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Charter Schools Are Not A “Republican” Thing

History shows Democrats have supported charters from the very beginning

As I noted earlier this week, a group of anti-reform activists in Colorado recently passed an amendment to the state Democratic Party platform opposing the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform and calling on the organization drop “Democrats” from its name.1

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time DFER has been attacked by groups from within its own party. Much of the ire directed at DFER is due to its support for public charter schools, which opponents portray as a part of a Republican plot to dismantle public education.

Those opponents include groups like the American Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers (an AFT affiliate), and Alliance for Quality Education (which receives – surprise! – major funding from AFT), who together launched a website calling DFER and its supporters “Democrats in name only,” while insinuating that the organization is a kind of political Trojan Horse backed by wealthy GOP donors like the Koch Brothers and Betsy DeVos.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but the teachers unions and their allies have repeatedly demonstrated they have no compunction about misrepresenting the facts when it suits their interests. Furthermore, their contention that DFER’s support for charters is somehow antithetical to the values and beliefs of the Democratic Party conveniently ignores the integral role that Democrats have played in the charter school movement over the past thirty years.

To illustrate this point, I created the table below listing the states that have charter school laws on the books, as well as the year in which those laws were enacted. It also shows which party (blue for Democrats and red for Republicans) controlled the governorship, the senate, and the house in each of those states when their charter laws were passed.

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The chart above lists all of the states with charter school laws, the year those laws went into effect, and shows which party controlled the governorship, the state senate, and the state house when those laws passed. Obviously, blue = Democrats and red = Republicans.

The data makes clear that charter schools are not a “Republican” thing, but one of those rare issues around which Democratic and Republican lawmakers could find common ground to provide children with much-needed educational options. In some cases, such as my home state of Louisiana, Democrats can actually take full credit for the introduction of charters since their party held a “trifecta” in state government at the time.

In short, those who call DFER and its supporters “Democrats in name only,” are either ignorant of the party’s history or are simply trying to rewrite it. But if they think that pro-reform Democrats are just going to roll over while they are attacked for trying to expand educational opportunities for kids, they are sorely mistaken.

DFER president Shavar Jeffries had a message for anti-reform Democrats this week: “We are not going anywhere.”

As DFER president Shavar Jeffries said in a response to the dustup in Colorado this week: “If our intra-party opponents would prefer counter-productive family warfare as opposed to unity around shared values, this should be clear too: We stand with the millions of families across our country demanding access to high-quality public schools and the thousands of elected Democrats who fight tirelessly to ensure they get it.”

“We are not going anywhere,” he added.


  1. Full disclosure: I am an (unpaid) advisory board member for the Louisiana chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, although the thoughts expressed here are exclusively my own. 

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2 Comments

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  1. Would 30 years of Democrats on board put us in the zone of the early stages of sellout and the (Clinton) rightward slide? It feels like just about that long, so yeah. I can see the party being on board.

  2. As one of the Paul Wellstone Democrats who helped write the first charter law in Minnesota – and has worked with Democrats and Republicans all over the country, I’m glad to see this accurate reporting of history. As a former district public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, I’m deeply disappointed that the nation’s teacher unions chose to battle rather than seek the enormous opportunities for teachers, as well as families and students, in the charter idea. We ought to learn from the most effective schools, whether district or chartered. But union leaders missed huge opportunities. The result is fewer jobs for union members. It could have been, and still can be – quite different.

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Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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