Why Democratic Presidential Candidates May Have to Choose Between Teacher Pay Raises and Charter Schools

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By Jeff Bryant,  a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm. Produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute

For years, the safe havens for education policy debate in the Democratic Party have been expanding pre-K programs and providing more affordable college, but in the current presidential primary contest, another consensus issue has been added to the party’s agenda: salary increases for K–12 classroom teachers. Kamala Harris has gotten the most press for coming out strongly for raising teacher wages, but other frontrunners including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders have also called for increased teacher pay.

But what will happen when a consensus issue like teacher salary increases comes into conflict with a lightning rod issue like charter schools? That’s a scenario currently playing out in Florida.

A recent law passed by the majority Republican Florida state legislature and signed by newly elected Republican Governor Ron DeSantis will force local school districts to share portions of their locally appropriated tax money with charter schools, even if those funds are raised for the express purpose of increasing teacher salaries in district-operated public schools. (Charter schools in Florida, as in many states, do not receive funds that are raised through bond referendums, mill levies, or other forms of local funding initiatives.)

Florida teachers have openly opposed the new law, and local school districts have taken it to court to have it overthrown. But given this new law, it’s not at all hard to imagine a scenario, even at the national level, where Democrats pushing to increase funds for teacher pay will have to confront an expanding charter school industry—and now voucher programs—that would claim their portion of that money to use as private institutions for whatever purposes they wish.

“An Effort to Redefine Public Schools”

“The problem with charter schools isn’t that they’re competing with public schools; it’s that they’re supplanting public schools,” says Justin Katz in a phone call. Katz, who is president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, recently helped organize a rally in West Palm Beach where more than 200 teachers and public school advocates showed up to voice their opposition to distributing funds raised by local tax increases to charter schools.

The protest “was very specific, local, and personal,” Katz explains, because voters in the county had approved $200 million in funding for their schools in a measure that specified increases could be used for teacher raises in traditional public schools and not for funding charter schools.

The referendum was overwhelmingly approved by more than 72 percent of voters. But under the proposed new law, a proportional share of 10 percent, or about $20 million a year, would have gone to the county’s 49 charters. Only a final hour amendment in the state’s Senate averted the loss, when the bill was altered to apply to future bond referendums only.

The language of the referendum that was passed was “crystal clear,” Katz says, that money raised by the bond efforts would not go to charter schools. But the loophole being used to argue for charters to get their share is the use of the term “public schools.”

The new law is “an effort to redefine what are public schools,” he says, in order to give charter schools a right to claim a portion of any publicly raised education funds, regardless of the intent for raising the money. He fears that once charters claim that right, private schools in the state’s school voucher programs will claim it too.

What Katz fears aligns to Governor DeSantis’ recent comment that “if the taxpayer is paying for education, it’s public education,” which seems to mean that virtually any education provider—charter schools, private schools, and even homeschooling—is “public education” and therefore has rightful claim to public funds meant for teachers, local schools, and any initiative voters approve, regardless of the intent.

Public Money to “Non-Public” Schools

“Our objection to sharing bond referendum money with charter schools is that it’s not what the money was intended for,” says Anna Fusco, the president of the Broward Teachers Union.

Broward, the county immediately to the south of Palm Beach, also recently passed a local referendum that raised $93,000, enough funding to boost teacher salaries by as much as $8,000. Like the Palm Beach initiative, the Broward referendum funds were intended not to go to charters, although the language was not as specific. Broward has over 90 charter schools educating 45,919 students, over 20 percent of the district’s students.

Fusco says, “it was fair to not include charters in the referendum” for several reasons. Because nearly half the charter schools in the state are managed by for-profit companies, new funding voters had approved for teachers could instead be used to expand profits for charter management companies.

Fusco also believes many charter schools are “non-public” because they “get to choose their students.” Studies have shown Florida’s charter schools, compared to public schools, serve significantly lower percentages of low-income students, students with disabilities, and students who struggle with English.

She also points to other recent legislation that gave charter schools access to state funding for building leases and executive pay and big new loopholes for bypassing local school boards and employing uncertified teachers. She contends the law undermines the charter industry’s argument for needing local referendum money. And because of the new loopholes, bond referendum money would now go to charter schools even though they can bypass the very school boards that pushed for the bonds, and even if the money was earmarked for wage hikes for certified teachers, charters could use the money to hire uncertified teachers who lower the status of the teaching profession.

A “Long Game People Haven’t Noticed”

“This is part of an incremental and deliberate effort to take apart our public school system,” says Karen Castor Dentel in a phone call. Castor Dentel is a board member of Orange County Public Schools and former Democratic member of the Florida House of Representatives. A native of Florida and graduate of the state’s public schools, she taught in an elementary school last year, and her mother was Florida Education Commissioner from 1987 to 1994.

Castor Dentel sources the assault on the state’s public schools to former Governor Jeb Bush, who initiated a series of reforms he called the A+ Plan that included imposing a school grading system based on test scores. Gradually the test-based system was used to evaluate teachers too—including evaluating teachers based on the scores of students they don’t even teach.

Bush’s plan also called for changing teachers’ salary increases from a traditional step plan based on seniority and continuing education to a system of bonuses and merit-pay schemes based on test scores and other measures. The most preposterous of these schemes based teacher bonuses on scores they earned on their college entrance exams. Districts are now rushing to abandon these plans.

“The purpose of this was to shame schools and teachers,” Castor Dentel insists. “We already knew which students needed help and which schools and teachers needed more support. But it’s easier to label schools and teachers failing and hand everything over to a private charter operator than it is to do what these schools and communities actually need.”

While Bush’s plan cracked down on teachers, it loosened the regulatory environment for charter schools and provided them with new funding sources. By the time Bush left office in 2007, charter schools across the state had grownfrom a modest 30 to well over 300. Today there are 655.

The educational success of the A+ Plan continues to be hotly debated, but it’s undeniable that the welfare of public school teachers in the state suffered significantly under its regime.

The state has dropped to 46 on a national scale of average teacher salaries, and at least one credible analysis has deemed the state the fifth worst state in the nation to be a teacher.

Due to low pay, deteriorating employee benefits, and demoralizingworking conditions, Florida teachers have refused to work beyond school hours, increasingly called in sick, and are leaving their jobs at higher rates. The state now has an acute teacher shortage and struggles to fill vacant positions. And in what’s being called a “silent strike,” experienced teachers are leaving the profession early, and people who would be highly qualified for teaching are choosing other employment opportunities.

In the meantime, charter schools have flourished and now account for nearly all the state’s growth in student enrollment.

“It’s been a long game,” Castor Dentel says. “The agenda has been imposed so slowly over the past 20 years that people don’t notice. It’s a cancer that started in Florida and is now spreading everywhere.”

Have Democrats Found Their Way?

If the Florida model for education is a disease, Democrats have certainly been infected. Much of what was in Bush’s A+ Plan formed the policy agenda of the Obama administration, which also pushed for evaluating schools and teachers based on test scores and expanding charter schools.

“Democrats have been promoting a conservative ‘school reform’ agenda for the past three decades,” education historian and bestselling author Diane Ravitch observed. “Whatever the motivations, the upshot is clear: The Democratic Party has lost its way on public education.”

But because presidential hopefuls are rallying around teacher salary increases, have Democrats found their way back?

No doubt, what got Democrats to pay attention to the plight of school teachers was the series of teacher protests staged across the country last year and into this. The highly visible strikes emboldened candidates running in 2018 midterm elections to campaign for increasing investments in public schools. The teacher uprisings also took the schools issue away from Republicans and made it less about “accountability” and more about the massive cuts political leaders in both parties have enacted to the system.

In Florida, teachers are forbidden to strike by law and the state constitution. “Any teachers engaging in such action would endanger their professional status,” explains Fusco. “They could lose their licenses and jobs for life and lose their pensions too. Our union will never, ever encourage a walk out.”

However, the laws haven’t stopped teachers from speaking out against efforts to divert local tax dollars for teacher pay to charter schools. Their protest messages are about educating voters on the impact of charters rather than opposing them outright.

Teachers who protested in Palm Beach County, according to Castor Dentel, “made their protests more about the responsible use of tax dollars.”

“Parents and voters are just starting to get engaged, but they aren’t always clear on the issues,” she says. “They don’t understand that charter schools aren’t really like public schools.”

“For now, our effort to push back has to rely on educating people on what these bills in the state legislature are really doing,” says Fusco. “We hope people who aren’t in education and don’t even have children in schools listen to us.”

“This obsession with crushing public schools to promote privately operated things that are being called ‘public’ is not universally accepted,” says Katz, “and people are just starting to sour on it.”

Maybe Democrats will too.

To learn more about school privatization, check out Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, a free ebook published by the Independent Media Institute.

Click here to read a selectionof Who Controls Our Schools? published on AlterNet, or here to access the complete text.


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  1. ambrit

    A statement I found amazing was that, due to the draconian punishments proposed for work stoppages in the Florida education sphere, that the Florida Teacher’s Union would, “…never, ever, encourage a walk out.” Huh??? What other useful tactic does a union have? Using union money to buy legislators is a losing game. The “business” community will always have more money to bribe with. Educating parents as to the issues involved has not stopped Charter Schools from eviscerating the reputations and the budgets of the public schools.
    As an earlier and wiser Supreme Court once pronounced on a closely related subject; (Brown v Board of Education) “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Instead of the separation being based on race, as in Brown v Board of Education, this separation is based on wealth and or class.
    Why no challenge to Charter Schools based on the Fourteenth Amendment?

    1. GramSci

      Teachers’ unions also have electoral tactics. Or perhaps I should say “used to have”. The erosion of this tactic is an allegory of the sad plight of the world’s descent into modernity.

      When I was a child in the fifties, I got to vote sixteen times. My parents, my grandparents, and all of my aunts and uncles voted in my interest. Children and families no longer have such electoral strength. There no longer is such a thing as society. The situation is especially vicious here in Florida, because two-thirds of the population were not born here, but transiency rips the social fabric everywhere in our modern, neoliberal, oil-drunk dystopia. We are all rootless refugees. Too many of us, desperate for a social identity (not to mention a job), latch onto the first identitarian demagogue who comes along.

      1. flora

        The ‘Wall Street Liberation Movement’™ has destroyed so much on Main Street and in people’s lives. Calling its results ‘financial +errorism, inc.’ isn’t even an exaggeration. Now its going after public schools and public school teachers.

      2. Medbh

        “The situation is especially vicious here in Florida, because two-thirds of the population were not born here, but transiency rips the social fabric everywhere in our modern, neoliberal, oil-drunk dystopia. We are all rootless refugees. ”

        Nice point on the dangers of transiency. Staying in one place is often perceived as a weakness (i.e. “Those lazy people need to move to where the jobs are!”). Moving separates family, friends, and neighbors. There’s little understanding of history or how things have changed for the better or worse. It’s easier to take a short-term perspective with things like traffic, environmental damage, or housing because there’s an assumption that the issues won’t affect you.

        People who choose to stay in one place are often portrayed as timid, unadventurous, or exclusionary, but there many strengths associated with being well-rooted in a community.

    2. Greg Taylor

      Most people think of unions as having collective bargaining authority and the ability to represent workers involved in disputes with management. Public sector unions are illegal in most of the southeast US and some other states. The voluntary associations representing teachers in these states are mostly lobbying organizations. Governors and state boards of education have no obligation to negotiate with these associations. Describing such associations as “unions” in the southeast is often an effort to discredit the efforts of the members.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Good luck getting Florida’s government to obey their own laws though. This week Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis and his Cabinet were in Israel because of course where else would they be? While there, they held a Cabinet meeting even though this was against Florida’s “Sunshine Law,” which requires government meetings to be open to the public. And just in case there were some people from Florida on vacation in Israel that might have decided to drop in and see that meeting, DeSantis held it at the US Embassy in Jerusalem so that ordinary people would not be able to get pass the security screen. A Florida judge dismissed an initial complaint but there are more that have been lodged. Following the law in Florida by the government then seems to be a bit of a moveable feast.

  3. Amfortas the hippie

    …and why no challenge to the punitive anti-strike laws regarding teachers?
    seems like a First Amendment Issue, to me.
    Texas has a law like that…if teachers strike, they loose their certification and their pension.
    in related skullduggery, in Texas…spanish and esl certification has been privatised and the criteria and even results of the tests are behind a paywall. when my wife was slogging through that morass, everyone alongside her was in the same leaky boat: repeatedly “failing” the test, until the last chance to take it, when they suddenly passed(the limit on the number of times one can try for it, in this light, looks to me like harvest.) they couldn’t see their own tests …only a letter grade, which gave them no idea how they could improve.
    many of them gave up….and it’s not like these were bad students…or bad teachers…everybody went through this repeated “failing”.
    many gave up.
    so Texas has a “shortage” of spanish and esl teachers….and “must” import teachers from spain and mexico on visas(fewer rights, etc)
    but spanish/esl is an esoteric part of the school economy…so it’s difficult to rally folks who aren’t directly involved.
    the shame that goes with “failing” also plays a role in negating any potential solidarity, even among prospective spanish/esl teachers…they keep their “shame” to themselves, and don’t commiserate or find solidarity.
    the Dems being on board with all this anti-education just makes things harder.
    nobody in any position of power is on the side of Public Education…not goptea, of course, but not dems…nor even the Teacher’s Unions.
    it’s evil, though and through…obscured by paywalls and proprietary information and methods and criteria and myriad weasel words…and backed up by threats of penury.

    1. Robert Valiant

      I don’t think our American government desires educated citizens. Our government desires credulous, insatiable consumers. The only education consumers need is work training for a job that will provide them sufficient credit eligibility to buy (with easy terms) the products and services provided by the largest and richest corporations. An educated citizen asks questions such as, “Does it make sense to take out a loan on a new $1,000 iPhone when my current iPhone continues to function?” That’s a dangerous question.

      1. Anon

        Those phone makers (Samsung, for example) can “brick” your personal phone at will. Took me a week to figure this out with my phone. Got one of those cheaper Chinese phones now, works great.

  4. GramSci

    I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on how the MIC is a MMT-based Jobs Guarantee of “bullshit jobs”. The deplorables have been thinking this about education for a long time. “Black English” and bilingual education came under particular fire for creating minority jobs (black, brown, and female) while majority jobs (male and white) were being exported to China.

    At first I thought this comment should be separated from my reply to ambrit at 7:50, but it’s a rag of the same social fabric. “Forced busing” created as much resentment as it did integration, and deliberately so. In Milliken v. Bradley, the Burger Supreme Courtesans were already the vanguard of neoliberalism. The majority opinion was written by Burger and joined by Stewart, Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist.

    William O. Douglas, in his dissent said ” the task of equity is to provide a unitary system for the affected area where, as here [in the majority opinion for forced busing], the State washes its hands of its own creations”.

    In his dissent Thurgood Marshall wrote “School district lines, however innocently drawn, will surely be perceived as fences to separate the races when, under a Detroit-only decree, white parents withdraw their children from the Detroit city schools and move to the suburbs in order to continue them in all-white schools”.

    That was the plan.

    1. ambrit

      Yes. I remember ‘busing’ in High School.
      The ‘black’ students, back when ‘black’ and ‘white’ were the major divisions that we got in “our” near Prep school level mainly upper middle income level public high school were the products of the much worse, and rightly, maligned ‘separate but equal’ primary school system in the poor sections of Miami.
      The culture clash was both psychological and physical. Looking back at it, I can sympathize with the ‘bused in’ students. They were thrown into an educational shark tank. They were not prepared for the higher levels of performance demanded of them, compared to where they came from. The ‘neighborhood’ they came from was poorer than the one they were thrown into. Their methods of coping with adversity were generally more ‘confrontational’ than the middle class culture they were thrown in with.
      This, if you wonder at it, is no mere hypocritical vaporing. This weedy white boy was quite surprised at being suddenly extorted, threatened, and beaten. The already established predator class of young men that was brought in to the ‘suburbs,’ must have seen it as the Elysian Fields of payback against the “System” that they saw ‘at home’ as oppressing them and theirs at every turn.
      As managed, the sixties and seventies busing programs couldn’t have been better at sowing discord between the racial groups if they had been specifically designed to do so.

  5. WJ

    “In Florida, teachers are forbidden to strike by law and the state constitution.”

    Is this kind of law constitutional? Are there no federal protections of unionization and/or strikes at all? Forgive my ignorance.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      Completely different rules for public-sector vs private-sector unions – private-sector is covered by federal labor law, public-sector by state laws (which vary widely). Even in the private sector, the right to strike (and not be fired for it) is not a 1st Amendment or constitutional right; it is guaranteed (in theory anyway) by labor law.

  6. Left in Wisconsin

    On the headline to this article: once again, the difference between campaigning for office and governing makes all the difference. The only way to bring public school teacher salaries close to where they need to be is to dramatically increase federal spending/involvement in K-12 education. We persist in the US with this moronic fantasy that local control is essential when of course 99% of what kids need to learn in K12 is exactly the same everywhere. Do any of the countries with top education outcomes leave it to localities to determine education content and funding?

    Is Harris (or any of the others) really committed to challenging local control? Can anyone see her (or the others) taking on the charters and education-privatization complex at the federal level? Or see the Dems go to the mat on this issue at the federal level? No way.

  7. Luke

    Well, going back to the OP, that seems like an easy choice.
    K-12 public teachers rarely have degrees in their subject matters, and average just about the lowest SATs (and IQs) of any college graduates. Teachers are pretty well-paid for not being very smart and being poorly trained (e.g., not very well-qualified) for the positions they hold.

    Meanwhile, apparently charter schools seem to overall do a great job at fulfilling the core purpose of educating children (noticeably better than the conventional public schools). That core purpose is NOT providing jobs for teachers, despite what the NEA and Colleges of Education would make everyone believe.

    From https://www.city-journal.org/richard-carranza-implicit-bias

    “The stunning success of most of the city’s charter schools has rebuked conventional teaching practices since these schools first appeared two decades ago, and that goes double for Carranza’s racial fixations. Teacher ethnicity is essentially identical in charter and district schools—42 percent minority in charters versus 38 percent in traditional public schools. It’s all but certain that a black or Hispanic charter school child will have a white teacher, since charter school kids are virtually all black or Hispanic. So whatever harm is done by implicit prejudices should be magnified in charter schools—yet charters for the most part prosper, while most district schools do not.”

    Further elaborated upon here:


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