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‘Private’ Charter Schools? Fact-Checking Bernie Sanders

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At the Democratic Town Hall Sunday night in Columbus, Ohio, Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked whether he supported charter schools. The Democratic presidential candidate’s answer — imprecise at best — set off a flurry of responses in the Twittersphere, if not the audience at the CNN broadcast.

“I believe in public education, and I believe in public charter schools,” Sanders said to applause. “ I do not believe in private – privately controlled charter schools.”

University of Michigan Professor Susan Dynarski, whose research includes a close focus on school choice, was quick to chime in:

Even veteran reporters weren’t clear on Sanders’ intent, but were reluctant to speculate:

Here are the facts: More than 40 states allow charter schools, which are publicly funded campuses that are supposed to operate more independently when it comes to staffing, scheduling, and programming than traditional public schools. (In some states, charter school governing boards are allowed to hire for-profit companies to manage their schools or provide services like transportation. Other states, such as New York, prohibit any charter contracts with for-profit companies.)

While that seems fairly straightforward, Sanders — elected from Vermont and a self-described “democratic socialist” — isn’t the only presidential candidate to misstate what charter schools are. And there’s plenty of confusion among the broader public, as well.

In a 2014 Gallup poll on education issues, nearly half of respondents said they believed charter schools weren’t public, and that teaching religion was an option. Additionally, 57 percent of respondents said charter schools could charge tuition, and another 68 percent believed schools could practice selective admission. None of these things, at least as far as state laws go, are true. Whether some charter schools cherry-pick applicants, as former U.S. Secretary of State and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton suggested to great controversy in November, is a whole other debate.

Also for another debate — whether charter schools are a good idea. The research on their performance is a mixed bag, just as it is for traditional publicly funded campuses. A 2013 Stanford study of charter schools in 25 states found slight gains in reading scores for charter students overall when compared with their peers in traditional public campuses, while math scores were not different enough to be statistically significant. There are plenty of examples of charter schools making huge strides — particularly with children from low-income families and students of color — as well as programs that have been found to be badly mismanaged, failed to adequately serve students, or were poor stewards of public dollars. In some cases, like Detroit and Florida, recent investigations by local newspapers have found lack of oversight and weak accountability laws were factors in charters’ failures.

In the same Gallup poll, 63 percent of respondents overall said they supported charters. That percentage jumped to 70 percent when the pollsters included a description of the campuses as operating “under a charter or contract that frees them from many of the state regulations imposed on public schools and permits them to operate independently.”

In recent years, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy organization, has been aggressively campaigning to raise awareness and combat intentional misinformation. I asked Nina Rees, the group’s president and CEO, for her take on Sanders’ remarks, and she emailed me the following:

“First, we think it’s great that he supports public charter schools. The senator comes from one of the few states without a charter school law – but with a strong school choice tradition. 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. We look forward to meeting with the Senator to talk to him about the topic. Clearly, he is open-minded and interested in an honest dialogue about experimentation in public education and he is clearly interested in finding ways to eradicate poverty.”

Rees pointed out that for-profit management companies account for just 15 percent of the charter school market. Another 26 percent are managed by nonprofit organizations, and the remainder — 59 percent — are operated independently by each school’s individual leadership.

To be sure, accuracy and honesty matter when talking about education issues, whether it’s the Common Core (no, Donald Trump can’t force states to abandon the grade-level standards) or defunding the U.S. Department of Education (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz wouldn’t be able do that by himself, either).

It’s worth considering who is advising these candidates on education policies, as Education Week asks and answers. These issues clearly matter to voters, even if the topic (especially on the K-12 side) has taken a backseat in the televised debates and town halls. There is still – almost unbelievably given the current levels of vitriol and intensity – nearly eight months left until the election. That leaves plenty of time to push for more precise, and not just “more”, conversations about the future of the nation’s public schools.