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Bernie Sanders will call for ban on for-profit charter schools

Posted at 5:10 PM, May 17, 2019

In a major education policy speech set to be delivered Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders will call for a ban on all for-profit charter schools, a position that puts him directly at odds with the Trump administration and becoming the first of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to insist on such a move.

The Vermont independent also will call for a moratorium on the funding of all public charter school expansion until a national audit on the schools has been completed. Additionally, Sanders will promise to halt the use of public funds to underwrite all new charter schools if he is elected president.

A senior Sanders campaign official shared the details of policy proposal with CNN ahead of the Sanders speech in South Carolina -- the crucial early primary state where the African-American vote is a key voting base. The moratorium on the funding of public charter schools was initially called for by the NAACP; Sanders will say in his speech that he supports the group's efforts.

Sanders will also make the case that the growth of charter schools has done disproportionate harm to the black community because it has pulled public dollars away from community public schools.

He will give his speech in Orangeburg on the anniversary weekend of the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

Sanders is the first 2020 presidential candidate to call for such a ban. Several candidates have talked about general reform of the system. At a town hall on Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren answered a question about charter schools and said the focus should be on supporting existing public schools.

"I think that we need to support our public schools, and that no child should be left behind in a school that is not functional," Warren said. "Our whole job in America should be to make sure that every child gets a good education in a public school."

Sanders' position is at odds with the Trump administration, which supports and promotes the public funding of charter schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has long been a strong proponent of the system and recently referred to opponents of charter schools as "flat earthers."

"They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it. If politicians in a state block education choice, it means those politicians do not support equal opportunity for all kids," DeVos said.

According to the campaign, Sanders will outline a series of reforms he deems necessary to charter school policy. Among them:

  • 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

Sanders will concede that the initial goal of charter schools -- to help kids with unique learning needs -- was admirable. But he will argue the system has been corrupted by wealthy activists who spent millions to privatize these schools, leaving them unaccountable and draining funds from the public school system.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, lauded the Sanders plan. In a statement to CNN, she called the proposal "vitally important" and said that it would provide real checks and balances for the charter school system.

"For the last several decades, the unregulated growth of private charter schools has siphoned off money from public schools, with little protection against fraud, and little attention paid to equity or quality when it comes to educating kids," Weingarten said. "The senator's plan takes tangible steps toward making the charter school industry accountable to parents and the public."

Those who operate these schools feel differently. Amy Wilkins, senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, points out that three California branches of the NAACP broke with the national organization's call for a moratorium on funding. She noted that there was evidence that charter schools have helped thousands of children in at-risk situations.

"Sanders' call is out of touch -- as usual -- with what African Americans want," Wilkins said in a statement to CNN. "More disturbing, the senator -- for personal political gain -- would literally lock African American students into schools that have failed them for generations."