Dem Voters Don't Want to Defund Charter Schools

Poll finds majority opposition to Sanders, Warren proposal

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January 28, 2020

A majority of Democratic primary voters, as well as black and Latino voters, say they would be less likely to vote for a 2020 contender who would stop funding charter schools.

This finding comes from the sixth annual National School Choice Poll, a survey commissioned by the American Federation for Children, a pro-charters lobbying organization. Surveying 1,275 likely voters, the poll found that 58 percent of respondents would be less likely to support a candidate who wants to eliminate federal charter school funding. That figure includes 56 percent of Democratic voters, as well as 62 percent of black respondents and 65 percent of Latino respondents.

The poll's conclusion may prove problematic for 2020 Democrats who have been critical of charter schools and the school choice movement. In particular, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) have sought to differentiate themselves from the pack in their vociferousness for defunding charter schools, a move unlikely to win them praise within the party's rank and file.

The poll found that voters generally support more choices in their educational arrangements. When asked if they support "school choice"—meaning giving "parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs"—majorities across ages and racial groups are in favor, with Latinos particularly in support at 82 percent. Even a majority of Democrats—57 percent—say they like school choice; by comparison, 69 percent of independents and 84 percent of Republicans like the idea.

Voters are also generally sympathetic to policies that increase access to choice. "Education freedom scholarships," a proposal pushed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that would make private scholarship contributions tax-deductible, commands the support of nearly four-in-five voters. By contrast, a minority of parents (47 percent) say they would prefer to send their child to their district public school, while 50 percent would prefer a different option.

The finding that defunding charters is a negative among Democrats, and particularly minority voters, confirms the findings of similar polling released last May. As the Washington Free Beacon reported at the time, a poll from pro-school-reform journal Education Next found that while a minority of Democrats supported charters in general, a majority of both black and Hispanic Democrats supported the schools.

Notably, public charter schools have higher shares of black and Hispanic students than their noncharter counterparts, enrolling 27 percent black students and 26 percent Hispanic students, compared with 15 percent and 22 percent in the general public school system. In other words, any Democratic distaste for charters may be driven by those white Democrats who use them least.

In both polls, it is apparent that going after federal funding of charter schools is politically problematic for Democrats. Nonetheless, occupants of the 2020 primary's progressive lane have done just that. In May, Sanders called for a ban on federal funding of for-profit charters, as well as a moratorium on the funding of any new charters, for-profit or not. Warren—known for lying about sending her son to private school—has promised to do the same, an idea that Education Week labeled "very farfetched."

Other 2020 frontrunners have been similarly skeptical of charters. Both former vice president Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg have backed an end to federal funding of for-profit charters; neither, however, has gone so far as to support the Sanders-Warren moratorium.