Biden’s Dilemma

OPINION: Will Biden stand with black parents on charter schools or with the NEA?

by Baker A. Mitchell | March 21, 2020 12:00 AM

Joe Biden’s endorsement by the National Education Association, America’s largest union, puts the likely Democratic nominee in this year’s presidential election on a potential collision course with some of his party’s most loyal supporters: African American and Hispanic voters who support charter schools and other school choice options.

The unions, of course, provide more than votes; they’re also among the Democratic coalition’s most reliable sources of campaign contributions and election manpower. From 1990 through 2016, for example, “practically all of the contributions made by teachers unions” to candidates and parties — at least 94%, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’s — went to Democrats. In 2016 alone, OpenSecrets reports, this amounted to more than $32 million, “an all-time high.”

Just as important, and perhaps more so, are the unions’ hands-on activities and in-kind contributions, mostly in the form of “volunteer” manpower. This can range from get-out-the-vote activities, handing out campaign literature, and driving voters to the polls to serving as convention delegates. In 2008, for example, out of the 4,400 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, approximately 1 in 10 was a teachers union member, according to The Teacher Wars author Dana Goldstein, writing in the American Prospect.

The NEA, the largest American teachers union, actively encourages convention involvement, telling prospective NEA delegates, “If you’re selected … NEA will provide training opportunities, logistical coordination, and some financial support.” The American Federation of Teachers, the other national teachers union, also encourages members to take action, “whether it’s volunteering to get out the vote, running for public office, talking to fellow union members (or) serving as a delegate to a party’s national convention.”

Biden, as a result, finds himself caught between two diametrically opposed factions, both of which could be necessary for victory.

On the one side are black and Hispanic parents and grandparents, Democratic Party stalwarts, who support charter schools and other “school choice” alternatives to traditional government-run public schools. On the other side are teachers union officials and union activists who support only the (highly unionized) one-size-fits-all public education model that’s failing many African American and Hispanic children.

I’m an electrical engineer by profession, but the conflict between the education reformers and desperate parents on the one side and the rigid education establishment on the other side is what got me involved in education in the first place.

After establishing and leading the bioengineering section at the University of Texas’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and later building a computer systems business, I ventured out of my comfort zone after I retired and volunteered as a science teacher at a low-income, predominantly African American, Houston elementary school, which had gained attention for its high test scores.

Wesley Elementary School’s principal, the late Thaddeus Lott, the bane of Houston’s education establishment, taught me what works in education: the proper curriculum, traditional pedagogical methods, discipline, order, high expectations, and committed teachers and administrators.

After moving to North Carolina, I helped establish four charter schools that follow Lott’s formula for success. All four schools, with a total enrollment of about 2,200 students, are Title I schools, meaning 40% or more of the students are economically disadvantaged. Three of the four are among the top-ranked in their respective counties. The fourth school, Douglass Academy, named for 19th-century civil rights icon Frederick Douglass, has been outperforming the neighboring traditional public schools and is on track to become a top performer as well.

Biden has gone out of his way to align himself with the legacy of President Barack Obama. If he means it, he’ll do what Obama did and stand with African American and Hispanic parents who support school choice, including charter schools. Or maybe he’ll abandon that position, showing that his invocation of “Barack” is just a convenient political tool.

Baker A. Mitchell is the founder of The Roger Bacon Academy, which manages four charter schools in Southeastern North Carolina.

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