The protesters outside the Democratic presidential primary debate last week in Houston were not right-wing activists or fans of President Trump. Instead, dozens of black and Hispanic voters chanted and hoisted placards demanding their party’s candidates stop toeing the line for teachers unions.
From behind police barriers, the protesters called on the candidates to buck teachers unions and back charter schools, which they said overwhelmingly benefit poor and minority students.
“They are not listening to African Americans and Latinos,” said Amy Wilkins, an advocate with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools who joined the demonstration. “This is the bedrock of the Democratic coalition.”
The charter schools issue forces Democrats to choose between two key constituencies: urban minorities and labor unions.
Inner-city parents, who are heavily nonwhite, increasingly look to charter schools to save their children from failing public schools. But teachers unions such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) argue that charter schools drain students and funding from struggling public schools.
So far, the major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are siding with the unions, which provide loyal campaign foot soldiers and can help turn out crucial suburban voters.
The pressure on the Democrats to change sides will only increase. About 58% of black voters and 52% of Hispanic voters support charter schools, according to the charter school alliance.
“This is the first shot across the bow,” Ms. Wilkins said. “We are here to stay.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten said charters “just aren’t the shiny objects they once were” and are no longer popular with voters.
“First, the concept of charters was weaponized as a competitive force to undermine public education, siphoning resources from other children. And second, many charters failed to live up to their original promise. The research consistently shows that while some charters do better, others do worse, and others do about the same,” she said.
“In short, there’s been a political paradigm shift that mirrors the shift happening in the community, away from fights over charters and vouchers, and towards how best to strengthen public education,” she added.
She cited a poll by PDK International, an educators organization, that showed nearly 80% of parents want tax dollars spent on public schools, not alternatives.
“They want the focus to be on strengthening public schools, and that’s what the Democratic candidates are doing,” Ms. Weingarten said.
It will be a tough fight for the pro-charter crowd.
All the major Democratic presidential hopefuls prefer to talk about raising teacher salaries instead of offering families school choice. The influence of the unions is even powerful enough to sway top Democratic presidential contenders away from their support for charter schools.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden supported the Obama administration’s spending on charter schools, and when he was a U.S. senator from Delaware, he credited them for improving public schools.
However, at a recent event with Ms. Weingarten, Mr. Biden condemned charter schools.
“The bottom line is it siphons off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble,” he said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, one of the top three candidates in the race, called in her 2002 book “The Two-Income Trap” for a publicly funded voucher system that would let low- and middle-income families choose a school rather than be forced to put their children in underperforming public schools.
But now, on the campaign trail this year, Ms. Warren frequently promises that “money for public schools should stay in public schools, not go anywhere else.”
When The Washington Times asked about the reversal, the Warren campaign refused to comment.
Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey championed charter schools when he was mayor of Newark and boasted about it on the debate stage in Houston.
“Yeah, we closed poor-performing charter schools, but, dagnabbit, we expanded high-performing charter schools,” he said. “We were a city that said we need to find local solutions that work for our community. The results speak for themselves. We’re now the No. 1 city in America for Beat the Odds schools, from high poverty to high performance.”
However, Mr. Booker’s education plan does not include charter schools, and he has vowed to “prioritize” public schools.
Businessman Andrew Yang had been the most vocal proponent of charter schools among the Democratic presidential contenders and once accused his rivals of “jumping into bed with teachers unions and doing kids a disservice.”
But pressed on the issue at the most recent debate, he talked about everything except charter schools and teachers unions.
“Let me be clear: I am pro-good school,” he said before calling for higher teacher wages, less emphasis on standardized tests and improving home life for students.
David Hardy, executive director of Excellent Schools PA, a pro-charter organization in Pennsylvania, explained the shifts: “They are listening to teachers unions.”