When former Education Secretary Arne Duncan championed charter schools under President Barack Obama, critics of “school choice” were in a bind. The Democratic administration embraced traditional public schools far more than Republicans, and steadfastly opposed private school vouchers. That left choice skeptics like teachers unions no where else to go politically. Despite their disagreements with Obama, they strongly supported both of his campaigns.
But with privatizer Betsy DeVos now running the Education Department, the politics of education reform are changing. There’s evidence that charter schools—which receive taxpayer dollars but aren’t subject to the same regulations as traditional public schools—are going to create new divisions for Democrats in primaries for 2018.
Politico reported on Sunday that unions are already linking certain Democrats to DeVos in New York and California, where Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom recently predicted charters would be a “wedge issue” in the 2018 race for governor. Politico noted that Newsom is already using the subject to contrast himself with Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles and a charter supporter. “I believe in public education and will fight like mad for our public schools,” Newsom said at a campaign stop last month, according to the news website BenitoLink. “This is not the case of every Democrat running for governor.”
On the substance, comparing charter-supporting Democrats to DeVos is unfair. Like Obama and Duncan, the vast majority resist her push for private vouchers and endorse choice as a means of strengthening public education. (Democrats who support vouchers, like Senator Cory Booker, are outliers.) Yet this rift within the party over education policy is very real, and has been hiding in plain sight for years. It just took DeVos to bring it out into the open. Thanks to her, Politico observes, “defenders of traditional public education policies have a foil in Washington to bludgeon their reform opponents.”