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How Charters Could Factor in 2020’s Democratic Primary

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 18, 2019 5 min read
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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 U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, are some candidates just being savvy when they 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 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 in terms of the charter footprint: There are more Chinese restaurants in Bethesda, Md., (where Education Week has its offices) than there are charter schools in all of 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.

Hints From Polling Data

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 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.

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.

How about South Carolina, where Sanders unveiled his education plan that includes a proposal to sharply curtail the charter sector?

In 2018-19, South Carolina had the second-highest number of charter schools of the four early states. 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.

But charters shouldn’t be discounted as a political force in South Carolina, 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., 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 Sanders’ speech who were concerned by his 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 perhaps the key group of voters in the state’s 2020 Democratic primary.

State Provisions

Bowers also pointed out that South Carolina law requires at least half of each charter school board to be elected by parents and guardians 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, pushed back: “Innovation, not segregation, is at the heart of the public charter school movement in South Carolina.” South Carolina charters are required to largely mirror the racial makeup of their communities 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.

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 support 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.

The poll doesn’t break down the primary voters by state. (DFER does not have a state chapter in any of the four early 2020 states, although it 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, as people and groups fight over the benefits and downsides of education innovation, ostensible or otherwise.

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 also have significant political impacts in these early 2020 states beyond the charter issue.

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2019 edition of Education Week as How Charters Could Factor in 2020’s Democratic Primary

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