EducationElections 2020FederalIssuesLocal NewsBiden Tells Houston Union: Expand Role of Public Ed, But No to Charters

The former Vice President and current presidential candidate announced that he wants to greatly expand the scope of government in public education.
June 3, 2019
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Speaking at a town hall hosted by the Houston chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union last week, former Vice President Joe Biden shared plans to vastly expand the scope of public education and expressed opposition to charter schools.

Biden, who announced his candidacy for the presidency earlier this year, has proposed tripling federal Title I education funding and proposed a broad plan to “expand community schools.”  

The term “community schools” has been promoted by AFT and other groups to transform traditional public schools as centers for providing a variety of government services such as healthcare and social services to neighborhoods.

Echoing former President Barack Obama’s vision of government involvement as expressed in his 2012 campaign’s “Life of Julia” presentation, Biden stressed the need to hire many more “psychologists, counselors, social workers, and nurses,” and extend the scope of the public education system over both younger children and older students.

“We need to start pre-Pre-K,”  Biden told the union audience.  “We need to change the way we think about early, early education.”

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In addition to efforts such as sending more social workers into at-risk homes with young children, Biden also proposed providing “free community college” for “every qualified person in America.”

In response to a question regarding so-called “for-profit charter schools,” Biden said those schools pull money out of our public schools.  

“I don’t support them.”

He added that he also opposed federal funding for “for-profit charter schools, period.”

Eight miles east of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall where Biden delivered his remarks, is Houston’s Kashmere High School. The traditional public school, part of the state’s largest independent school district, has been rated as failing for nine straight years, longer than any other school in the state.

Due to chronic failure at Kashmere and several other Houston schools, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) could close Kashmere, and/or dissolve the school board and take over the district later this year. Although a partnership with charter operators was one possible remedy, the district rejected that and rejected offers of special assistance from the TEA after a series of volatile board meetings last year, one of which required law enforcement intervention and subsequent arrests.  

The future of the Houston district remains uncertain.

In an effort to head off a state take-over, the Houston AFT recently began running local radio advertisements, and Biden’s comments on charter schools largely mirror those ads.

The Houston AFT radio spots claim that state politicians want to hand Houston ISD schools over to charter school operators.

“The same for-profit charters that fail to serve all students, especially those in need,” the HFT ad warns.

Texas education law specifically prohibits for-profit charter operators in the state.

More than thirty charter operators manage schools in the Greater Houston area, including KIPP and others that serve disadvantaged and high-risk students. The TEA reports that while charter schools enroll higher percentages of black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students than district schools, minority and underserved populations perform better at public charter schools.

As public schools, Texas charters receive per-pupil monies from the state but do not have access to local tax revenue, and typically operate with less overall funding than traditional district schools. State charters are permitted to provide a variety of innovative educational models, but face a lengthy approval process and higher accountability standards.

After three consecutive years of failing academic or financial accountability standards, state-approved charter schools face mandatory closure, but Houston ISD does include several “in-district” charters which answer to the district rather than the TEA.

Once approved, charters may not discriminate, but due to capacity limitations charter schools accept students via lottery. According to the Texas Association of Charter Schools, there are more than 141,000 students on waitlists.

Texas is one of the few states that does not offer any other forms of school choice. Many other states offer tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, or voucher programs, and school choice politics may have been the key factor in at least one major 2018 election.

Post-election data showed that pro-school choice Republican Ron DeSantis narrowly won the 2018 race for Florida governor with the help of minority voters alarmed by Democrat Andrew Gillum’s opposition to school choice.

Former Vice President Biden is not the only Democrat presidential candidate taking aim at charter schools; Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has called for a federal ban on “for-profit charter schools” and a moratorium on federal funds for new charters.

In that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that only about 12 percent of charters are managed by for-profit companies, it is unclear as to whether Biden and Sanders are targeting only the actual for-profit operators or charter schools in general.

In Houston, Biden stated that while there are “some charters that work,” he added that charters siphon off money and assets “for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.”

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.