Five years ago, the debate over charter schools loomed over the Democratic Party, pitting some of the party’s most prominent members and biggest donors against teachers unions. But those days could be over.
Opponents of charter schools and school choice believe the next two years could be a “tipping point” for their cause: a moment where voters soundly reject policies that have, in the past, been moving closer to the party’s mainstream, and to bipartisan consensus.
The prospect is causing anxiety for some school choice advocates and donors, who have, until recently, seen many liberal leaders embrace issues like expanding charter schools. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are both charter school advocates, and school choice is an issue that is close to the hearts of many major Democratic donors, especially business leaders. But some charter school advocates have begun to despair that their cause could be a losing one as Democrats move toward what promises to be a divisive presidential primary.
Like everything else, both sides say, it’s all about Donald Trump.
“The president is so wildly unpopular among Democrats that his support for some of these policies — which we’ve been working on for literally decades — had made the politics of supporting school choice much harder than it needs to be,” said Derrell Bradford, the vice president of 50Can, a school choice advocacy group. “The politics of it are unfortunate.”
Charter opponents say — and their advocates fear — that over the next two years, they’ll work tirelessly to tie supporting charter schools to the two people who are perhaps the most hated by the party’s base: Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos. They plan to push candidates to vocally oppose many forms of charter school expansion, as well as things like private school vouchers, betting that the Democratic base will be mobilized by a desire to oppose policies that Trump and DeVos have strongly supported.
Trump and DeVos “have made the choices very stark,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union. “They’ve made this a ‘whose side are you on’ moment for us. The public has never been so fierce about public education — I have not seen this in decades.”
Before DeVos became a household name, the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group, had some 22,000 members. It says it now has 330,000. “She’s helped us tremendously,” said Carol Burris, the group’s director, of DeVos. “She exposed the choice movement for what it is, and people have started to wake up.”
To Weingarten, there is no nuance around DeVos — and that kind of intensity will be the driving message for unions in a newly open political environment for Democrats.
“In her heart, [DeVos] doesn’t care about children,” she said. “She is an adversary. She demonizes us, she demagogues us, but she does it while smiling. That’s part of why I find her so dislikeable — don’t smile at somebody and then put a knife in their back. That’s what she’s doing.”
Like activists for a wide range of causes, advocates on both sides are acutely aware that the midterms, and especially the presidential race, will shape the Democratic Party’s direction on policy. Many school choice advocates — including Bradford, a lifelong Democrat — still have high hopes for Cory Booker, for instance. As the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Booker pushed the rapid expansion of charter schools with the help of Mark Zuckerberg — and much to the dismay of teachers unions. And he has long fostered bipartisan relationships.
“Of all the people I keep hearing about, Cory is the one with the history that would say he’s friendliest to what most [education reformers] believe,” said Bradford.
But national politics have already shifted the way Booker talks about charters: He has toned down much of his rhetoric, people on both sides note, becoming a sharp critic of DeVos’s.
“He’s already talking about it much less,” said one prominent school choice advocate.
“A year before [Booker] was cutting up Betsy DeVos in a Senate hearing, we were backstage with her at an event,” Bradford said.
Though advocates are concerned about the prospect of finding a candidate who vocally supports their position, on the other side of the issue, Bradford said, “It is absolutely certain that someone will emerge in the primary on the very far left who denounces all of this.” Some candidate will, Bradford expects, “be demonizing charter schools and their advocates, and vilifying them — and they’ll be very vocal in the primary.”
Some charter advocates are dubious that union tactics will sway voters, or deter candidates, more than they have in past years. Unions have long made some Democrats hesitant to come out in favor of policies like charter schools and vouchers, and those who have — like Obama and Booker – have done so in the face of fierce union opposition. Before it called for the resignation of Betsy DeVos, the country's largest teachers union demanded that Arne Duncan, Obama's education secretary, resign in 2014.
“These are things that elected officials have had to deal with for years,” said one prominent Democratic donor and charter supporter. “If the unions didn’t have Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump, they’d just create some other scare tactic. Maybe this one will take a little more time for [charter supporters] to work around, but they’ve had to deal with this before.”
Many other prospective candidates have yet to solidify their positions on charters and what education reform should look like. But Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of the left, came out against a ballot measure to allow new charter schools in Massachusetts in late 2016 — a measure closely watched by charter supporters and opponents alike. (The measure eventually failed, a major blow to charter advocates.)
Both sides say they are taking advantage of the fact that other notable Democrats, like Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, haven’t taken strong stances on issues of education choice, hoping to win them over. But some charter advocates are approaching the issue carefully.
Among many big Democratic donors, who overwhelmingly support school choice, “There’s an appetite to ensure that whoever the next Democratic nominee is is a supporter,” said Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter advocacy group reviled by teachers unions. “But whether or not that’s a big issue, in terms of the public debate, is another question.”
Part of that, Jeffries said, is because candidates and donors have other issues that they put before education, especially in the Trump era. But, he said, “for some of the [potential presidential candidates], there’s an idea that, ‘I don’t want to get in the middle of that firefight right now.’”
Charter schools are still broadly popular, supported by more Americans than those who oppose them. But polls by two pro-charter groups found that support for them has dropped sharply in the past year — falling to 39% from 51% in 2016. When Trump’s position on charters was cited, one poll found, 31% of Democrats said they supported charters, and 46% said they were opposed.
Charters are also not particularly popular among two groups that are likely to be key to Democrats in the next election: white suburban women, who were major players in a movement to have children opt out of standardized testing, and rural voters, who strongly support public schools. Some prominent left-leaning groups, too, have taken sharply anti-charter stances in recent years: The NAACP has called, alongside groups associated with the broader Black Lives Matter movement, for a temporary moratorium on charter schools.
Still, it’s not clear that an effort to tie people like Booker to Trump with education policy will be effective. Charter school opponents tried that in local elections across the country in 2017 without noticeable luck, losing a major election in Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest school district, in which they had spent millions and played the DeVos card. And teachers unions' main victory, the loss in Massachusetts, came before DeVos became a national figure.
Some donors are hopeful that voters are looking for candidates who can, first and foremost, beat Trump, and are likely to throw their support behind middle-of-the-road candidates — those more likely to support charters.
“The unions may want to use [DeVos and charters] as a wedge in the primary, but that turns into a loser in the general,” said the Democratic donor. “An issue like this might traditionally help a lefty win the primary, but I don’t think that’s going to work this time. So much of the party is in a place where they want people to win the general.”
Jeffries, who has been sharply critical of DeVos, said he and Democrats for Education Reform plan to “fight” against attempts to smear school choice candidates in the coming elections with Trump. To get out of the shadow of a man who is uniquely unpopular among Democrats, the messaging, Jeffries said, will be focused on the Democrats’ most popular politician.
“We’re very clear about the legacy in which we operate. We operate within the legacy of Barack Obama. His agenda is our agenda, and it’s an agenda that hundreds of Democrats across the country support.”
When Americans are asked what their top policy priorities are, they repeatedly name education more than almost any issue — a Pew poll in January ranked it second only to the economy. But so far, it’s barely made a blip in national electoral politics, in part because education is mostly local: On the national level, politicians have little control.
But recent presidents have had outsized impacts on education: George W. Bush shaped decades of education policy with his No Child Left Behind bill, and Obama used stimulus money to push states to adopt education reform policies like charter expansion, angering teachers unions.
The lack of debate around education in national politics could change because of Betsy DeVos, said Nick Melvoin, a Democratic school choice advocate who won a seat on Los Angeles’s school board last year. A backer of charter schools, he won in large part, he said, by distancing himself from DeVos’s policies on everything from immigration to transgender students’ rights.
In the next few years, he said, he anticipates candidates will be forced to take strong stances on education issues, as long as DeVos remains such a charged figure.
“The fact that DeVos is such a lightning rod has highlighted issues of educational inequality and inequity,” Melvoin said. “The fact that we’re talking about her so much means that it’s something that any candidate in the election is going to have to address — the question of how to appoint the anti-DeVos.”
A natural “anti-DeVos” might be opposed to school choice, DeVos’s pet issue. But Melvoin is hopeful, he said, that in the Democratic primary there will be an “interesting, nuanced conversation about education and school choice.”