“I could never believe a Donald Trump on the television, trying to exploit the desperation of Black families who need a better option for their kids because the public schools in their neighborhoods are broken,” said Margaret Fortune, co-chair of Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools. “But it also moves me to deep concern that Joe Biden would hand him that narrative, by being silent on the issue.”
Attitudes toward charter schools — which are publicly funded but independently run — divide along party lines. While 54 percent of Republicans support them, only 37 percent of Democrats share that view, according to a poll released in August by Education Next, a policy journal at Harvard. But there is also a racial split among Democrats, with backing from 49 percent of the party’s Black respondents and 47 percent of the party’s Hispanic respondents, compared with 30 percent of white Democrats.
Among the left flank of the Democratic party, charter schools have fallen out of favor even further over the past year, as progressive candidates vying for the presidential nomination battled to win union support. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont pledged to halt federal funds for their expansion.
In May of last year, Biden said during an American Federation of Teachers town hall that “there are some charter schools that work.” But he decried “for-profit” charters, which make up a minority of the schools. The former vice president later said, “I am not a charter school fan,” during a February campaign event in South Carolina, arguing that they take away “options” and money from traditional public schools.
Now Trump — who in February proposed collapsing a federal program dedicated to charter expansion — is calling for growing the schools, while the message from Biden, who served in a pro-charter school administration, is that he will defund the schools that underperform.
The Trump campaign has seized upon a clip of Biden speaking at an education forum in December. At the time, Biden said he would undo Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ agenda both on charters and regulating sexual misconduct at schools and colleges. “If I’m president, Betsy DeVos’ whole notion, from charter schools to this, are gone,” Biden said at the time.
DeVos told Fox News this week that the former vice president once supported school choice and has since “turned his back on the kids” and “turned his face in favor of the teachers union.”
Fortune, who founded a network of nine charter schools in California, said Biden has been “behaving as if the schools are fine in the neighborhoods where … our people are getting shot and killed by the police.”
“It’s not fine. And Barack Obama had the courage to say so and to act on it. And I just want to know, does Joe Biden have that same courage?” said Fortune, a Democrat.
Biden spokesperson Matt Hill said the Democratic presidential nominee’s plan “will not close all charter schools,” as Trump alleged during the GOP convention. But he said the plan is designed to do everything possible to help traditional public schools, “which is what most students attend.”
“As president, Biden will ban for-profit charter schools from receiving federal funds,” Hill said in a statement. “He will also make sure that we stop funding charter schools that don’t provide results. In addition, he will ensure that charter schools are held to the same levels of accountability and transparency as traditional public schools.”
Charter schools have received support from presidents from both parties in recent years, including Bill Clinton’s push for the federal law to support startups. Obama is credited with launching the first federal program to replicate and expand high-performing charters. But the schools have always been a flashpoint, especially with powerful teachers unions who cast charters as competition for precious dollars for traditional public schools.
During the 2016-17 school year, 60 percent of students in schools that received funding from the federal Charter Schools Program were low income and 64 percent were Black or Hispanic, according to the Education Department.
Michael Petrilli, who heads the conservative Fordham Institute, said the Trump campaign is “clearly trying to peel away some African American and Latino voters, most likely men, which is where they did better last time to begin with.”
“If they can even get that up just a few percentage points in some of these close states, that of course can make a difference,” said Petrilli, a self-described “never-Trump conservative.”
Teachers unions argue that, in addition to siphoning money from traditional public schools, charters are not held to the same accountability standards. But charter schools — which are governed under the terms of a charter with a state, district or other entity — are seen by advocates as an educational lifeline for students in failing traditional schools.
More than 3 million students attend charter schools, about 6 percent of all public school students.
Charles Barone, chief policy officer at the pro-charter group Education Reform Now, said Republicans think “there’s a constituency out there — particularly parents of color — who want to have choices for their kids. They see Democrats as not embracing that. So they feel like maybe they can get, particularly, voters of color to cross over.”
Trump cited school choice as a top second-term priority during a recent interview. The president’s signature school choice proposal, which has gone nowhere, would create a $5 billion federal tax credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations to pay for students to attend private schools or expand their public education options.
During his first three years in office, Trump sought increases in funding for the Charter School Program, designed to fund new schools and replicate high-performing ones. Then, in an about-face, Trump in February proposed rolling the Charter School Program into a single, $19.4 billion block grant, which would force charter advocates to compete for funds with more than two dozen other K-12 education programs. DeVos argued the proposal would “end education earmarks” and allow states to figure out what their students need.
This summer, as part of a veto threat, the administration expressed “disappointment” that the block grant proposal was not included in the House spending bill for the new fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
While Congress is expected to ditch Trump’s idea when lawmakers move to fund the government this month, the president’s suggestion still stings among charter school advocates.
“If charter schools are not a priority in a state, this particular set-aside is going to be neglected,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “It’s not a lot of money, but usually when you block-grant something, you are potentially getting rid of it altogether.”
A White House aide said the administration expects increased investment in charter schools if states are given greater control over more of the money.
On Election Day two years ago, support for “school choice” may have factored into Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum.
The dynamics are different in this presidential election. But Andrew J. Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, said the issue could still matter at the margins.
“If I were Biden, I would be leaving nothing on the table,” he said, adding that education policy is “something of a throwaway issue” for both parties right now.
“There’s a circus quality to the whole thing, which is unfortunate,” said Rotherham, who supports Biden. “I think the politics around it are dead serious for a lot of parents who need better schooling options. But in terms of the way it’s treated politically, it’s just a football.”