Deep Dive: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren on Charter Schools

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., participate in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit.
Dig into what two leading Democratic presidential candidates have to say in their platforms about charter schools with Education Week's detailed analysis.

Perhaps no education issue has been as divisive among Democrats in recent years as charter schools. Support for charters in the national Democratic Party has diminished in recent years, although many Democratic voters still support them.

And in the 2020 campaign, no two candidates for president have criticized charters as sharply as front-runners Sens. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts.

Their stated plans would cause a dramatic upheaval in the charter school community, which includes more than 7,000 schools and roughly 3.2 million students. But how many of their aggressive goals are realistic, and do they accurately describe what happens in charter schools today?

You might have noticed by now that you can interact with sections of this article that have been highlighted in yellow. Click on those sections to see our annotations about the parts of the Sanders and Warren platforms that deal with charters to address how (or if) their plans would work, and to share background information about funding, oversight, and more.

Perhaps the most dramatic pledge in both their platforms is to ban “for-profit” charters, a reference to charters that are managed by for-profit entities. But is that even possible? How, in theory, would it work? We asked around, and it seems there’d be two main theoretical avenues to do this. But they’re both very far-fetched.

The first would be conditioning federal education aid so that in order to get it, states would have to agree that none of it would go to “for-profit” charters. The second would be conditioning federal Charter School Program grants in a similar way. Such moves could shrink the appetite for those charters, but wouldn’t be the same as a statutory ban.

However, Congress is normally averse to saying states can’t do something, particularly if they already do it or permit it. That makes some sort of blanket federal prohibition on for-profit charter schools unlikely.

A President Sanders or Warren could take a baby step in the direction they’re talking about by requiring more radical public disclosures by for-profit charters receiving federal aid. But that’s not a ban.

We asked the campaigns how they planned to enact such a ban and other elements of their platforms, but have not heard back.

One more thing: Sanders and Warren don’t really address charter school performance in their platforms. Charter supporters point to a 2015 Stanford University report on charters in 41 urban areas that overall found significant gains in reading and math compared to district schools. However, that report also reveals their performance can vary dramatically between districts. And virtual charter schools, which have a significant footprint in states like Pennsylvania, have been panned by many charter supporters as well as charter critics in recent years.

Read on for their platforms and our annotations of what they’re saying.

Bernie Sanders' Platform on Charters

Recognizing the problems in a one-size-fits-all model of education, teachers’ unions and parent activists established alternative, experimental “charter” schools to better serve kids struggling within the traditional system. But few charter schools have lived up to their promise. Instead, billionaires like DeVos and the Waltons, together with private equity and hedge fund executives, have bankrolled their expansion and poured tens of millions into school board and other local elections with the hope of privatizing public schools. Charter schools are led by unaccountable, private bodies, and their growth has drained funding from the public school system.

Moreover, the proliferation of charter schools has disproportionately affected communities of color – 17 percent of charter schools are 99 percent minority, compared to 4 percent of traditional public schools. This has led the NAACP, the NEA, AFT and others to criticize the charter movement for intensifying racial segregation.

The damage to communities caused by unregulated charter school growth must be stopped and reversed.

As president, Bernie Sanders will fight to:

  • Ban for-profit charter schools and support the NAACP’s moratorium on public funds for charter school expansion until a national audit has been completed to determine the impact of charter growth in each state. That means halting the use of public funds to underwrite new charter schools.
  • We do not need two schools systems; we need to invest in our public schools system. That said, existing charter schools must be made accountable by:
    • Mandating that charter schools comply with the same oversight requirements as public schools.
    • Mandating that at least half of all charter school boards are teachers and parents.
    • Disclosing student attrition rates, non-public funding sources, financial interests and other relevant data.
    • Matching employment practices at charters with neighboring district schools, including standards set by collective bargaining agreements and restrictions on exorbitant CEO pay.
    • Supporting the efforts of charter school teachers to unionize and bringing charter schools to the negotiating table.

Elizabeth Warren’s Platform on Charters

To keep our traditional public school systems strong, we must resist efforts to divert public funds out of traditional public schools. Efforts to expand the footprint of charter schools, often without even ensuring that charters are subject to the same transparency requirements and safeguards as traditional public schools, strain the resources of school districts and leave students behind, primarily students of color. Further, inadequate funding and a growing education technology industry have opened the door to the privatization and corruption of our traditional public schools. More than half of the states allow public schools to be run by for-profit companies, and corporations are leveraging their market power and schools’ desire to keep pace with rapidly changing technology to extract profits at the expense of vulnerable students.

This is wrong. We have a responsibility to provide great neighborhood schools for every student. We should stop the diversion of public dollars from traditional public schools through vouchers or tuition tax credits - which are vouchers by another name. We should fight back against the privatization, corporatization, and profiteering in our nation’s schools. I did that when I opposed a ballot question in Massachusetts to raise the cap on the number of charter schools, even as dark money groups spent millions in support of the measure. And as president, I will go further:

  • Ensure existing charter schools are subject to at least the same level of transparency and accountability as traditional public schools: Many existing charter schools aren’t subject to the same transparency and accountability requirements as traditional public schools. That’s wrong. That’s why I support the NAACP’s recommendations to only allow school districts to serve as charter authorizers, and to empower school districts to reject applications that do not meet transparency and accountability standards, consider the fiscal impact and strain on district resources, and establish policies for aggressive oversight of charter schools. Certain states are already starting to take action along these lines to address the diversion of public funds from traditional public schools. My administration will oppose the authorization of new charter schools that do not meet these standards. My administration also will crack down on union-busting and discriminatory enrollment, suspension, and expulsion practices in charter schools, and require boards to be made up of parents and members of the public, not just founders, family members, or profit-seeking service providers.
  • End federal funding for the expansion of charter schools: The Federal Charter School Program (CSP), a series of federal grants established to promote new charter schools, has been an abject failure. A recent report showed that the federal government has wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools that never even opened, or opened and then closed because of mismanagement and other reasons. The Department of Education’s own watchdog has even criticized the Department’s oversight of the CSP. As President, I would eliminate this charter school program and end federal funding for the expansion of charter schools. I would also examine whether other federal programs or tax credits subsidize the creation of new charter schools and seek to limit the use of those programs for that purpose.
  • Ban for-profit charter schools: Our public schools should benefit students, not the financial or ideological interests of wealthy patrons like the DeVos and Walton families. I will fight to ban for-profit charter schools and charter schools that outsource their operations to for-profit companies.
  • Direct the IRS to investigate so-called nonprofit schools that are violating the statutory requirements for nonprofits: Many so-called nonprofit schools – including charter schools – operate alongside closely held, for-profit service providers. Others are run by for-profit companies that siphon off profits from students and taxpayers. The IRS should investigate the nonprofit status of these schools and refer cases to the Tax Fraud Division of the Department of Justice when appropriate. I would also apply my plan’s ban on for-profit charter schools to any of these so-called “nonprofit” schools that actually serve for-profit interests. And my plan would ban self-dealing in nonprofit schools to prevent founders and administrators from funneling resources to service providers owned or managed by their family members.
  • Expand enforcement of whistleblower actions against schools that commit fraud against taxpayers: Our federal laws allow whistleblowers to bring actions to expose fraud and retrieve stolen federal money. The Department of Justice should expand its enforcement of these whistleblower actions to address fraud that appears all too common in certain charter schools, including online charter schools that falsify or inflate their enrollment numbers.

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Reporting by: Evie Blad and Andrew Ujifusa

Design & Visualization: Hyon-Young Kim

Photo Credits:
LEAD IMAGE Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., participate in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. —AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at the J Street National Conference Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Washington. —AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., campaigns Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. —AP Photo/Cheryl Senter