I could be Bernie Sanders’ daughter. After all, my parents were much like him, children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City, devoted Democrats with an affinity for socialism, graduates of Brooklyn College (known as the “Poor Man’s Harvard” in the 1950s and 1960s because it was free and Ivy League schools set strict Jewish quotas), and supporters of teachers unions. I’ll do him one better: My parents were lifelong members of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers with a single-minded commitment to high-quality public education.
Of course, I’m not Sanders’ daughter and the whole Democratic presidential nominating contest leaves me cold, particularly the candidates’ universal disdain for school choice, which they freely exercise themselves: Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden sent their kids to private schools, Pete Buttigieg attended one, and progressive avatar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie’s millennial surrogate, boasts that she got her goddaughter into a Bronx charter school.
I tend to chalk up the candidates’ Janus-like hypocrisy to greed for union dollars, as well as a manifestation of Trump Derangement Syndrome. After all, reverse-Midas Betsy DeVos is Trump’s secretary of education and everything she touches turns to shit. If she supports school choice, particularly public charter schools, then Democratic candidates feverishly turn and run.
Thus, I’ve been orphaned by my party. Much more critically, parents of color, the majority of whom support charter schools, are homeless, their voices canceled by candidates who claim progressivism but practice regressive genuflection to lobbyists.
Yet, I have hope that the Democratic Party can once again espouse legitimately progressive ideals that disproportionately benefit low-income Black and Brown families. Why? Because last week the U.S. Department of Education proposed, as part of the Trump administration’s budget, to eliminate 29 education programs and roll them into a single block grant that would distribute significantly less money. One of the programs on the chopping block is the Charter Schools Program (CSP), which earmarks $440 million a year for start-up costs for charter schools, an essential resource for expansion.
Suddenly Trump, DeVos and the party they’ve transformed are unveiled as the most fragile of charter school supporters. Instead, they want to add a $5 billion tax credit program to fund stipends for private school tuition. Trumpsters still love them some vouchers to private schools. Public charters? Meh, not so much.
Thus, Trump and DeVos have found common cause with Democratic presidential candidates, united by their commitment to eliminate an educational lifeline for low-income families who are often trapped in “progressive” cities like San Francisco, where the achievement gap between Black and White students in reading is 58 points or in Washington, D.C., where the achievement gap between Black and White students in math is 62 points.
Here’s where my hope surges. Doesn’t the Trump administration’s reversal on charters free up Democratic presidential candidates to embrace the public schools heavily favored by Black and Brown voters?
Doesn’t this reversal free up the Democratic Party to embrace a truly progressive educational platform? After all, a 2015 study of urban charter schools found that low-income Black students gained 44 days of English language arts learning and 59 days of math learning if they attended charter schools instead of traditional district schools, while low-income Latino students gained 48 days of additional learning in math and 25 days in English language arts. “Rigorous studies,” notes Mike Petrilli, “have also found positive impacts of charter schools on high school graduation, teenage pregnancy, college enrollment, crime, voting and even earnings.”
How This Plays Out on the State Level
Let’s look more closely at the Trump/DeVos proposal and see what would happen in New Jersey (where I live now), overseen by “progressive” governor Phil Murphy. Like the top Democratic presidential candidates, Murphy disdains the educational advantages of public charter schools (all nonprofit in New Jersey) in cities with long-struggling traditional districts like Newark. There, during the universal enrollment period controlled by the district when parents rank schools in order of preference, more than half pick a charter as their first choice (Murphy, by the way, sends his children to $32,500-a-year Rumson Country Day School and $53,900-a-year Phillips Academy).
When Murphy was inaugurated two years ago he kept his promise to the state teachers union and instituted a charter approval moratorium under the guise of having to first conduct a statewide “review.” That review, which drew crowds of mostly low-income parents of color pleading for more seats (the state has a 35,000-student waiting list), is, I’m told, complete. Yet it sits somewhere within the bowels of the state's Department of Education, the voices of New Jersey’s ardent charter supporters deep-sixed.
If Congress passes Trump’s budget and the CSP is indeed folded into a block grant, the ability of New Jersey parents to exercise public school choice and move their children to higher-quality schools—surely a progressive ideal, no?—will pivot on the politics of whoever happens to be in charge. Sure, a governor could use some of the block grant for charter start-up costs. Would Phil Murphy, in a state that deprives public charters of any facilities aid, do so? Would California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose new “appeals process” will “severely constrain the growth of charter schools going forward?” Would Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, whose new budget sharply cuts charter school funding?
And would Republican governors, now free, like Democratic governors, to use the block grant for pet educational projects, restore the lost CSP line item?
I don’t think so.
But, then again, I’m a disenchanted Democrat who groans at the cowardice of the servile throng of candidates who appear as ready as Trump and DeVos to cavalierly eliminate programs that primarily benefit low-income Black and Brown students and their families.
Newark charter school parent Jasmine Morrison writes, “I wish the Democratic presidential candidates would think about kids in cities like Newark before issuing policy proposals that would cripple the schools that so many parents depend on.” I wish they would too. Until then, Democrats like Jasmine and me are progressives without a home.
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 ...