How the Democratic candidates talked about charter schools and school segregation in Thursday night’s debate

The leading Democratic candidates for president took on some hot-button issues in education during Thursday night’s debate, and illustrated the divide in how they think and talk about charter schools.

Held at Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston, the debate featured 10 candidates: Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang.

Here are a few of their most notable comments on education and racial equity. We’ve got a full guide to the Democratic candidates’ positions and promises on education here.

On charter schools and school choice

Castro: “It is a myth that charter schools are better than public schools,” the former housing secretary said. “They’re not.” Castro was one of the few candidates who directly spoke to the question about charters, an issue where he has a limited track record. In general, research supports his comment — most studies show charter and district schools perform comparably, though charter schools in many cities perform better. “I’m not categorically against charter schools,” Castro went on to say. “I would require more transparency and accountability from them than is required right now.”

Booker: “We closed poor-performing charter schools, but dagnabbit, we expanded high-performing charter schools,” the former Newark mayor said. “We were a city that said we need to find local solutions that work for our community. The results speak for themselves. We’re now the No. 1 city in America for beat-the-odds schools, from high-poverty to high-performance.”

Booker’s record on schools in that city has been much debated and deeply controversial. The rapid expansion of charters and closure of district schools drew fierce community resistance; the latest teachers’ contract scrapped a much-touted teacher performance pay plan. Research found that in the initial years after Mark Zuckerberg’s 2010, $100 million grant to Newark schools, student growth on state tests dipped. But it eventually bounced back and has continued to improve. Charter schools in Newark have also seen notable academic success.

Warren: “Money for public schools should stay in public schools, not go anywhere else,” the Massachusetts senator said in response to a question about her support for teachers unions. It’s likely she was referring to her opposition to private school vouchers. Warren has a complicated record on charter schools — she opposed an effort to lift the Massachusetts’ charter cap in 2016, but has also highlighted research showing that Boston’s charter schools are high-performing.

Yang: “I am pro-good school,” the Venture for America founder said when asked about his support for charter schools before quickly pivoting to other issues. In a May Twitter thread, he said, “There are very good charter schools and very bad charter schools. The goal should be to make more schools high-quality and effective — not denounce an entire category.” He also noted that he has “friends who have put their heart and soul into charter schools.” One of them is Zeke Vanderhoek, who founded The Equity Project, a New York City charter school that has drawn attention for paying its teachers six-figure salaries.

On segregation

Biden: The former vice president was asked about comments he made to a reporter about race 40 years ago — “I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago” — and how he would work now to repair the damage done by slavery. “There is institutional segregation in this country,” he said, going on to mention his plan to triple Title I funds for schools serving mostly students from low-income families and the need for more school psychologists.

Biden has previously said that he still opposes busing for school integration, even though it has proven successful in helping students of color do better in school. However, his education plan notes that he supports federal grants for school districts interested in pursuing integration.

On racial disparities in school discipline

O’Rourke: The former Texas Congressman pointed to how racism “is foundational” to the founding of America, which he said was created not in 1776 but in 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to the country, picking up the argument made in the New York Times Magazine last month.

“We have to be able to answer this challenge,” he said. “And it is found in our education system, where in Texas, a 5-year-old child in kindergarten is five times as likely to be disciplined, or suspended, or expelled based on the color of their skin.” He appears to be referring to a statistic in a report released by the nonprofit Texans Care for Children that said that black students from pre-K to second grade in Texas during the 2015-16 school year were nearly five times more likely to be suspended than white students. Such racial disparities in school discipline are not unique to Texas.

On teacher diversity

Harris: The California senator talked about her plan to raise teacher pay, and referenced research demonstrating that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. “If a black child has a black teacher before the end of third grade they’re 13% more likely to go to college,” she said. “If that child has had two black teachers before the end of third grade, they’re 32% more likely to go to college.” We’ve got more on that research here, which has been cited in other candidates’ education plans, too.

On active shooter drills in schools

Harris: “Elementary, middle, and high school students, they are learning about how they have to hide in a closet, or crouch in a corner if there is a mass shooter roaming the hallways of their school,” she said. “It is traumatizing our children.”

Harris said a child, about 8 years old, told her about going through such a drill at a recent town hall event. According to the Washington Post, though school shootings remain rare, lockdowns are common: more than 4.1 million students participated in a lockdown during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Post’s estimate. That is likely an undercount because many large districts do not track them.