Sanders Supporters Push Party Platform Into A Fight Over Charter Schools

Jeff Bryant

Earlier this week my colleague Richard Eskow reported on the impact the populist progressive movement led by Bernie Sanders and others is having on the Democratic Party platform to be voted on later this month at the party’s national convention in Philadelphia.

Eskow reports that at the Democratic Party Platform Committee meeting in Orlando, where the document underwent the final round of amendments, Sanders supporters “scored some impressive wins” on law enforcement and criminal sentencing reform, climate change and green energy, a living wage, and Social Security expansion.

What about education?

As I reported last week, the original platform document was tepid in its support for progressive education, lacking an overall vision for public education and falling short on providing specific proposals needed to ensure greater access to higher education, to support high-quality K-12 schools, and to address the threat posed by privatization and the charter industry.

Unfortunately, the amendment process in Orlando did not consider adding a progressive vision for public education to the platform, but many of the specifics in the document shifted to the left, thanks mostly to supporters of the Sanders campaign joining with Clinton supporters to press for progressive change.

Specifically, Chuck Pascal, a Sanders delegate from Pennsylvania who will now unite behind Hillary Clinton for the nomination, joined with Troy LaRaviere, the outspoken Chicago school principal who Sanders stood up for after he was ousted from his post by Chicago’s appointed school board, to insist on changes to the document’s positions on testing, school discipline, well-rounded curriculum, funding and charter schools.

The Sanders supporters teamed up with Clinton delegates, including Randi Weingarten, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers, to deliver a platform that “now takes a stand against the high-stakes testing regime, opposes school closing based on test scores, opposes evaluating teachers by test scores, and emphasizes the importance of democratically-controlled public schools,” as education historian Diane Ravitch writes on her personal blog.

A formal statement released by AFT hails the revised platform as “a refreshing sea change in its approach to public education.”

One way you can tell how much the document has been improved is by noticing the angry objections to the changes coming from centrist “reformers.”

As Valerie Strauss reports on her blog at The Washington Post, “supporters of those reforms are furious at the changes, highlighting a rift in the party over how to improve K-12 education.” As an example, Strauss posts a statement from Shavar Jeffries, president of the Democrats for Education Reform, who Strauss describes as “an influential political action committee supported heavily by hedge fund managers.”

What angered DFER and other centrist reform groups, Strauss explains, are the changes in the platform that back the right of parents to opt their children out of high-stakes standardized tests and oppose using test scores for “high-stakes purposes to evaluate teachers and students.” Strauss also highlights changes made to a section addressing charter schools as a source of contention.

Reporters for Education Week noticed the angry response from centrist reformers as well, writing that the document’s support for opt-out and opposition to using test scores in high-stakes assessments are a “total rejection of the Obama administration’s K-12 agenda.”

But in the transcript of the amendment proceedings posted by DFER, it is clear that the most contentious change by far is the one related to charter schools. It’s telling that among all the amendments passed by the committee, the one addressing charter schools was the only one that did not pass unanimously.

Strauss highlights some of the prime sticking points in the new charter school section, principally the call for “democratically governed” schools. “The two words actually mean a lot in the charter world,” Strauss explains, “given that charter schools are beholden to the boards that grant them charters to operate, not the general public, and that they are not required to reveal key information about their finances and governance to the public.”

Another contentious issue related to charters is the platform’s declaration that these schools should not “replace or destabilize traditional public schools.” This statement, notes classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene, is “a remarkably direct challenge to the modern charter model, which says that disruption and displacement of the public school system is the goal.”

As Greene explains, whereas the original platform’s “definition of Bad Charter was just ‘a for-profit charter’ … This new language defines a Bad Charter as one that does not have democratically-elected governance, does not serve the exact same population as the local public school, and that ‘destabilizes or damages the health of that local public school.’ In other words, the new language offers a much broader understanding of when a charter school is Not Okay than the draft did.”

Nearly everyone commenting on the Democratic Party’s platform notes that these documents are often not terribly indicative of what the party’s candidate supports in the campaign and eventually proposes once elected.

Nevertheless, if supporters of charter schools want to go into the Democratic National Convention opposing “democratically governed” schools and insisting or the right to “replace or destabilize traditional public schools,” be my guest.

The ascendancy of the populist rebellion in the Democratic Party being led by Sanders and others has been very much driven by the values of democracy and support for the public good over private interests and profit. Education has yet to advance to the forefront of this rebellion, but it will not be immune to it.

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