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#WhichBernie Supports School Choice? Inside Sanders’ Super Tuesday Pivot on Charter Schools

By Naomi Nix | March 2, 2016

Photo: Getty Images
Much to the chagrin of educators everywhere, this year’s Democratic presidential candidates have managed to make it through months of campaigning, hours of national debates and more than a dozen primary votes without saying much of anything in regards to American education— or what they would do to improve the country’s schools.
So of course it made big waves Monday, when a few hours before Super Tuesday Senator Bernie Sanders not only took questions on education and school choice, but also seemingly changed his tone in expressing support for public charter schools.
After a crushing defeat in the South Carolina primary against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sanders appeared on the Tom Joyner Morning show on Monday with co-hosts Tom Joyner and Sybil Wilkes, CNN anchor Don Lemon, Reverend Al Sharpton, NBC co-host Jacque Reid and TV One’s Roland Martin.
Martin asked Sanders if he supported charter schools and vouchers noting that African Americans overwhelmingly said they like the policies in a recent survey for TV One. In a somewhat muddled-exchange, the Democratic Senator appeared to embrace all forms of public education but discourage public resources being redirected toward private schools.
“If they are for private institutions, I do not support it, because they are undermining public education in general. But if it’s in the context of public education, I do support it,” he said.
Perhaps sensing that there could be confusion with the public-versus-private terminology, Martin asked Sanders to clarify.
“So you support public charter schools.”
“Yes,” the Senator responded. “But not private.”


Monday’s comments on charter schools — most of which are privately run, but publicly funded schools open to all students — were a departure from what Sanders said at a prior campaign event in New Hampshire.
“I’m not in favor of privately run charter schools. As I said, if we are going to have a strong democracy and be competitive globally, we need the best educated people in the world,” Sanders said in response to a question from a charter school graduate.
“I believe in public education; I went to public schools my whole life, so I think rather than give tax breaks to billionaires, I think we invest in teachers and we invest in public education.”


Sanders’ record on charter schools offers an imperfect roadmap on how his administration would treat them if he were elected.  

He voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998, which gave local school districts more leeway to increase public charter schools.  But he was less supportive of them when he told The American Federation of Teachers last year that charter schools should be held to the same standards of transparency as traditional public schools.
The Democratic Senator is not the only candidate to walk a fine line with his rhetoric on charter schools.  Just a few months ago, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton found herself rushing to clarify that she still supports charter schools even after she told TV One’s Martin that charter schools don’t enroll the “hardest-to-teach” students and “if they do, they don’t keep them.” (See our exclusive follow-up interview with Martin: Clinton is “trying to have it both ways” on charters)
The candidates’ evolving views on charter schools did not go unnoticed by Democrats for Education Reform president Shavar Jeffries, who praised both Clinton and Sanders for their charter support the following day.
"We welcome Senator Sanders' recognition that public charter schools can and do provide essential educational options for students, many of whom do not have other high-quality public options available,” Jeffries said in a statement Tuesday.  “Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders have now both changed their rhetoric in this campaign and joined President Obama in acknowledging that allowing students and families a choice empowers them to find the best opportunity that meets their unique needs.”
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