Blog: The Educated Reporter

Teachers’ Union Applauds Clinton Address, Except on Charters

Hillary Clinton shares her views and agenda for education in a July 5 speech to delegates for the National Education Association.Photo credit: @KristenRec

Hillary Clinton vowed to be a partner with educators if she wins the White House, during a speech today to the nation’s largest teachers’ union. Clinton drew enthusiastic applause from National Education Association members for most of the address, including her calls to make preschool universally available, boost teacher pay, and ease the burden of paying for higher education.

But the presumptive Democratic nominee got a far more muted response, and even some jeers, when she made a positive plug – albeit very briefly — for charter schools.

Clinton argued that it’s important not just to focus on “quote, failing schools,” but also the “great ones, too” across the country.

“Let’s replicate their success in America,” she told more than 7,000 delegates attending the NEA’s annual convention in Washington. “And when schools get it right, whether they’re traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working … and share it with schools across America. We can do that.”

The boos Clinton drew for this passage were highlighted in news media coverage, including pieces published by Education Week, Politico, and The Washington Post.

Kimberly Hefling of Politico reports that while “some teachers in the audience” booed the charter reference, “the presidential hopeful won back the crowd by making a distinction between charter schools in general and those schools run by for-profit companies.”

Clinton said, “We’ve got no time for all these education wars, where people on the outside try to foist for-profit schools on our kids.”

Emma Brown noted in The Washington Post that charter schools are a “divisive issue” in the Democratic Party and that Clinton, a longtime supporter of both charters and unions, “has tried to bridge” the camps.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia told The Washington Post that some of her members are deeply angry about charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated, arguing that they siphon money away from traditional public school districts. (Also, the teachers in most charter schools are not unionized, though efforts have mounted recently by unions in some communities to change that.)

In any case, Eskelsen said she was not troubled by Clinton’s remark. “There are some successful charter schools,” she told the Post. “Let’s look at what makes them work.”

In the heat of the Democratic primary last fall, Clinton offered what many saw as a less-friendly tone toward charter schools that also made news.

In that exchange, on a TV program, she said that while there are “good” charter schools and “bad” ones, she argued that “most charter schools … don’t take the hardest to teach kids. Or if they do, they don’t keep them.” This critique drew sharp criticism from some charter advocates as an unfair attack.

Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have long championed the charter sector. In fact, at a 1991 appearance before the NEA, then presidential candidate Bill Clinton made clear his support for school choice.

“Now, I put my position on the table,” Bill Clinton said. “I am for public school choice, when there are protections against discrimination based on race and income. It’s no less urgent to give people who live in smaller districts the same options that people who live in larger school districts have with magnet schools.” (In 2011, Bill Clinton received a lifetime achievement award from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.)

Incidentally, the former Democratic president also used the word “partner” to emphasize his relationship with educators during the 1991 speech.

In its coverage of this week’s address by Hillary Clinton, Education Week reporters Alyson Klein and Stephen Sawchuk emphasized the former U.S. secretary of state’s pledge that the nation’s educators would have a seat at the table.

“Clinton thanked the 3-million-member NEA, which is holding its annual convention here, for sticking by her in the surprisingly fierce primary against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont,” the Education Week reporters write. “She promised that she would return the favor by making sure that teachers — some of whom were blindsided by Obama administration K-12 initiatives, especially around tying teacher evaluations to test scores – will always be part of the policymaking process.”

In her speech today, Clinton also promised to take steps to “elevate” the teaching profession, including with higher pay for teachers, ensure that all families have affordable access to broadband services, and to promote computer science education and more wraparound services for needy children. She also echoed a priority issue during her husband’s administration: school construction. (You can find more details on Clinton’s agenda on her campaign’s issues pages for early childhood, K-12, and higher education.)

She also vowed to limit the influence of standardized testing in schools.

“Tests should go back to their original purpose, … giving useful information to teachers and parents so that you know and parents know how our kids and how our schools are doing,” Clinton said. She argued that teaching to the test leads student to miss out on valuable experiences, and that it disproportionately “hurts our low-income kids and communities.”

Clinton did not explicitly say how she would address this matter in her NEA address. Some analysts argue that the new federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, gives states and districts more leeway over school and teacher accountability, thereby potentially limiting the impact of testing in schools. However, the law keeps in place the federal requirement to test students each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.