’s public stance on the issue as recently as last year, when he told the NAACP in a speech that with respect to charter schools in New York City, “We showed that when charters are granted carefully, and overseen rigorously, the results can be incredibly impressive among millions of kids, giving them the opportunity to succeed in life and pursue their dreams. And that model can work nationally.” In the same speech, he did share concerns about charters as well.

Bloomberg’s record of enthusiastically backing charter schools sets him apart from the other Democrats on the stage. But neither his debate comments nor his record concerning charters elicited any attacks from Democrats on the stage, even though several candidates have talked about their desire to rein in federal support for charters, most prominently Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Candidates’ Promises

Instead, presidential contenders rattled off miniature versions of their previously released K-12 education platforms. Warren, for example, pledged to “end high-stakes testing” among her remarks. And Sanders reiterated his plan to give every teacher a minimum salary of $60,000.

Bloomberg himself didn’t dwell too long on charters, spending more time talking up his broader record on schools. For example, he said that when he left the mayor’s office in 2013 after a dozen years in charge of the city, 23 out of the top 25 public schools in the state were in New York City—the actual number was 22, the New York Times reported in 2013—compared to zero when he started, based on reading and math test scores. And he also discussed increases in teacher pay and school funding during his time in office.

“The only way to solve the poverty problem is to get people a good education,” Bloomberg said as he wrapped up his comments about education. “Rather than just talk about it in New York, we actually did it.”

Notably, however, Bloomberg also fought publicly with the city’s United Federation of Teachers during his time as mayor over issues such as merit pay and teacher evaluations.

Talking Points

Other candidates at the South Carolina debate mostly reiterated what they’ve previously said they’d do about education. Among the highlights:

• “My secretary of education will be someone who has taught in public school. ... My secretary of education will believe that public dollars should stay in public schools,” Warren said, underscoring just how much she disdains U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has not worked as a teacher and supports private school vouchers. “My secretary of education will believe that it is time to get rid of high-stakes testing.”

• In addition to repeating his plan for universal child care, Sanders pledged to triple federal Title I aid for students from low-income backgrounds. “Kids’ education should not depend on the ZIP code in which they live,” he said.

• Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg decried the fact that although leaders pledged that there would “never again” be a school shooting like what occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, that promise has not been kept. He said that teachers should not be made to train like armed guards, and that students deserve more mental health supports.

• During one segment of the debate, Warren cited her experience of being let go from her job as a teacher because of her pregnancy (an accounted that has been disputed). Bloomberg then said that pregnant teachers were protected from being fired during his time as mayor; he added that the city’s teacher’s union would back him up on this point if they were asked about it.

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as In Debate, Bloomberg Offers Measured Take on Charters


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