Why Bernie Sanders is against 'private' charter schools

The Vermont senator mistakenly suggested that charter schools can be private institutions. But despite his confusion, the presidential candidate raises a legitimate concern over how charters schools are operated. 

Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., gestures as he speaks during a rally in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, March 14, 2016.

Weighing in on the perennial debate over public versus charter schools, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders confused education experts Sunday with his stance on the issue.

Responding to the question, “Are charter schools a viable way to educate low-income kids, or would you use resources for public schools?” at a CNN-televised town hall meeting in Ohio, Mr. Sanders said he does not support “privately controlled charter schools.”

"I believe in public education and I believe in public charter schools,” he said. “I do not believe in privately controlled charter schools."

But as any education professional could point out, that makes very little sense, as all charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. 

Tweeting at the Vermont senator, one man writes, “What you’re describing is what is commonly known as a charter school.”

“Most Americans, including Bernie Sanders, don't know what charter schools are,” tweeted writer Jonathan Chait.

While charter schools are funded by tax dollars and are free to students, they are granted more independence in how they’re governed and operated. When it comes to hiring, programming, and scheduling the school year, charter schools don’t have to go through the typical channels of education hierarchy – school district superintendents, teachers’ unions, etc. Over 40 states have laws that permit charter schools, but Vermont isn’t one of them.

Despite their relative autonomy, charter schools are still subject to public oversight and control. They must adhere to statewide standardized testing and employ licensed teachers, both of which stipulations are optional for private schools. And unlike private institutions, charters can be closed by school districts for poor academic performance.

Although Sanders failed to clarify what he meant, certain distinctions exist. For instance, there are different types of organizational entities that oversee charters, such as local school boards or independent charter authorization boards. While these campuses are all nonprofit, some charters are run by for-profit management companies – the subject of criticism for many critics of charter schools and the likely source of Sanders’ confusion.

But Sanders isn’t the only American who’s hazy on charter guidelines. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, nearly half of respondents believed charter schools weren’t public, and 57 percent thought charters could charge tuition. An even higher number – 68 percent  – believed the schools could practice selective admission. Under state laws, none of these things are true.

To combat the public befuddlement over charters, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is now campaigning against the circulation of misinformation.

“First, we think it’s great that [Bernie Sanders] supports public charter schools,” the group’s CEO, Nina Rees, told The Atlantic in an email statement. “However, we are disappointed that he continues to be confused about the tax status of charter schools since it is legally impossible to run a for profit charter school in the country.”

Regardless of charter schools’ nonprofit tax status, critics say Sanders may have brought up an important point. While charters are all technically not-for-profit, many are run by charter management organizations that operate like private companies, which may not always keep the public's best interest at heart.

Examples include paying charter executives very high salaries or buying prime real estate with taxpayers' money.

"The problem with public schools is that they were too big, too difficult to reform, they needed autonomy," Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University, told NPR. "Now, charter schools are run in networks and decisions are being made [far away] across the country."

As of 2013, there are about 6,500 charter schools service over 2 million students in the US. Researchers have yet to agree upon the effectiveness of charters compared to public schools, though recent studies point to their success in bridging achievement gaps for disadvantaged students, such as non-native English speakers, minorities, and low-income students. The overall success of charter schools, nonetheless, remains a fiercely debated topic. 

Although the self-described democratic socialist may have been hazy on the facts, Sanders brings up a valid and much-contended point about the nature of charter schools.

“I want to see a lot of experimentation, but I do not want to see the money leave the public schools,” he went on to say during Sunday’s town hall. “And you may want to argue with me, and it's a good debate, but I happen to believe that public schools, the ideas of neighborhood schools, people from different economic levels, rich and poor and middle class coming together, that is one of the reasons that we created the kind of great nation that we have.”

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