On Saturday, Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled his platform to reshape the American public-education system. The setting of his speech was Orangeburg, South Carolina, not far from Summerton, where the first of five desegregation cases that were combined into Brown v. Board of Education was filed. Sixty-five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. But in an age where school segregation is getting worse and an increasing number of schoolchildren are living in poverty, the onus will be on Congress and the next president to usher in integrated, equitable, and child-centered public schools. American children, educators, and parents need a champion in the White House.
Over the years, I have volunteered and donated to Sanders, and in March, I pitched a number of education-policy ideas to the campaign, addressing an issue that garnered little attention in the 2016 presidential election. I’ve been anxiously awaiting Sanders’s vision to transform public education, and his plan, with its clarity and boldness, easily surpassed my expectations.
Dubbed “A Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education,” Sanders’s plan is the most progressive and equitable public-education agenda of any presidential candidate in the modern history of the United States. Sanders is making a clean break with a bipartisan consensus that has led to the dismantling of public education under successive Republican and Democratic administrations. It is an unapologetic repudiation of the Betsy DeVos–Arne Duncan era of market-based school reform. It is also an implicit jab at his Democratic rivals—namely former vice president Joe Biden, who opposed anti-segregation busing programs in the 1970s, and Senator Cory Booker, who as mayor of Newark wanted to make the city the “charter school capital of the nation.”
At the core of the sweeping platform is the premise that we should treat public education as a public good, not a commodity. Sanders is calling for desegregation measures, a massive federal investment to rectify funding inequalities, plugging the shortfall in special-education funding, raising teacher salaries to at least $60,000 a year and tying pay to cost of living, investing billions in community schools and after-school and summer programs, making school meals free and universal, and rebuilding decaying school infrastructure.
Take apartheid-style school funding. Currently, school districts are bankrolled by three sources: The federal government contributes 8 percent, state government contributes 47 percent, and local sources contribute 45 percent. The disproportionate weight of local property taxes means that wealthy, white children are educated in gleaming palaces, while poor African-American, Latino, and indigenous children are often confined to crumbling schools with crowded classrooms, zero-tolerance discipline, poorly paid teachers and staff, and lack of access to school nurses, librarians, and social workers. In South Carolina, there is a chain of poor, rural, and largely African-American schools along Interstate 95 called the “Corridor of Shame,” which have been starved of resources by the state. A recent report found that in 2016, majority-minority school districts received $23 billion less in funding than majority-white districts, despite serving the same number of students.
Under Sanders’s plan, a “national per-pupil spending floor” would be established, the local property-tax funding model would be reevaluated, and Title I funding, which has gone to districts with the highest percentages of poor children since 1965, would be tripled. There is also a provision detailing equitable funding for rural and indigenous schools and ones in Puerto Rico and other territories.
Another striking section of the platform is on charter schools. In his speech, Sanders explained that charter schools, which were initially intended to be laboratories of experimentation with progressive pedagogies, were co-opted: “Wall Street executives, Silicon Valley CEOs, and billionaires like Secretary DeVos and the Walton family have been using charter schools as a way to privatize the public-education system, take money out of public schools, and bust teachers unions.” Scholars such as Diane Ravitch, Pauline Lipman, Thomas Pedroni, Janelle Scott, Samuel Abrams, and many others have shown how the corporate school-reform movement has lobbied for expansion of privately managed charters, mass school closures, austerity measures, merit pay for teachers, and anti-union policies. The first charter-school law was enacted in Minnesota in 1991. There are now 3 million children enrolled in charter schools, or 6 percent of all public-school students. Cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Detroit have suffered mass school closures and the establishment of charter schools in their place, siphoning further resources from traditional public schools.
Sanders announced that as president, in alignment with the NAACP, he would ban for-profit charter schools and impose a moratorium on federal dollars for charter expansion until a national audit was conducted. An audit would reveal that there are indeed many progressive, student-centered charters, such as High Tech High in San Diego, Minnesota New Country School, YouthBuild Charter School in Philadelphia, and Compass Charter School in Brooklyn. And those shouldn’t be shuttered. But research has found that between 35 and 40 percent of charters schools are run by education-management organizations, about half of which are for profit. In DeVos’s home state of Michigan, 80 percent are operated by for-profit entities. Many have been riddled with fraud, waste, and abuse. Since 1994, the Department of Education has forked over more than $4 billion to charter schools. One recent report found that that “hundreds of millions of federal taxpayer dollars have been awarded to charter schools that never opened or opened and then shut down.” If our public schools were fully invested in, there would be no rationale for charter schools.
Some federal funding for charters could perhaps be diverted into community schools. Community schools are public schools, which have small class sizes; engaging and culturally responsive curriculum; a whole-child approach, where the child’s social, emotional, physical, and academic needs are attended to; experiential learning and play; appropriate wraparound services, student voice, and parent and community engagement, as I’ve written. Sanders is proposing a $5 billion annual investment in community schools. Last summer, I wrote an op-ed for The Guardian about a community school established in Akron, Ohio, by NBA superstar LeBron James. In April, The New York Times reported that in the first class of 240 third and fourth graders, “Ninety percent met or exceeded individual growth goals in reading and math, outpacing their peers across the district.”
A few relevant details that are missing and should be added to the platform include abolishing corporal punishment, which is legal in 19 states, and expanding restorative justice, as well as ending the federal annual state-testing requirement and implementing portfolio-based and authentic assessments.
The Sanders education agenda is an embodiment of the demands of the thousands of teachers who have gone on strike and youth, particularly of color, in cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Newark, and Providence who in recent years have walked out and railed against privatization, high-stakes standardized testing, budget cuts, and school closures. As Sanders has repeatedly said, if we can give tax breaks to billionaires and corporations, there is no excuse for not guaranteeing a dignified public education for all. This sets Sanders apart in a crowded primary field.
Correction: The piece originally said 35 to 40 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit education-management organizations. Thirty-five to 40 percent of charter schools are run by EMOs, but only about half of those are for profit.