Roland Martin, host of TV One’s News One Now, made headlines recently after he asked Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton if she supported the expansion of charter schools and vouchers at a time when black parents have overwhelmingly said they are not satisfied with public schools.
At the South Carolina forum, Clinton gave one of her most revealing — and only — answers on K-12 education since her campaign began. The former senator said that while she has historically supported charter schools, most of them “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation because they do, thankfully, take everybody.” The full video exchange below:
Reactions to Clinton’s comments were swift and split. Some pundits and education reform groups said she was flip-flopping on her charter school position because of her support from teachers unions. Meanwhile, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, whose organization has endorsed Clinton, praised her.
The Seventy Four talked with Martin about Clinton’s position on charter schools and how education and school choice will figure in the 2016 presidential race.
The Seventy Four: This question has gotten a lot of buzz in education circles. Tell me a little bit about why you wanted to ask Hillary Clinton about charter schools in the first place.
Roland Martin: I have been a long proponent of all forms of education including charter schools and including vouchers. I personally did not see the question as being all that major because the whole goal for me with the forum was to have a real discussion on issues that people are having to contend with…This was a forum that was specific to African Americans to the issues that resonate with African Americans and education is one of those issues. And considering we had just done an extensive report with New Orleans charter schools, we had commissioned a national survey that showed the overwhelming support of black parents for charter schools and vouchers, I believe that it was important. It was important to ask. It was important for it to be addressed... I’m glad to see people are talking about it and discussing it because it should get far more discussion than it has gotten so far in these debates.
What would you say was your main takeaway from her answer to your question?
She was in a sense trying to have it both ways and walk a fine line. What I mean by both ways, she was trying to certainly agree with those of us who believe in charters. She has already been in support of charters, but at the same time she was trying to recognize the support that she has from teachers unions. She was trying to walk that very fine line. It is a fine line and I understand that. I think that’s why you’ll notice that she did not actually answer the vouchers question, which if you look at in Florida, is a huge issue. Again that’s one of those issues where a significant number of black parents have weighed in. This is one that I think Democrats like Hillary Clinton are going to have to contend with because the story is not going anywhere. It is not going to change. Bottom line is these schools are here and they are here to stay. It’s a tough issue again if you’re trying to maintain your support among teachers unions and then you’re trying to deal with this issue here...I get the dance. I get how delicate the dance is but nevertheless, it’s a dance.
She asserted that charter schools don’t educate the same population of kids as public schools. Is that an argument that rang true to you?
Oh no, no it didn’t… But, look, I get it. This is isn’t my first rodeo. That is a refrain that we often hear. I get it all the time. People when they tweet me and they (are) asking ‘Why do I support charter schools?’ Trust me, I hear all of that. I hear ‘They don’t take these kids and public schools have to take all kids.’ What happens is you have these generalized arguments that are fostered that somehow speak to every charter school. Well, that’s simply not the case. I get the game. I get what people are trying to do. I recognize that. She threw it out there and OK, I got you. We know that’s not the case. It’s also about us being as honest as we can about there being problems with charter schools. To me, I don’t believe we do a disservice when we are honest that there...are charter schools that are not doing the (reform) movement justice. In fact, they are doing more harm than good by some of their actions. In fact, it behooves us to be willing to own up to that.
Did you see it as a departure from either her record on charter schools in Arkansas and in Washington or some of her previous rhetoric?
No, I saw it for what it was. It was a political answer trying to walk a fine line. Again when you are a charter school supporter but you also are receiving tremendous support from the teachers union and groups that are in opposition to that kind of reform. Let’s keep in mind you also have Democrats for Education Reform and they help people as well, people who are superdelegates and people who are going to be endorsing and people who are going to be involved in campaigns. So I do not expect her to come out with a full...endorsement of charter schools and vouchers. And I didn’t expect her to condemn (them). Her answer was exactly what I expected in terms of walking that fine line. Frankly, if I was her I would have answered it in a different way....Do I support charter schools? Yes. Do I support traditional schools? Yes. What I am most in support of is what works. I am not in support of what doesn’t work. So therefore, I am not going to support charter schools that are failures just like I am not going to support traditional schools that consistently fail our kids. We need to be focused on what works as opposed to what fails...People understand that you are not condemning, you’re not trashing. You are establishing a base level of accountability, which I don’t think anybody would get mad at.
You talked a little bit about the survey that was done of African- American parents and it seems to align with other surveys that have been done about how African Americans are particularly supportive of things like charter schools and vouchers. Why do you think your most recent survey showed that so strongly? What about this issue strikes a chord with African Americans?
Anybody who understands the history of black people in American, needs to understand that African Americans have always — and I mean always — been supportive of education. One of the most illuminating books out there is James D Anderson’s book “The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1930” … Blacks folks knew there was something powerful about education when slave owners tried all they could to keep them from learning how to read. Anybody with some common sense knows that when somebody tries that hard to keep you away from something, that must mean there’s something real good about what they are trying to keep you from. The reason we have publicly financed education in the South as Anderson articulates, is because of freed slaves who went on to join the state legislature in many places. Those individuals fought aggressively to get publicly funded education in state constitutions. Even when the great compromise of 1877 kicked in and federal troops were withdrawn from the South, therefore ushering in the era of Jim Crow, those laws still stayed on the books. So black folks have always been about the education of their kids because they have always understood that freedom is predicated on education...
The problem is ed reformers are trying to have a conversation where they really talking amongst themselves about black and brown people because for the first time in the history of the United States you have more kids who are minority who go to public schools. The only way you are going to change this is really when ed reformers..understand that black people are going to have to be the ones communicating with black people on this whole issue of school choice. Black parents are absolutely supportive. Black elected officials, black civil rights groups are not. Who funds black politicians and black civil rights groups? You have got to ask that question...
That is the problem we are in right now...That is you have folks who are ed reformers who do not and I’ll say it: who are largely white, who do not know how to communicate with black people, who do not know how to say it to them and they don’t have the credibility or the authority where somebody black says ‘I’m going to trust what that person is saying.'
When you look at 2016, do you think there is a danger that the black parents who are in support of say charter schools or vouchers might get taken for granted as a constituency?
African Americans are not, in terms of the large group, single-issue voters. They are not. African Americans are going to care about education. They are going to care about economics, employment, health care, a variety of issues. They are not singularly focused. Unless folks are there to maintain the pressure...what’s going to happen is parents are going to talk about everything else but this very specific issue. That cannot be allowed to happen. That’s the difference. So you must be willing to deal with this issue, where it is as opposed to allowing it to morph into some other kind of conversation. That has to happen. You’re not going to see this as the only thing that black folks are going to be talking about because that’s not how black voters are. Never have been, never will be.
We hosted a summit with a number of Republican candidates who talked in depth about their education positions. But so far in the debates (education) hasn’t gotten much play.
No. There is a reason why. And the reason it hasn’t is because the people who are asking the questions — their kids don’t go to public schools. We got to call this thing like it is. I don’t have kids, alright, but my wife and I raised six of my nieces. Public schools…My brother is a teacher. My sister is a teacher. Mother sister was a teacher. Mother sister was a teacher’s aide. So I get it. I know it. My parents didn’t go to college. My parents emphasized education. So I am going to raise it because that’s my experience….These moderators are not going to ask this stuff. These moderators are not going to bring these issues up because their kids don’t go to these schools. They don’t. These are high-earning individuals and their kids go to private school. It’s not going to be top of mind. And we just got to call it like it is. And I guarantee you if you did a story and, matter fact, I would challenge you to do that. I would challenge you say, ‘I’m going to do a story on all the people who have moderated debates thus far and I’m going to hit them up and say if they have children, do their kids go to public schools? I will put money on it that very few of their kids go to public schools.
If you don’t live that experience, if you don’t know that experience, you are not going to ask about it at all. And that’s the problem…The challenge has to be for those of us who understand the issues and the challenge has to be for people in ed reform, to get vocal...All these people need to be creating the apparatus, where these networks are being flooded with emails and tweets demanding that education is a part of the debate. It has to be hitting the moderators on their their Twitter account, on their emails. So this ain’t nice. People in the ed space, who believe in reform, have got to stop playing nice. They have got to get just as aggressive in demanding that this come up because otherwise it will be forgotten again and again. And all they are gonna say is: ‘My bad, we couldn’t get to it.’