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Democrats Are Fighting Over Charter Schools. Will Key Early Primary States Care?

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 11, 2019 6 min read
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This story and the accompanying chart have been updated to reflect more up-to-date information on charter schools

If you’re following the Democratic presidential primary and you care about education, it’s hard to avoid all the stories and questions about charters with a 2020 angle. Are candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont betraying many Democrats, and left-leaning voters of color in particular, by taking on charters? Or in the era of rolling teacher strikes and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, are they smart to at least partially repudiate the independently run, publicly financed schools?

Those are good questions. But the primary isn’t wrapped up nationwide all in one day. The first few states to hold primaries or caucuses will play a huge role in establishing favorites and quickly paring down a big field. These states’ unique political and policy environments are a huge focus for campaigns.

So what does the charter school landscape look like in the first four primary (or caucus) states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina? Despite all the national angst about charters, is is it possible they won’t make much of a difference one way or the other in the beginning states of the 2020 primaries? Could the answers vary significantly from state to state?

One answer that might stick with you: There are more Chinese restaurants in Bethesda, Md., where Education Week has its offices, than charter schools in one early-bird state.

Need more info? Here’s a handy chart we put together with a few basic facts about charter schools in the four early states:

Just in case it’s not clear: There are more Chinese restaurants in Bethesda, Md., than there are charter schools in Iowa. Charters can only operate in Iowa with the approval and oversight of local school districts. With only two charter schools open in Iowa about 17 years after the state passed its charter law, it’s fair to question the overall political footprint they have in the state, which holds its Democratic caucus on Feb. 3, 2020.

Let’s look at some relevant polling on charter schools. In 2017, EdChoice—a nonprofit group that supports charters and private school choice—partnered with Braun Research to see how New Hampshire folks felt about charters. Asked the basic question of whether they supported charters, 53 percent of all respondents said yes; the number rose to 55 percent when the survey followed up with a description of charters and restated the question. However, 62 percent of Democrats opposed charters, and “urbanites” were far more likely to oppose charters (44 percent) than “small town” residents or their country cousins in the survey, which had a margin of error of 4 percentage points. (In case you’re wondering, New Hampshire has a semi-closed primary system in which unaffiliated voters can vote in a party primary, but voters already affiliated with that party can only vote in that party’s primary.)

Remember that Sanders won the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic primary easily, and he continues to poll well there (although behind former Vice President Joe Biden). And voters in the 2016 primary were predominantly white.

Nevada had the highest number of students enrolled in charters of the four early states, as well as the largest share of students in charter schools—10.5 percent—when looking at total public K-12 enrollment.

And charter school politics there have in large part mirrored the increasingly acrimonious debate: With the support of teachers’ unions, Democratic state lawmakers pushed this year to put a moratorium on new charters, similar to what Sanders wants at a national level, But they were defeated by charter advocates. So clearly charters are a divisive and significant political issue in the state.

How about South Carolina, where Sanders unveiled his education plan? In 2018-19, South Carolina had the highest number of charter schools of the four states we looked at. As of 2018-19, 4.5 percent of South Carolina public K-12 students attended charter schools, which seems to lag the national average: As of 2016, 6 percent of public school students nationwide attended charters. You can also consider California, where a big fight over charters has taken place this year—10.6 percent of public school students attend charters there, a percentage that tops both Nevada and South Carolina.

Regardless, charters shouldn’t be discounted as a political force in the state, at least according to advocates there. Joseph K. Bowers, the director of operations at the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, noted that Orangeburg, S.C., where Sanders unveiled his plan to sharply curtail the charter sector, is home to a charter school focusing on health professions whose principal recently won a U.S. Department of Education award. Bowers said he heard from several charter school leaders after the Vermont senator’s speech who were concerned by Sanders statements.

“Of all places, people said that was the worst place for him to make that announcement, because there is a big charter school community in Orangeburg, and it is overwhelmingly African-American,” Bowers said. African-American voters are expected to be a—if not the—key group of voters in the state’s 2020 Democratic primary.

Bowers also pointed out that South Carolina law requires at least 50 percent of charter school boards to be elected by parents and guardian of students as well as school staff. All board members must also be state residents. That’s not too far off the part of Sanders’ plan that would require half of charter boards to consist of teachers and parents.

And responding to Sanders’ accusation that charters are “intensifying racial segregation,” Carol Aust, the charter alliance’s executive director, also raised the issue of race when she pushed back on Sanders’ plan: “Innovation, not segregation, is at the heart of the public charter school movement in South Carolina.” South Carolina charter schools are required to largely mirror the racial makeup of the communities they serve through what’s sometimes known as the 20 percent rule, although a recent analysis showed that many charters in the state were not following this rule.

Charters Punching Above Their Weight?

Democrats for Education Reform, a nonprofit group that supports charters and has fought to shore up support for them in the Trump era, last month released results from a poll it conducted with the Bennenson Strategy Group showing that 51 percent of Democratic primary voters do not supporter charters. In much of its public discussion of the poll, however, DFER stressed that the majority of black and Hispanic primary voters, but not their white peers, support charters.

Could those different contours of opinion make a difference in South Carolina? The poll doesn’t break down the primary voters by state. Democrats for Education Reform, by the way, does not have a state chapter in any of the four early 2020 states, although it also has a national staff.

Charter schools arguably punch above their statistical weight in education debates because to a certain extent the environment mirrors Wall Street’s: The action is at the margins. But it’s also worth pointing out that the charter school issue, or any education issue for that matter, so far hasn’t risen to the level of Iowa agricultural interests or certain Nevada service union members, for example, that get a very significant amount of attention in presidential primary politics.

One other factor: Various political groups and big-money donors with a lot of interests that might include support for charter schools, as well as opposition to them, could have significant political impacts in these early 2020 states that go beyond the stats we highlighted.

Can’t get enough analysis of Democrats and charter schools? Check out this piece by my Politics K-12 partner in crime Evie Blad where she looks at how the two major political parties have treated charter schools in their platforms going back to the 1990s.

Image via Getty Images