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Democrats Once Proposed Tripling Charter Schools. Here’s What’s Changed

By Evie Blad — June 10, 2019 5 min read
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In 2000, Vice President Al Gore ran for president as a Democrat on an education plan that called for tripling the number of the nation’s charter schools —a plan that was mirrored in his party’s platform that year.

Nearly two decades later, many of the busload of politicians seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination are hesitant to say anything positive about charters, and some have sought to distinguish themselves through sharp critiques and even calls for a national moratorium on the publicly funded, privately operated schools. It’s been one of the most notable education talking points in the primary.

A look at the two major parties’ platforms in the years since the first charter school law was passed shows that Democrats first supported charters as an alternative to private school vouchers, which were supported by both Sen. Bob Dole in his 1996 GOP bid for the White House and by former President George W. Bush during his 2000 campaign.

You can see the evolution of the platform language in the chart below and explore the changes for yourself.

“We should expand public school choice, but we should not take American tax dollars from public schools and give them to private schools,” says the Democrats’ 1996 platform in its first mention of charter schools since Minnesota passed the first state charter law in 1991. “We should promote public charter schools that are held to the highest standards of accountability and access.”

But the party has added conditions to its support of the concept, at least in print, while Republicans have largely remained consistent in lauding both private-school vouchers and charters.

Some highlights:

  • In 2004, Republicans’ support for charters included a call for assistance with facilities, a major issue for the sector.
  • In 2008, Democrats specifically mentioned promoting charter schools “that are accountable,” along with other priorities, like reforming teacher-preparation programs.
  • In 2012, Republicans listed virtual schools among the options they supported. Concerns about accountability of virtual charter schools have divided some in the school choice advocacy community.
  • In 2016, the Democratic platform included opposition to charter schools managed by for-profit organizations, calls for “increased transparency and accountability for all charter schools,” and a statement that “charter schools must reflect their communities” by enrolling proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.

Recent Democratic Platform Shifts on Charter Schools

Since Gore called for tripling charter schools in 2000, the number of charters has grown from 2,000 to about 7,000, federal data show.

The shifts in opinion among Democrats run parallel to changes in the charter sector itself, changes covered well by Education Week reporter Arianna Prothero in this 2016 story on the 25th anniversary of the original state charter law. While it started small, today’s charter sector has “thousands of schools, millions of students, a cadre of deep-pocketed benefactors, dozens of advocacy groups, and sophisticated networks of schools that in some cases dwarf the nation’s average-size school district,” Prothero wrote.

Recent campaign rhetoric doesn’t match the policies of the most-recent Democratic president. In the last decade, civil rights groups criticized President Barack Obama’s Education Department for its support of charters. And 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton changed course to criticize charter schools after previously supporting them as first lady.

What has led to the shift? People on both sides of the charter debate are quick to answer.

Maybe Democratic candidates are now seeking to pull away from a crowded field in hopes of a valuable endorsement from national teachers’ unions, which are critical of charter schools, some have argued. Maybe the shift is reflective of a concern that, as the charter sector has grown, systems of accountability and oversight have not kept up. Maybe U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a highly divisive and highly visible advocate of all forms of school choice, has pushed the issue further into the mainstream debate. Maybe voters, wary of how some states’ education funding hasn’t bounced back to prerecession levels, are more critical of how those funds are spent. Maybe voters in areas with few or no charter schools aren’t aware of their successes or don’t fully understand the concept, some say.

What will the party platform look like in 2020? It may very well depend on who Democrats select as their nominee. While Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., drew a line in the sand with an aggressive plan that called for reining in charter schools, candidates like former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have faced questions about their past involvement with charter schools.

Booker brushed aside a question about charters at an Iowa event in February, saying they represent a small proportion of all schools and he wants “great public education for all of our children.” O’Rourke, whose wife, Amy, founded a charter school, said in April that there is “real value” in charter schools that are run by nonprofit organizations and share their ideas, but “we cannot charter our way out of public school challenges.”

The current Democratic front runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, didn’t include charter schools in his recent education plan. In response to a question at a teachers’ union event, he said only that he doesn’t support federal funding for “for-profit” charters.

For all of the discussion, charter schools enroll only about 6 percent of the nation’s public school students, with larger concentrations in some cities and states. And voters themselves often have nuanced opinions about education that are informed by their own experiences. In the case of charter schools, those opinions can be complicated and don’t always split along typical political fault lines. A poll released in May by Democrats For Education Reform, which supports charters, found that 51 percent of Democratic primary voters had an unfavorable view of charter schools, compared to 28 percent of all presidential voters. Black and Hispanic Democrats were much more likely to view charter schools favorably than their white peers, the poll found.

As candidates announce further education plans, it will be interesting to see how they address the issue and how the debate shapes up on other priorities, like teacher pay, Title I funding, and civil rights enforcement.