(EDITOR’S NOTE, 6/7/19, 12:00 PM ET: This article has been amended to update the description of Sonya Mehta, who introduced Sen. Warren at an Oakland rally. While she was formerly described as a “charter school lobbyist,” Mehta distanced herself from that label in a June 6 interview with journalist Rebecca Solnit. She is now referred to as a “local education figure.” We have also updated the article to include Warren’s position on Massachusetts’ Question 2 in the 2016 election.)
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) has steadily established herself as a champion of the working class in her 2020 policy platform. But as of this writing, she has yet to recant her past support for pro-charter school positions that would end up bankrupting public schools.
Warren’s friendliness toward the pro-charter movement was recently documented in a series of tweets by What’s Left podcast host Aimee Terese. Terese noted that last Friday, a local education figure named Sonya Mehta introduced Warren at a rally in Oakland, California.
While the San Francisco Chronicle only described Mehta as “a former Oakland schoolteacher,” Mehta is a former policy fellow with GO! Public Schools Oakland. On his blog, Bay Area public school physics teacher Thomas Ultican described GO! Public Schools Oakland as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit “that funnels money to charter school incubation.” Ultican also wrote that GO! partners with Great Oakland Public Schools — a 501(c)(4) organization — in order “to funnel unattributed money into mainly school board elections.”
Aside from Mehta, Warren has closeness with pro-charter advocates and has made pro-charter arguments in her past writings. Josh Delaney has been Warren’s senior education policy adviser for the last four years, and his LinkedIn profile lists him as a veteran of Teach for America (TFA). This suggests that the person who has had Warren’s ear in education policy over the last several years is feeding her a pro-charter agenda.
In 2014, former TFA educator Chad Sommer wrote that TFA masquerades as an organization helping to provide educational services to underserved communities while secretly promoting a “pro-corporate, union-busting agenda.” Sommer pointed out that while former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 49 of the city’s traditional, unionized public schools in 2013, TFA was working behind the scenes with Emanuel’s office and non-union charter school operators to replace those schools with 52 new charter schools over a period of several years.
“[H]aving completed the two-year program and seeing how it operates from the inside, I’m convinced that TFA now serves as a critical component of the all-out-effort by corporate elites to privatize one of the last remaining public institutions of our country: our public schools,” Sommer wrote.
But long before hiring Delaney — and long before she was elected to the U.S. Senate — Warren once advocated for a universal school voucher program in her 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap. School vouchers are heralded as “school choice” by the pro-charter movement, in which money for public schools is instead diverted to parents in the form of vouchers to send their children to private schools.
“An all-voucher or all-school choice system would be a shock to the educational system, but the shake out might be just what the system needs,” Warren wrote.
As a staunch opponent of concentrated corporate power, Warren’s past pro-charter school arguments are especially off-brand. Charter schools have been criticized as a vehicle for corporations to lay waste to public education. In a 2018 column for The Washington Post, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch pointed out that corporate executives like the Walton family (owners of Walmart) actively fund charter schools as a means of bankrupting and privatizing public schools.
Charters are publicly funded but privately managed. They call themselves public schools, but a federal court ruling in 2010 declared they are “not state actors.” The National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2016 that charters are private corporations, not public schools. As private corporations, they are not subject to the same laws as public schools.
The anti-union Walton Family Foundation is the biggest private financier of charters. The foundation in 2016 unveiled a plan to spend $200 million annually over five years for charter schools, and the organization claims credit for opening one of every four charters in the nation. The Waltons and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, using both public and private funds, are pouring hundreds of millions annually into what amounts to a joint effort to privatize public education.
Warren’s pro-charter history could perhaps be framed as wanting the best for children if charter schools were proven to be more effective in educating children than public schools. However, data suggests that a charter school education is of lesser quality than a public school education.
Past research from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes suggests that charter schools may be worse at educating children than public schools, given that 83% of charter-educated students had state math scores that were either indistinguishable from or worse than scores from public school students. Additionally, charter students were more than twice as likely to have math scores that were worse than public school students.
To her credit, Warren has said that as president, she would nominate a public school teacher to be her Secretary of Education. And in 2016, she refused to support a pro-charter ballot question in Massachusetts, though she did praise charters in the statement announcing her decision. However, she has still failed to walk back her pro-voucher writings, and TFA veteran Josh Delaney is still helping to shape her education policy.
Her closest ideological counterpart in the 2020 race, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), has already come out in favor of abolishing private, for-profit charter schools. Warren’s Senate colleague, Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), who is also running for president, is an open ally of the charter school movement.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.