The 2016 Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was pretty tight. The 2020 Sanders re-run, not so much. Joe Biden surged to victory on the strength of the Black Democratic vote in South Carolina, winnowed the field, and never looked back. You surely remember who he ultimately beat? Bernie Sanders.
But you might not know that if you only followed charter school policy. It’s Sanders’ view of the world not Delaware Joe Biden – who represented a pretty good charter state in the Senate – driving policy now at the Department of Education. That’s a problem because it’s a view of the world out of step with the evidence and arguably with the politics.
So one of the more interesting political questions around the proposed charter school regulations might be, why is Biden sucking Sanders’ fumes on charter policy?*
If you recall the Biden – Sanders Unity document, and if you’re a normal person I’m sure you try not to, it included language on charter schools that is basically a distillation of the ideas behind these proposed regs:
It wasn’t a ban per se but it was a de facto war on chartering. It was a bone to throw in the context of how much Biden could move left and still remain a viable generation election candidate.
There has been a lot of focus on the kamikaze mission of the teachers’ unions cat’s paws. Jon Chait has more on that today. But that’s par for the course. And their job as a special interest is to advocate for their interest when the window is open to do so. It’s not to reflexively do what’s politically sensible for Democrats or what’s the best policy for kids. Why the Biden White House is going along with this is a better question. No one expected a big push for charter schools given the politics, but these regs are something different.
Yes, in the 2020 race Biden was hostile to charter schools. But he hasn’t been a doctrinaire anti-choice type. In the 1990s, as the D.C. voucher bill was hotly debated he said he was reconsidering his opposition to that program. That’s another reason this fight is so strange. It’s one thing to throw some anti-charter red meat on the campaign trail or even have a policy of benign neglect once in office. That’s politics. It’s another to use the regulatory process to curtail charters. That’s policy.
You don’t need the Obama position on charter schools. Just what about a Joe Biden position? It should go without saying, as with some other Sanders positions, the charter one plays better on Twitter than towns around the country.
And of course, it would be bad for kids, including in ways that cut against priorities of this administration.
Hard to see how proposed federal charter school rules would up the odds for schools like this. Because the debate is basically about power & control strident charter critics seem not to appreciate how chartering can create inclusivity in public education. https://t.co/94di19u3Pe
— Andrew Rotherham (@arotherham) May 12, 2022
The President talks a lot about understanding the anxiety and stress that Americans feel around the kitchen table trying to make ends meet. He gets intuitively why joblessness or rampant inflation is terrifying for working class Americans. Another stress and hard situation is what to do for your child’s schooling when the school you are assigned to is not working for your family. If you have means there is one way to solve that problem. If you don’t then you need government to ensure you have some choices – especially because, as they say, one size doesn’t fit all.
Sanders, too, has spoken eloquently about the loneliness and isolation a lot of Americans feel – in ways you don’t often hear from political candidates. School can’t singularly solve that, but not being able to have your children in a school that works for them surely doesn’t help anyone feel more connected to their community.
That’s why expanding choice is part and parcel of an agenda that aimed at a more inclusive America not at odds with it. If the politics of the moment don’t allow for expanding that agenda, at least don’t curtail it.
In other words, Mr. President, you won. Please act like it.
*The obvious answer is that while everyone was happily greeting Miguel Cardona as a consensus pick the Biden Administration was stacking the Department with teachers union alums and allies and folks who wouldn’t politically rock the boat. Except you can do that and still not do things like this regulation, which is basically a political unforced error at a moment there is little margin for one.