OUTSIDE THE TYLER PERRY STUDIOS near downtown Atlanta, some 300 demonstrators gathered a few hours before Democratic presidential candidates took the stage for their fifth televised debate in mid-November.
In a notable twist, at least some of the protesters were Democrats. They hoisted homemade signs supporting school choice. One sign declared, “Black Democrats want charters!”
Inside the television studios, Democratic presidential candidates sparred over climate change and healthcare, but school choice didn’t rank high in debate topics—even though hours earlier the crowd outside chanted to the beat of a marching band from a charter school: “Our children, our choice.”
That’s not a talking point among Democratic presidential candidates.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has called for a moratorium on federal funds for new charter schools. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has called for a similar freeze, despite charter schools’ popularity among many families—including a majority of African American voters.
A poll commissioned by Democrats for Education Reform—a nonprofit group that supports expanding charter schools—reported that 58 percent of black Democratic voters view charter schools favorably. Only 26 percent of white Democratic voters expressed a favorable view.
Warren and Sanders have said charter schools divert resources from traditional public schools. But charter schools are public schools privately managed by boards of directors, and usually require substantial parental involvement. Some 3 million children attend charter schools nationwide, with thousands of students reportedly on waiting lists.
Still, bolstering charter schools often isn’t palatable for Democratic candidates courting the support of powerful teachers unions. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks political giving, says the political contributions of teachers unions grew from $4.3 million in 2004 to $32 million in 2016. The unions contribute more than 94 percent of those funds to Democratic candidates.
The National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor union in the United States, emphasized in 2017 its “forceful support of state and local efforts to limit charter school growth and increase charter school accountability.”
Some charter schools are ineffective, and some states—including Warren’s home state, Massachusetts—have curbed their expansion. But many parents have praised the schools’ successes, particularly among lower-income students seeking better educational options.
Outside the television studio in Atlanta, Richard Buery, head of public policy for KIPP, the largest charter school network in the country, told The New York Times he views the Democrats’ move away from charter schools as “a reflection more broadly of the lack of respect for black voters in the party.” Buery is African American and a Democrat.
The next morning, black and Latino parents interrupted Elizabeth Warren’s remarks about race at a campaign rally in Atlanta: They chanted, “Our voice, our choice!” The charter school activists wore black T-shirts reading,“Powerful parent network.” The back of the shirts read, “#stateofemergency.”
In December, 100 protesters gathered outside a forum in Pittsburgh, where Democratic presidential candidates gathered to discuss public education. Candidates reportedly said little about charter schools, but demonstrators outside repeated their calls for school choice.
Pennsylvania is a hotly contested swing state: Trump narrowly flipped the state in 2016, marking the first time a Republican presidential candidate had won in Pennsylvania since 1988. Lots of issues and voting blocs will factor into the presidential contest in Pennsylvania—and every other battleground state—in 2020, but school choice remains an ongoing debate in Pennsylvania politics.
Do enough black voters worry enough about school choice to break from Democrats in an election?
A recent election in at least one swing state suggests it’s already happened. In 2018, Republican Ron DeSantis narrowly defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum in Florida’s gubernatorial race.
DeSantis had closely tied his campaign to Trump. (A campaign ad showed DeSantis helping his young daughter build a pretend border wall with toy blocks.) Trump campaigned for DeSantis in Florida in the final days of the election. Gillum, who was the mayor of Tallahassee, would have become the state’s first African American governor. But exit polls reported some 100,000 black women voted for DeSantis over Gillum. A likely reason: school choice. Gillum expressed opposition to charter schools and other school choice programs.
More than 100,000 low-income students in Florida participate in a program that offers tax-funded scholarships to attend private schools. Shortly after the election, William Mattox of the Marshall Center for Educational Options described most of the students in the Florida scholarship program as “minorities whose mothers are registered Democrats.”
That dynamic is difficult to ignore in a state famous for deciding presidential elections in nail-biting contests.
It’s also a dynamic that isn’t lost on Trump. His 2020 budget proposal called for increasing federal charter school grants by $60 million. In December, he invited DeSantis to the White House for an event with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate for school choice programs. Trump urged Congress to consider a proposal to use federal tax credits to help pay for educational services, including private school tuition.
He renewed that call during his State of the Union address on Feb. 4, saying: “No parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”
The president introduced Janiyah Davis, an African American 4th grader from Philadelphia. Her single mother, Stephanie, accompanied her. Trump said the governor of Pennsylvania had vetoed legislation to expand school choice, and Janiyah remained on a waiting list for an opportunity scholarship.
Her mother told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Janiyah attended a Christian elementary school in grades one through three, but Davis struggled to pay for the tuition with a partial scholarship. Janiyah transferred to a charter school in Philadelphia in September.
Trump announced that a scholarship had become available for Janiyah, and she would soon attend the school of her choice. Her mother told the Inquirer she and her daughter were discussing their options for next year. The charter school is popular, and many students won’t get in: The Inquirer reported some 6,500 students have applied for 100 spots at the school next year.