Parent group pushes Democratic presidential contenders on charters, winning audience before Biden and Warren

The Powerful Parent Network is getting meetings, but not concrete promises, from some leading Democratic candidates for president.

In South Carolina yesterday, the group of parents who favor school choice met with former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Today, one of the group’s leaders, Sarah Carpenter, talked with Tom Steyer by phone, and the group met with his wife. Each of the candidates has been critical of charter schools, indicative of a recent shift in political winds against charter schools.

Carpenter said in an interview that the candidates made no specific promises to address the group’s concerns that they would limit parental choice.

Thursday night, Carpenter also spoke with former mayor Pete Buttigieg, who later answered a question from the group during a public event.

The meetings highlight the strides Powerful Parent Network — a group that supports school choice and drew headlines last November for confronting Warren at a campaign event — has made in getting the ear of some leading Democratic presidential candidates. It remains unclear, though, to what extent these meetings will translate into different policy proposals from a field of candidates who have generally been highly critical of school choice through charter schools and private school vouchers.

“Parents need to make choices where they want to send their kids,” said Carpenter. “Our kids are stuck in a system that’s been broken for decades. That’s all I’m saying. That’s my message, and they can take it or leave it.”

On Wednesday during a public event in Georgetown, South Carolina, Carpenter asked Biden why he was “lukewarm” on charter schools and choice. In response, the former vice president reiterated that he was “not a charter school fan,” before quickly pivoting to a broader discussion of improving education.

Afterward, Carpenter said she was disappointed by his response, saying, “Nobody’s addressing the system that got our kids into this mess.”

But a short time later she and others had a private audience before Biden adviser Symone Sanders. In a video, she can be heard emphasizing Biden’s proposal to triple funding for Title I schools. (Symone Sanders even said that Biden was the only candidate to make such a promise; in fact, most other Democrats have made a version of this proposal. A Biden spokesperson said the advisor simply meant to emphasize that increasing Title I funds is a central part of Biden’s plan.)

Then they met with Biden himself. In a partial audio recording of the meeting, Biden can be heard saying that he opposes for-profit charter schools, but that some charter schools are succeeding.

“Most charter schools that are working are charter schools that are held to the same standards as public schools … and are not able to turn people away because they can’t pass a test,” he said. (Charter schools in most states must admit students by random lottery. But in Delaware, Biden’s home state, charter schools can select students based partially on students’ test scores.)

Carpenter told Chalkbeat that Biden did not make specific promises. “He didn’t — we’re sending them over some literature,” she said. “We’ll wait to hear back from them.”

Biden has sounded a skeptical note on charter schools throughout the campaign, promising to ban for-profit charter schools, but his education plan does not mention them.

“Vice President Biden will do everything we can to help traditional public schools, which is what most students attend. He will ban for-profit charter schools from receiving federal funds and ensure that charter schools are held to the same levels of accountability and transparency as traditional public schools,” a Biden campaign spokesperson said in a statement.

Later Wednesday evening, the group met with Warren. For some of them it was the second time. Last November, Carpenter and others had a lengthy discussion with the Massachusetts senator after disrupting a campaign event in Atlanta. They took issue with Warren’s education plan, which called for new limits on charter schools, including eliminating a federal program to help start new charters. During the exchange Warren defended her plan, saying she was seeking more accountability for charter schools, but also promising that she would review the plan to “make sure I got it right.”

This time, Carpenter said, Warren mostly just heard them out. “We talked about parent choice,” said Carpenter. “All she did was listen — that was it.” Carpenter said Warren didn’t talk about any changes to her plan, and there’s no indication that any have been made. “It was a little bit disappointing,” said Carpenter, who said she was still pleased that Warren met with them again.

A spokesperson for the Warren campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Carpenter said the group offered the same message about the importance of school choice to Tom Steyer and his wife Thursday. Steyer has vowed to halt federal funding for new charter schools, a position the campaign reiterated to Chalkbeat.

“Tom and Kat believe it’s important to meet with everyone out of respect for the opinions of those who disagree with them,” said Benjamin Gerdes, a spokesperson, “but the way to fix our public education system is not by working around it through charter schools or school vouchers, but by dealing directly with the challenges such as funding disparities and segregation.”

On Thursday evening, the parent group attended a Buttigieg event, where Carpenter met with the former South Bend mayor. In response to a question from the group during the event, Buttigieg said that the school system had let down too many students of color, but emphasized the need to improve the public school system rather than focus on school choice.

“I understand why this has parents frustrated with their options and looking for any way possible to make sure there are more options for their children,” said Buttigieg. “I also think that if we solve this the right way — put the right resources into it and make sure whatever innovations develop in non-traditional schools ultimately are used to support and lift up traditional schools too — then your success will no longer depend on whether you win a lottery.”

Buttigieg has voiced skepticism about charter schools throughout the campaign, but his education platform does not seek to limit their growth like Warren’s or Bernie Sanders’ plans.

A spokesperson for Buttigieg did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Powerful Parent Network has not spoken with Sanders, the leading candidate, but the group is seeking to meet with him Friday, according to social media posts.

Carpenter said the parents had raised money for the trip to South Carolina through small and large donations to a GoFundMe campaign, as well as a $10,000 matching contribution from a donor she declined to name. Carpenter leads an organization called the Memphis Lift, which is backed by groups, like the Walton Family Foundation, that are supportive of charter schools. (Walton is also a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

Under Carpenter’s leadership, the Memphis Lift has pushed to create a joint enrollment system for district and charter schools, protested the NAACP’s push to ban new charter schools, created a fellowship to help parents advocate at their schools, forged a strong relationship with the local school district, and helped similar parent groups form across the country.

Carpenter, who is a grandparent of 15, said she supports good charter schools, but doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as pro-charter. “If it’s a failing district school I want it shut down; If it’s a failing charter, I want it shut down,” she said. (Carpenter said she doesn’t have a position on private school vouchers.)

The Powerful Parent Network’s effort to reach candidates comes at a perilous political moment for charter schools. Most of the Democratic candidates have taken a sharply skeptical view of the schools, which were promoted by former President Barack Obama. Many attended a forum last year hosted by teachers unions, civil rights groups, and others critical of charter schools. The American Federation of Teachers recently urged its members to vote for either Biden, Sanders, or Warren.

Support for charter schools has fallen among white Democratic voters, though generally held steady among black and Hispanic Democrats.

Advocates of charter schools emphasize giving parents’ choices among schools, and the high academic performance of many charter schools in cities; critics argue the schools lack sufficient oversight and place financial strain on school districts.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration, often seen as a staunch ally of school choice proponents, recently proposed eliminating a $440 million federal fund earmarked for charter schools. Advocates at the national level pushed back aggressively, which led a Trump education official to refer to them as “desperate.”

Carpenter said that the parent network would eventually seek out Trump too. “I will talk to Trump at the right time,” she said. “He needs to know what low-income communities deal with also.”

This story has been updated with information on the group’s meeting with Pete Buttigieg Thursday night.