After a November town hall in South Carolina, one would never have guessed that front running Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was once a vocal supporter of charter schools.
The charter school movement, sometimes known as “school choice,” is an educational movement that seeks to provide public education funding to schools that operate independently of the regulations and contracts of the public school system. School choice embraces the concept of promoting educational competition by allowing parents to choose a school that best fits the needs of their students, without being tied down to the traditional public education system.[i]
Charter schools are a hot-button issue in education reform circles, and some of their most ardent critics are the public school teachers’ unions, who have a lot to lose in union contracts and collective bargaining negotiations. With so much on the line, it is a no-brainer that teachers’ unions want to spend money on political candidates who will embrace their cause.
In 2014 alone, the National Education Association (the biggest labor union in America) spent $29,908,739 in political contributions, not even counting an additional $2.4 million in lobbying and $6 million in outside political spending. The scary thing? All that money was spent in 2014—an off-year election cycle.
It should come as no surprise that an NEA endorsement is a huge, gold-plated feather in the cap of any presidential candidate.
In a November 7 town hall in South Carolina, Clinton showed the American people just how much the teachers’ union money meant to her. Not only did she diminish the work of charter schools in order to remain in the good graces of the teachers’ unions, but she pulled a complete 180-degree turn on her previous support of school choice by accusing charter schools of all sorts of negative attributes.
Clinton stated that charter schools should be regulated more strictly, and that their funding must not be allowed to conflict with traditional public school priorities. Additionally, she inaccurately claimed that the purpose of charter schools is to find out what works in a school environment and apply it to the public school system, instead of giving parents different options for their children’s education. “I want parents to exercise choice within the public school system. Not outside of it, but within it,” she said, “Because I am still a firm believer that the public school system is one of the pillars of our democracy.”
This stands in stark contrast with Clinton’s support of charter schools in 1998, where she publicly stated, “Every child deserves a quality public education as part of their American birthright. We’re here because we believe that charter school can play a significant part in revitalizing and strengthening public schools today—by offering greater flexibility from bureaucratic rules, so that parents, teachers, and the community can design and run their own schools, and focus on setting goals and getting results.”
While there is little doubt that Clinton’s faith in big-government education solutions is sincere, her newfound anti-school choice “change of heart” just so happens to come a few weeks after her high-profile endorsement from the National Education Association.
That’s right. The same NEA that has resolved, every year since 1988, to restrict, regulate, and all but abolish homeschooling. Take a lesson straight from their handbook:
B-83. Home Schooling
The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience. When home schooling occurs, students enrolled must meet all state curricular requirements, including the taking and passing of assessments to ensure adequate academic progress. Home schooling should be limited to the children of the immediate family, with all expenses being borne by the parents/guardians. Instruction should be by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency, and a curriculum approved by the state department of education should be used.
The Association also believes that home-schooled students should not participate in any extracurricular activities in the public schools.
The Association further believes that local public school systems should have the authority to determine grade placement and/or credits earned toward graduation for students entering or re-entering the public school setting from a home school setting. (1988, 2006)
Not only do Clinton’s comments signify a major reversal from her prior support of school choice (as well as President Obama’s statewide charter school incentives), Clinton’s backtracking also betokens blatant pandering to the teachers’ unions that have come out in strong support for her. In addition to the NEA, Clinton’s newfound stance on charter schools has garnered the endorsement of the country’s other major teachers’ union—the American Federation of Teachers.
While school choice advocates may bemoan Clinton’s reversal on charter school support, this provides an excellent opportunity for other candidates to distinguish themselves from her. Many other candidates have made school choice a centerpiece of their education platforms, and since Clinton’s comments, many have issued statements to contrast their positions with hers.
Families are the most important piece in the education reform puzzle. While the charter school movement has only an indirect role in homeschool policies around the country, it is absolutely, critically important that we have a president who will stand on principle and listen to the voice of families and students, even if they do not come bearing union dollars.
Homeschoolers are right to be worried by the influence that teachers’ unions like the NEA and AFT wield with presidential candidates. As the 2016 campaign progresses, it will be increasingly important to challenge the politicians who are asking for our vote. Abraham Lincoln put it best with his colorful assertion, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
Let’s avoid sitting on blisters, this time around.
Photo Credit: Graphic design by Charity Klicka.