Democratic Voices for Public School Choice

Charles Barone

February 15, 2017

By Charles Barone 

Last week, New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait offered a trenchant analysis of the politics surrounding the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education:

“Both the right and the left have a shared interest in defining the liberal pro-reform position out of existence, and treating support for DeVos and support for any kind of education reform as synonymous.”

Critics from the left argued that progressive reformers paved the way for the “markets-only,” choice-without-accountability approach of DeVos as exemplified in Detroit. The political motivation for the education establishment here is to lump common sense reforms involving accountability and choice together with the disastrous unregulated markets approach of those on the far right. Critics from the right – likely both for political and ideological reasons – argued that those who chose not to support DeVos had caved under pressure from the teachers unions and abandoned fellow reformers.

Those speaking from those two extreme ends of the spectrum failed to acknowledge what leading progressive leaders actually said about where they stood on education reform in general and school choice in particular. There was, in fact, a great deal of political independence from Democrats who don’t confuse support for public charters schools with support for privatization and who favor a lot more choice than we have now, but something well short of the extremes favored by the far right.

Here are some choice quotes – taken from the transcript of the DeVos confirmation hearing on January 17th and from the Congressional Record of the Senate floor debate preceding the 51-50 confirmation vote on February 7th – from Democratic Senators across the political and education reform spectrum.



Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA):

“As you know, I have been a long and proud supporter of our education system. I have supported public, charter, private, and magnet schools across the great State of California. I have always supported a parent’s right to choose the right school for his or her child, and I have always believed that different models of schools provide students with more individualized experiences that are tailored to meet their needs and how they best learn and are enabled to succeed.”

“While Mrs. DeVos is also a proponent of school choice, I believe we have very different philosophies on this issue. Personally, I can only support schools when there is accountability. Schools should be accredited, well managed with proper fiscal controls, and transparent in regard to student performance for all of the students they serve.”

Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO):

“I support parents’ choices on high-quality schools and charter schools, and I think it plays a critical role in education. The goal for me has never been in school choice for its own end. The goal is high-quality public schools for every kid in every neighborhood to receive a great education.”

“[T]here may be a philosophical difference, but there is no practical difference between being forced to attend a terrible school and to be given a chance to choose among five terrible schools. That is no choice at all. In Denver, we made a different deal. A deal that said we will create a public choice system, we will authorize charters, we will create traditional schools. But we implement strong accountability.”

Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT):

“[I]t is not that Democrats oppose Mrs. DeVos’s nomination because we don’t like charter schools. Frankly, it is not because many of us don’t support school choice. I don’t have any problem with public school choice done right. I don’t have any problem with charter schools. In fact, I have a long history of supporting high quality charter schools. What we oppose is a voucher system that dramatically underfunds education and that requires students to lose or sign away their right to get a quality education.”

“In my experience, the supporters of charter schools have tended to be the loudest champions of accountability because for many charter school proponents, they go hand in hand. Accountability gives you sort of a clearer sense of the outcomes in public schools, which for charter school advocates tends to be an advertisement for an alternative way of education.”

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ):

“I have long-supported targeted, accountable school choice initiatives to help ensure that poor children in chronically failing schools have the opportunity to receive a quality public education.”

Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH):

“I come from a state with and have been a strong supporter of public charter schools, strategically deployed accountable public charter schools. They are a critical component to a strong public school system.”


Related content: A Democratic Guide to Public Charter Schools


Senator Tom Carper (D-DE):

“I was a Governor who proposed legislation, signed legislation creating charter schools. I have been a champion of public charter schools in my State and in our country. I have been a champion here in the Congress.”

Senator Al Franken (D-MN):

“Charter schools are not an issue here. [They are] thoroughly in the mainstream.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA):

“Let’s be perfectly clear. This is not a debate about school choice. It is not a debate about charter schools. There are people on all sides of this debate who are genuinely pouring their hearts into improving educational outcomes for children. Massachusetts charter schools are among the very best in the country, and they understand the difference.”

“Before her nomination hearing, I received an extraordinary letter from the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. The letter outlines their opposition to Betsy DeVos’s nomination, citing her destructive record of promoting for-profit charter schools without strong oversight for how those schools serve students and families. People who work hard to build good charter schools with high accountability are offended by the DeVos nomination.”

Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI):

“At the end of the day, the legitimate, mainstream charter school proponents will always want to be able to look you in the eye and say: Look, this is not about vouchers, and this is not about privatization. This is about the flexibility to innovate.”

“I have a great charter school movement in the State of Hawaii, but the deal we have struck—and it is imperfect, and they are always arguing about fixed costs and capital costs and all the rest of it, but the basic bargain when charters work is that they are legitimately a public school. What does that mean? That means they are held to the same standards as traditional public schools because to the extent that you have two categories of public schools with different metrics, then you are basically playing a game, trying to divert money from one to the other.”

“I have a good relationship with education reformers and with the charter movement, so when I heard about Mrs. DeVos, I was interested to hear what they had to say. They were, in a lot of ways, more alarmed than anyone because they believed this would be the death knell for real charters because to the extent that charters are just cover for privatizing public education, well, now it is going to be a fight. Now it is going to be a fight.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI):

“[W]e have a very strong charter school community in Rhode Island. But there are times when it appears that charter schools are used as a wedge to attack public education, and the signals of that tend to be that failing charter schools are protected compared to failing public schools. The standards really aren’t there. As I say in Rhode Island, we demand a lot from our charter schools. They succeed, very well, we are proud of them. But I have read that 80% of charter schools in Michigan are run by for­ profit entities, and most of them perform below the state average, suggesting that a failing charter school is automatically better than a successful traditional public school in the view of that system. We in Rhode Island would not want to see that system move into Rhode Island or moved to a national level.”

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI):

“I support having choices. I support magnet schools and public charters—I did that as a State Senator—as well as other choices that are great opportunities for children, if there are equal standards and public accountability for taxpayers’ dollars so that parents can have confidence in that accountability, and if it is part of the public school system, the public process, and only if they are in addition to quality neighborhood schools in every neighborhood and in every ZIP Code.”

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL):

“I have visited so many schools in my State, public schools, Catholic schools, charter schools, every imaginable school. I have supported high-performing successful charter programs. I think about the KIPP program here in the District of Columbia, in Chicago, and other places, consistently producing some of the highest results, the best results, and the highest standards for students. Is there a lesson to be learned from the KIPP model for all schools? Of course there is. You have to be blind to ignore it.”

Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD):

“Yes, our kids want choices. This is not a debate about charter schools. Many states, including mine, have charter schools, but the difference is, in those states—in my state and many—those charter schools are held accountable, just like the public schools so you know your child is getting the education they have been promised and that it is held accountable to taxpayers.”

Senator Tom Udall (D-NM):

“I support making good, quality public school options available. There are many great public charter and magnet schools around the country. We have some good ones in New Mexico. But these public schools should meet the same accountability standards as other public schools—standards for student achievement, teacher performance, and fiscal responsibility.”