An open letter to Bernie Sanders and Amy Wilkins
I love you but you messed up. Someone on your staff thought that it was a good idea for you to make a strong, deprecating and incoherent statement about charter schools that mischaracterizes the work of thousands of progressive educators and potentially alienates several million parents who send their kids to these schools. The majority of those parents, Bernie, are Democrats because charter schools exist in large part in urban areas. And those parents vote. In primaries. Those who were clamoring for you to do this are members of the chattering class and are relatively few. The political calculus of this move was, to put it generously, terrible, and the harvest yet-to-come from those ill-advised words will be bitter. Fire the advisor.
Beyond the political calculus, however, the statements themselves are rife with half-truths. What is this thing you call a “for-profit charter school?” I am acquainted with hundreds of charter schools across the country and I am aware of some for-profit charter management organizations, but I have yet to encounter a single “for-profit charter school.” Who would start such a school? It would be ineligible for grants. If there are any, show me. In the meantime please drop that phrase as all it does is fuel the perception that every charter schools is part of a dark plot to privatize education when the truth is that hundreds of charter schools operate dutifully and admirably in the public interest, providing alternative models of teaching and learning, often with a more progressive, collaborative approach than district-run schools. To be sure, there are bad actors and some states are not nearly as vigilant in oversight as others, but sweeping statements such as “charter schools are led by unaccountable, private bodies,” does not improve the public discourse. Not only is it divisive, but it divides the very people that you need to unite, Bernie. I didn’t expect you to issue a sweeping affirmation of the charter movement because there are a number of issues that the charter sector needs to address more honestly, including the role and influence of corporate money, but the picture you have painted is sloppy and the brush you are using way too big. And now you may well have have painted yourself into a corner from which you will have to either double down and alienate yet more people or don a James Bond jetpack and rocket out. Unforced error. Please reach out to us to discuss ways to help unite the progressive forces in both camps— the regular district and independent charters that see themselves as partners in a broad movement to improve all public education.
Dismayed in NYC,
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Your press release excoriating Bernie for his statement on charter schools reached my mailbox before I even saw his position statement. One would expect a strong reaction to Bernie’s broadside from the organization that is the nation’s foremost advocate for charter schools. And you delivered. But you delivered more than you had to. Saying that the “pronouncement once again demonstrates Sanders’ limited understanding of and respect for African American families” is mean and reminiscent of the misguided attacks on NYC Mayor deBlasio during his first year in office by a corporately-sponsored charter advocacy group that has since died of its own hubris. DeBlasio was wrong about charter schools, just as Bernie is, but the implication that those who criticize charter schools lack respect for people of color or, worse, are intentionally blind to their interests or to institutional racism is improper and cuts off debate.
You say that “Sanders’ call is out of touch—as usual—with what African Americans want.” I don’t see Bernie as out of touch, but it’s the “as usual” that throws me because it comes off as an attack on his character and, by extension, on his brand of progressivism. Bernie’s character is his message and he has been doggedly on message for years, about ills that afflict our country, from income inequality (which sorely affects teachers and African American families) to lack of health care, to the influence of big money on our political system. We may agree with him or not, but he’s been singing these tunes a long time and he is the progressive lion, so coming after him “as usual” is a slam that goes beyond a fair criticism of his ill-advised ideas regarding charter schools. And it’s uneasily reminiscent of the “crazy Bernie” trope we’ve heard from our president. Let’s not go there. Please.
Bewildered in NYC,
Were we to examine Sanders’ entire statement on education, not just the piece of red meat tossed out for charter advocates and foes to fight over, we might find much to recommend, especially his call for equitable school funding not tied to local tax rates, community driven strategies to desegregate schools, and large increases in special education funding and teacher salaries. None of this, of course, will be heard over the din about charter schools.
But the greater threat for those who embrace both progressivism and charter schools is that this is another sign that Democrats are about to let charters become a wedge issue. I encourage everyone with a heart, a brain, and courage to keep this from happening and to help make the progressive case for our schools. Tell your stories, now.
As a famous character from Westoros said: “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.”
Steve Zimmerman is the Director of The Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools