Last Friday, Bernie Sanders released his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education. There is much to debate and books worth of rebuttals that this plan warrants. However, he advances one central and misguided idea against which social science almost universally goes: Sanders proposes we ban charter schools and has elsewhere opposed school choice. Yet both are a definitive boon for American education.
I am a teacher and want to see public schools succeed. So the only question that matters in this discussion is how charter schools affect children. Stanford University researchers ran a comprehensive study in 2013 and found that, while charter schools lagged behind traditional public schools in 2009—when the modern movement first gained steam—the average student in a charter school by 2013 had gained an equivalent to eight additional days of learning each year compared to his conventional public school counterparts.
The left-leaning Center for Public Education, an organization skeptical of charter schools, can only admit that the differences between public and charter schools may be negligible. The National Education Association (NEA) eschews discussing any disparities in learning outcomes and instead addresses the supposed instability of charter schools and their effects on unions. Both organizations know that, at worst, charter schools have no effect on learning, and in reality there is a preponderance of evidence in their favor.
Even if the Center for Public Education statistics are taken as representative, Patrick Wolf and Corey DeAngelis of the University of Arkansas found that charters are a better return on investment, creating higher learning outcomes per dollar spent. So, even if charters’ effect on learning is neutral, they save money and are thus a net benefit.
Compared to students in the average suburban school, charter-school students don’t fare quite as well. However, the Stanford study broke down student success by demographic and found that, when enrolled in charters, students in poverty, African-American students, Hispanic students, special-education students, and English language learners all outperform their counterparts in conventional public schools.
To some extent, this could explain discrepancies in research regarding the efficacy of charters. They serve student bodies with a higher poverty rate than do conventional public schools. So they not only educate more minority students successfully but also have more to overcome to reach the same achievement levels as the average public school. That they still do so is yet more reason for praise.
While it is not a point in his recently released education platform, Sanders has elsewhere said that he strongly opposes school choice. This opposition is perhaps even more detrimental than his proposition to ban charters. While most affluent and Caucasian families have the luxury of moving neighborhoods in search of the best school, minority students are unable to move into pricier school districts and thus typically stuck by zoning laws in failing schools. Or, of course, families with more money can afford to send their children to private schools regardless of where they live. The rich already have school choice, and Sanders’ opposition to its spread will ensure that minority students don’t.
A central tenet of leftism today proclaims it is incumbent upon the government to support minorities after a history of slavery, redlining, and other discriminatory practices. Both charters and school choice are poised to do just this: disproportionately benefit minority students. Sanders’ platform runs counter to his leftist ideals, so he is defeating himself even on his own terms.
Bernie’s opposition to charter schools, then, has nothing to do with supporting students. In his plan, the language justifying their dissolution mentions “billionaires” and the “hedge fund executives” who have bankrolled their expansion. The NEA criticizes them for draining funds from traditional public schools and breaking the regulatory stranglehold that the federal government currently has. Both are opposed to them because they demand results, weaken unions, and are competitive.
Regardless of its effect, Sanders fights privatization on ideological grounds even though effective schooling is his stated goal. In the face of conflicting evidence, Bernie falls back upon his beliefs in socialism and distaste for Wall Street. The argument over charter schools isn’t about results but ideology and, once again, Bernie’s socialism fails.