Why America’s Teachers’ Unions Must Endorse Bernie Sanders

No other presidential candidate has anywhere near as strong a platform on public education as Bernie Sanders. That’s why America’s teachers’ unions should endorse him for president.

Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall at Cheyenne High School on August 4, 2019 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

In my nearly two decades as a teacher, I have not seen a more comprehensive and forward-thinking plan as Senator Bernie Sanders’s K-12 education plan. That plan, along with Sanders’s unwavering support for teachers’ unions and the labor movement more broadly throughout his political career, make the choice for a presidential endorsement clear: American teachers’ unions must endorse Bernie Sanders for president.

Sanders’s education plan reads as both a promise to our young people that they shall have access to equitable, high-quality resources in their classrooms and as a repudiation of two decades of failed education reforms. The most prominent example is Sanders’s inclusion of a moratorium on new charter schools, as advocated by the NAACP.

Diane Ravitch, a former proponent of the publicly funded, privately managed schools, now refers to them as a “colossal mistake.” Charters have been shown to resegregate school districts and offer no better outcomes than neighborhood public schools.

Sanders plans to triple Title 1 funding, providing more resources to cash-strapped schools that serve our poorest students. This is a reversal of the failed No Child Left Behind Act, which decreased funding to the schools that needed it the most, and a strong repudiation of the corporate education reform pushed by both Republicans and Democrats since the 1990s.

Sanders has also proposed a universal school lunch program, which will end the shaming of students who cannot afford to pay their lunch bills. Many students depend on these lunches to survive; under Sanders’s plan, students will not have to demonstrate need to receive a healthy meal.

Sanders’s plan would not only undo decades of damage from the “school reform movement,” but it would also expand and strengthen education for the masses more generally. His campaign will force conversations about school segregation, privatization, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Association with the “school reform movement” became a bona fide for both Democrats and Republicans since the early 2000s. The model for politicians is to make public statements about how the status quo has failed our children and how we need a new educational paradigm to improve student outcomes. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform provided talking points and policies for these politicians to push to their communities. Entire districts were overhauled to make space for charter schools, merit pay schemes, and “data-driven” education systems that attacked teachers. Sanders sharply breaks from this paradigm.

Out of all the candidates, Sanders is the one whose platform will most improve the lives of educators and the students we serve. Our students and their parents need Medicare for All — not to mention that a free, high-quality public health plan would allow educators to focus our contract demands on higher pay and better classroom resources instead of constantly fighting to keep up with rising health care costs.

Sanders’s education plan digs deeper than his overall platform and gets to the core of what’s wrong with education reform. He starts with the belly of the beast: charter schools.

Charter schools, which once held the promise of teaching the most underserved students in urban districts in personalized and creative ways that best serve their needs, have become patronage troughs used for union-busting and resegregating schools. These schools promise to change education for working-class students, yet they have shown no improvement over neighborhood public schools (and, in many cases, do worse).

Elizabeth Warren has said that she will nominate a public school teacher to be her secretary of education. But she chose former Teach for America corps member Joshua Delaney to head her education policy. Delaney only completed one year in the classroom before switching to “education reform” endeavors. We know that in the reform arena, TFA supports charter schools, merit pay, and weakening teachers’ unions.

New Jersey senator Cory Booker’s education record is much worse. The charter school movement helped him move from mayor of Newark to senator to major presidential candidate. Booker was not only the poster child for Democrats for Education Reform because of his years of support for education privatization, but he also sat on the board of the Alliance for School Choice with Trump-appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, where the two extolled the virtues of private school vouchers. These high-profile seats propelled his career.

This is a sharp contrast to Sanders, who built his political power not through neoliberal benefactors but through grassroots people power.

Sanders named his education proposal after Thurgood Marshall, the young attorney who argued successfully to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education and later became the first black Supreme Court justice. Sanders’s plan will continue the promise of integrated schools by pushing districts to hire more teachers of color and end the mass suspensions of black students, which contribute directly to the school-to-prison pipeline. His plan includes appointing monitors in districts to ensure that the Civil Rights Act’s provisions are enforced in schools.

Sanders’s plan includes the NAACP’s recent call for a moratorium on new charter schools. He has also proposed accountability for largely unaccountable charter schools by requiring charter boards to include parents and educators, not just people appointed by charter directors.

Charter schools are motivated by dismantling public education and the potential accumulation of profit. Sanders will require charters to match the standards set by educator employment contracts, ending the practice of using charters as an end run around teachers’ unions to undercut them. He is also proposing equitable funding, strengthening the protections for students with special needs, and making schools safe for all.

Sanders is a proponent of community schools. These are schools that act as hubs of the community, open before school starts and ending after the final dismissal bell. Students get three meals a day and snacks, and parents can take courses at night. Sanders has also pledged to expand after-school and summer programs.

Keeping students and their families in their neighborhood public schools creates communities that are empowered — this increases their capacity to organize beyond Sanders’s plan, to create schools that truly address community needs.

None of the other candidates for the Democratic nomination have a plan as comprehensive or progressive as Sanders’s. It is a plan that shows not only has Sanders been paying attention to the failures of the education reform movement, but that he also has a vision for what public education should be. Win or lose, Sanders’s campaigning on this plan will educate the public on the ills of corporate education reform, and his solid arguments may force other politicians to move left on the issue.

All of this would have seemed impossible years ago, for politicians to clamor to support Medicare for All or cancel student debt. And it would have seemed unlikely for a major Democratic candidate to reject the corporate education reform model in favor of a robust defense and rebuilding of public education. For some of today’s candidates, that still seems impossible. Sanders will take these politicians to school, and our students will be better off for it.

For American teachers’ unions, it’s clear that no other presidential candidate comes close to being as strong an advocate for public education and for public school teachers as Bernie Sanders. That’s why our unions must endorse Sanders for president.