Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unveiled his plan to address educational inequity on Saturday morning, the day after the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Most controversially, the Democratic presidential contender’s sprawling plan takes a hard stance against charter schools, a type of public school that is privately managed. But it is also unique in providing specific proposals to fix school segregation, an issue that has garnered little more than lip service from politicians in recent years. It specifically addresses disparities in school funding, proposing having a minimum amount to be spent per pupil.
Sanders framed his proposal, the Thurgood Marshall Plan For Public Education & Educators, as one designed to live up to the promise of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling ― which made legally enshrined school segregation unconstitutional.
“We need to revolutionize national priorities and start giving education in this country the attention and the resources that it needs,” Sanders said during a Saturday morning speech at a South Carolina church.
Charter schools have become an increasingly polarizing topic among liberal voters in recent years. Sanders’ proposal calls for a moratorium on public funding for the expansion of charter schools until the completion of a national audit on the impact of these schools. It calls for a ban on for-profit charter schools, which represent about 15 percent of all charter schools.
The plan says these schools drain money from the public school system while exacerbating racial segregation, citing the interests of “billionaires” like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
DeVos and other billionaires, “have been using charter schools as a way to privatize the public education system,” Sanders said in the speech.
Sanders framed the issue, in part, in terms of harm done to communities of color. He cited the NAACP’s 2016 call for a moratorium on the expansion of these schools until there is further accountability and transparency. A subsequent NAACP report on the issue said that for some, charter schools “provide the answer to persistently failing traditional public schools in their community.” For others, “charter schools drain their community of limited resources and harm their children because many cannot attend the charter schools in their own neighborhood.”
So far, Sanders is the only 2020 presidential candidate to have called for a moratorium on charter schools.
“They are making the system more unequal and more unfair,” Sanders said Saturday. “Not all charter schools, but far too many charter schools in America are performing worse, much worse than public schools.”
Studies on charter school performance have shown variation across region and type of charter school. In places like Ohio, a recent study shows, students in charter schools have made similar progress in reading as their counterparts in regular public schools but slower progress in math. In places like New York City, on the other hand, black and Hispanic students who attend charter schools are experiencing significant learning benefits.
Sanders’ plan says he would increase federal funding for desegregation efforts. He also proposes funding for transportation methods, like busing, that aid school integration efforts. For years, budget provisions have banned the use of federal funds for school desegregation transportation.
“Not all charter schools, but far too many charter schools in America are performing worse, much worse than public schools.”
“More than two dozen of Donald Trump’s judicial nominees have refused to say that they would support the original Brown v. Board of Education decision,” said Sanders. “It really is incomprehensible.”
But his education plan also touches on other hot button issues, such as teacher pay. He says that, if elected, he would work with states to set a minimum starting salary of $60,000 and protect collective bargaining rights and teacher tenure.
Sanders’ plan has already drawn intense reactions from charter school supporters.
Amy Wilkins, senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, points to national polls, conducted by pro-school-choice groups, that show black Democrats view charter schools far more favorably than white Democrats. A poll from Education Next found that in 2018, 29 percent of black Democrats opposed charter schools, compared with 50 percent of white Democrats, per Chalkbeat.
“Senator Sanders is literally saying I’m going to stand in the schoolhouse door and prevent kids from going [to charter schools], like a segregationist,” said Wilkins, whose great uncle Roy Wilkins previously ran the NAACP. He is trying to “prevent kids, many of whom are low-income, or of color, from having a choice.”
“It is the opposite of what the spirit of Brown is and was,” she added.
Wilkins also pushed back on the viability of some of Sanders’ specific proposals. Sanders’ plan says he would mandate that half of members on charter school boards be parents and teachers. Wilkins noted that traditional school boards don’t have such requirements, saying, “a lot of this is beyond the reach of the federal government.”
But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the plan and its criticism of charter schools.
“Ninety percent of parents in this country send their kids to public schools, and they want those public schools to be top priority,” the teachers union leader said in a statement.