Speaking before a crowd of educators Tuesday evening, former Vice President Joe Biden said that some charter schools funnel money from public schools, and that he does not believe federal funds should go to for-profit charter schools.
“Any charter school system that does not allow for total enrollment… siphons off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble,” said Biden, a Democratic contender for president. When asked to clarify what Biden meant by “total enrollment,” his campaign said he “doesn’t want any charters to be able to have admissions tests.”
However, a vast majority of charter schools are open-enrollment and do not offer admission tests. Charters are a type of public school that are publicly funded but privately managed, and are supposed to accept all students, regardless of performance. Still, some have been criticized for cherry-picking or pushing out students with special needs.
Earlier in the evening, Biden seemed to conflate charter schools with magnet schools, which do screen based on ability. When asked for further clarification of the “admissions tests” comment, the campaign did not respond.
Biden’s criticism of charters represents the latest attack on these schools from the Democratic side ― and notably strays from the Obama administration’s embrace of these schools. Earlier this month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), another presidential hopeful, released his proposed education plan, which called for a full ban of for-profit charter schools, as well as a moratorium on public funding for the expansion of charters.
Biden’s comments did not go nearly as far. When asked about for-profit charters, which only represent around 15 percent of all charter schools, he said, “I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period.”
He also noted, “There are some charter schools that work.”
The former vice president was speaking at a town hall in Houston hosted by the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s two major teachers unions. Biden released his proposed education plan Tuesday, the first major policy proposal of his campaign. Most notably, the plan calls for tripling spending for Title I, the federal program that funnels extra dollars to schools serving low-income populations. With an increase in Title I funds, teachers should be given a raise, and universal preschool should be offered to 3- and 4-year-olds, the plan says.
The plan did not mention charter schools. Even after his comments at the town hall, Biden’s position on the issue appears murky, said Amy Wilkins, senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
“If you’re a parent who wants to understand where the former vice president is on charters, what he said yesterday, it wasn’t clear enough,” Wilkins said.
The Tuesday event was part of the AFT’s rigorous endorsement process. So far, the union has hosted town halls with other candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
In her introduction, AFT President Randi Weingarten praised Biden as a friend of labor. She said Biden was her union’s “north star” during the Obama administration.
“You all know we didn’t always get along with the Obama administration’s positions on education,” Weingarten told the audience ― possibly referring to the administration’s support of charter schools, of which the AFT has been critical. “But we had a go-to guy, who always listened to us, who always brought our message to the White House, to the Oval Office, and I trust that message would get through. That’s who the former vice president is.”
“He’s with us, because he is us,” she added.