When eight Democratic presidential candidates appear on stage in Pittsburgh this Saturday, most—if not all—will echo teachers unions’ animus towards charter schools and school choice, which have become lightning rods in “progressive” circles, culpable for everything from inadequate school funding to segregation.
I shared my profound disappointment in the political spectacle last week. But now I think I’m starting to figure it out: This event isn’t so much a sign of the ascendancy of teachers unions and their anti-reform agenda—it’s the opposite. The unions are rallying their base in the key state of Pennsylvania and banking on the transactional tactic that their disparagement of parent autonomy will be obscured by the memories of a party that once embraced the values of Black and low-income Americans.
And maybe it made the unions nervous when Senator Cory Booker penned an op-ed (finally!) in the New York Times.
As Democrats, we can’t continue to fall into the trap of dismissing good ideas because they don’t fit into neat ideological boxes or don’t personally affect some of the louder, more privileged voices in the party. These are not abstract issues for many low-to-middle-income families, and we should have a stronger sense of urgency, and a more courageous empathy, about their plight.
Senator Cory Booker
If someone up on that stage on Saturday has the courage to listen to Black Democrats—65% of whom prioritize charter schools and a whopping 89% of whom believe families should have school options no matter where they live or how much money they have—the Democratic Party can once again represent the values of a party I was once so proud of.
Because this is not just about charter schools or even, more generally, the opportunity for low-income parents to make educational choices for their children. It’s about this party’s willingness to ostracize an essential segment of their base that seeks self-determination, social mobility, and an exit ramp from red-lined districts that have failed their children for generations.
The question for Saturday is this: Are any of the candidates willing to listen to voters who are unwilling to toe the union line? Are they willing to show true leadership, even when an issue doesn’t fit into a neat ideological box? Are they capable of seeing beyond the privileged (White) influence of special interest groups and speak to those most disenfranchised?
Because if a true leader who represents all Democrats—most essentially those of color—doesn’t emerge from the scrum, if the party can’t find its way beyond elitist “progressive” talking points, this country may doom itself to another four years of Donald Trump.
Let’s start with this: I think teachers union leaders are on the defensive and I don’t think the selection of Pittsburgh as a venue for Saturday’s forum is arbitrary. I think they’re scared.
Of whom? Let’s start with brave Black women like Sarah Carpenter, much in the news for confronting Elizabeth Warren in Atlanta and shouting, along with 300 other Black mothers and grandmothers, “our child, our choice,” at a rally intended to buck up Warren’s support from Americans of color.
And why Pittsburgh for this last-minute event? “Pennsylvania is going to be critical in the next presidential election,” explains political science professor Kyle Kopko. In 2020, three states including Pennsylvania (the other two are Michigan and Wisconsin), says political analyst Seth Moskowitz, “will determine the winner.” John Baer of the Morning Call says “Democrats must retake the state [which narrowly chose Trump in 2016] in order to boot Trump out.”
As goes Pennsylvania, so goes the 2020 election. Union leaders are gambling that underprivileged Democrats don’t think school quality is a deal-breaker.
I think they may be wrong.
Let’s look back on some recent history, using “school choice” as a loose stand-in for Black educational autonomy.
Bill Clinton, a staunch charter supporter, won Pennsylvania in 1992 and 1996 by about 10 points.
Al Gore, who won Pennsylvania in 2000 by close to 5 points, said, “If I was the parent of a child who went to an inner-city school that was failing, I might be for vouchers, too.”
Barack Obama, who won Pennsylvania in 2008 and 20016, released an official proclamation during National Charter Schools Week: "We celebrate the role of high-quality public charter schools in helping to ensure students are prepared and able to seize their piece of the American dream.”
What about Hillary Clinton? Right before the 2016 election, Politico described her as sounding “less like a decades-long supporter of charter schools ... and more like a teachers union president” when she argued that charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”
Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania. Of course, it’s not that simple—we can list the ways the 2016 election was screwy. But, still, she lost.
Faced with potentially existential setbacks, including the Supreme Court Janus v. AFSCME decision, which bars unions from collecting dues from non-union members, AFT and NEA leaders are desperate, determined that whoever they endorse sticks to their agenda. So they’re throwing Black families under the bus.
Anyway, I think we can be sure that most of the audience in Pittsburgh will be White. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, less than 7% of U.S. teachers are Black. As the Pew Research Center points out, “This makes teachers considerably less racially and ethnically diverse than their students—as well as the nation as a whole.” (For what it’s worth, charter schools are more likely to have non-White teachers.)
My parents, both lifelong Democrats (as I am) and proud members of the United Federation of Teachers (New York City’s AFT branch), would be ashamed of their union’s dismissal of the views of Black families who continue to fight valiantly not only for better educational opportunities but for an escape from generational poverty—which typically necessitates attendance at a high-quality school.
I hope that at least some of the candidates on the stage on Saturday in Pittsburgh listen to their better angels and reject the opportunist, transactional politics embraced by our current crop of teachers union leaders. If such a leader emerges, all our children have a chance.
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years ...