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How Beto O’Rourke Handled a Question About Charter Schools: Carefully

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 25, 2019 3 min read
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Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke pledged Tuesday to alleviate teachers’ sometimes dire working conditions by dramatically increasing federal aid to public schools and by fast-tracking their ability to get relief for their student-loan debt.

In response to a question at a American Federation of Teachers town hall event in Miami, O’Rourke also declined to endorse a national moratorium on new charter schools. He said that while charters should be held accountable just like traditional public schools, “As originally envisioned, there is a role for charter schools.” He stressed that this original vision came from teachers. And he declared his opposition to for-profit charter schools, an apparent reference to charters that are managed by for-profit entities. (The AFT has frequently criticized charter schools and is often a foe of their expansion.)

During his discussion of the topic, O’Rourke did appear to implicitly draw a distinction between charters and district-run public schools when he said, “My commitment is to public schools and public school education.”

Go here to read a detailed explanation of how charter schools are funded and operated.

O’Rourke has drawn scrutiny for his past praise of charters’ potential to innovate, as well as for his wife’s involvement in the charter school movement. O’Rourke’s response about charters underscores an ongoing disagreement within the Democratic Party. Some, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., want to dramaticaly rein in their influence, yet others point to their popularity among African-Americans and Hispanics as proof that they serve families in search of better options than their assigned traditional public school.

One thing that may signal the ex-Texas congressman’s position on and approach to charters was his recent decision to add Carmel Martin to his campaign team. Martin was an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education in the Obama administration, which was generally supportive of charter schools. (Most recently, Martin served as the executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank typically aligned with Democrats.)

Like the majority of Democrats, particularly at the national level, O’Rourke is against vouchers. And he opposes laws and President Donald Trump’s policies that he says discriminate against the transgender community; he spoke out against a 2017 “bathroom bill” in Texas, for example.

Echoing a pledge by his fellow Democratic White House hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, O’Rourke promised at the AFT town hall event to replace U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos “with someone who has experience in a public school classroom.” This person would help ensure that when the Every Student Succeeds Act is rewritten, he says, a person with teaching experience will have significant input. (There’s virtually no expectation that Congress will revise ESSA, the federal education law, any time soon.)

Here’s a quick sampling of O’Rourke’s other comments at the AFT event:

  • He called for Washington to close the $23 billion gap that an education funding research group found between majority white and majority nonwhite schools. On a related note, he decried the “de facto” segregation of public schools, and said Washington has an obligation to address the situation.
  • O’Rourke wants to fully fund the federal law governing special education. Learn what that means here.
  • Teachers who work second jobs, buy dinner for students who already receive free breakfast and lunch, and pay for classroom supplies deserve better, O’Rourke told the audience. “How in the world can we ask teachers to continue in this profession? How in the world can we ask high school students to choose this profession when we fail to meet our commitments and our obligations?” he said.
  • In an apparent reference to Florida, the 2018 U.S. Senate candidate told the Miami audience that schools still receive less funding than they did before the Great Recession. That’s true for the Sunshine State, but not for the majority of states, according to one recent study.

Photo: Beto O’Rourke speaks during the general session at the Texas Democratic Convention in 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Richard W. Rodriguez/AP)

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