Many of the Democratic candidates are going after school choice on the campaign trail. Why are school choice parent groups treated differently by the candidates and media than other advocacy groups, and what do Democratic voters really think about school choice?

Joining She Thinks pop-up episode to discuss these topics and more is Erika Sanzi, a mother of three and a former public school teacher in Massachusetts, California, and Rhode Island. Erika has served on her local school board is a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute. She blogs about education at Good School Hunting and is the chief editor at Project Forever Free.


Inez Stepman:  Hi everyone, I’m Inez Stepman, and welcome to a special pop-up episode of She Thinks, your favorite podcast from the Independent Women’s Forum where we talk with women and occasionally men about the policy issues that impact you and the people you care about most. Joining us today is Erika Sandy, a former public school teacher in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. Erika has served on her local school board and as a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute. She also blogs about education @goodschoolhunting and she’s the chief editor at Project Forever Free, which also writes about education. And of course she’s dealt with the issue from the parent’s perspective as well since she’s mom to three boys. Welcome Erika, it’s so good to have you on She Thinks.

Erika Sanzi:   Thanks for having me.

Inez:   So I want to kick things off by talking a little bit about that Elizabeth Warren campaign event that you wrote about a few weeks ago. So parents showed up to talk to the candidate about school choice, and what happened there?

Erika:    So a network of parents from all over the country who named themselves The Powerful Parent Network went down to Atlanta the day of the debate and did some protesting outside with signs about wanting options for their children when it comes to education. And then the next day they decided to go to an Elizabeth Warren rally, and the rally was all about black women and it was all about how everybody needs to stand up and speak out and protest, et cetera. And so there was a large group of parents, mostly African-American, some Latino parents, and they were there to … well they decided basically to disrupt during the rally and to talk about that their children deserve to … that they deserve to have the choice of where to send their children to school. So they were chanting things like, “My child, my choice.” And it caught the attention, obviously, of people that were there and they ended up getting the opportunity to, if they would tamp things down during the rally, then Elizabeth Warren would be willing to speak with them in a private meeting afterwards. So they had the opportunity to talk to her after the rally. A couple of them. I think they offered for three people to speak to the candidate.

Inez:    And do you know what they said in that meeting that they ended up having with Elizabeth Warren?

Erika:    So there were sort of two scenes. Sarah Carpenter is a mother and grandmother from a very poor section in Memphis. She’s literally been advocating for better schools for children since the ’90s, including she used to stand outside the school with a sign that basically said, “Hey everybody, your kids are walking into a failing school right now.” So she kind of was one of the leaders of this Powerful Parent Network and she talked a lot about just wanting to have choices and options. She’s quite agnostic about school model, but she knew that baked into Elizabeth Warren’s plan was a hostility to virtually all forms of choice, that the plan was all about traditional zip code zoned schools and that Elizabeth Warren wanted to eliminate all private school choice and then really wanted to restrict charter schools.

Then there was another person there whose name is Howard Fuller, very well known in the ed reform movement, used to be the superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools. He’s been going to every debate because he’s particularly upset about the attacks and hostility to charter schools in Elizabeth Warren’s plan. So he was sort of talking a little bit more specifically about charter schools and Carpenter was talking more broadly about choice in general.

Inez:     And how did Elizabeth Warren respond and how did Democrats generally respond? Because there is a divide, isn’t there, among Democratic voters? So leaving independents and Republicans to a side for a moment, there is a divide among Democratic voters where you see majorities of African American and Hispanic Democratic voters supporting charter schools, supporting private school choice programs like vouchers or tax credit scholarships or education savings account, and then large majorities of white Democratic voters opposing it. And then of course we’ve seen almost all the candidates, even those that were previously positive about at least some school choice options like Cory Booker, like Elizabeth Warren, really back away. Now Cory Booker has flipped back a little bit and has come back to supporting some charter school options, but we’ve really seen a move away, even among candidates who previously supported school choice.

So why do you think there’s such a big divide between Democratic voters of color and white Democratic voters on this issue?

Erika:    Well, I think that one main reason is that parents of color are more likely to be zoned to chronically underperforming schools. To quote, actually, there was [inaudible 00:05:49] commissioner of education, Angelica Infante-Green just said in the past few days, she said, “You know who thinks that parents shouldn’t have options?” She said, “It’s people that do have options.” And I think that’s what we see playing out in the Democratic party right now is that you have white progressive Democrats who don’t actually know what it is to be zoned to a failing school or what it is not have the means to escape from a school that’s not working for them. You have them having this opinion that because everything’s working out fine for them, they don’t see what is a crisis for other families and parents, and people who have been reliably Democratic voters.

So the chasm is increasingly growing, that people who identify as white, progressive and/or liberals tend to be against school choice in far greater numbers and black and Hispanic parents tend to overwhelmingly favor choice. And again, it’s much more than them wanting to have options, they tend to be quite agnostic about what the options are; they just don’t want to be stuck with only one option that is based solely on their zip code.

And then to speak to your point about why the candidates are behaving the way they are, I mean it’s obvious that they are all vying for the Teacher’s Union endorsement. Not only have they flipped in their positions, but they are literally, when they speak about education, they are enumerating the talking points of the AFT and the NEA. I mean, in fact, in reading the plans, it actually seems to me that union officials either wrote the plans or played a very big role in drafting those plans.

Inez:    There’s always this element, right, that you just pointed to about the divide. If you have choices then it’s easier to say that … you know, if your local zone public school is safe, is relatively academically successful, if they’re teaching things to your kids that you support, it’s always a little easier to talk about how we need to fix schools that aren’t working by … that’s the old canard, right? More money, more money, more money. Even though we have done that, we’ve poured more money into education, K-12 education, for the past few decades and we haven’t really seen more money in this system actually leading to any how to improved outcomes.

But Elizabeth Warren, to get back to her for a moment, she recently almost blamed failing schools on parents. She did this interview where she said, “Well, if you’re dissatisfied with your school, go volunteer. Go run for school board or go volunteer at your school and put your resources back into the school.” I think that comment kind of fell a little funny on parent’s ears when they have so little power at their schools and they know that the school isn’t going to change. Regardless of how much effort they as parents put into it, the school doesn’t have any incentives to change. I mean, did you happen to hear those comments and do you have a response to them?

Erika:    I heard the comments at 6:00 PM the night of the day they were released and I wasn’t even able to put my words together till the next morning because I was so stunned by how insulting the comments were. And there’s an important background to this too; she essentially says that parents shouldn’t abandon the school system if it’s not working. And she talks about helping custodians and helping in the lunch room. Now, first of all, she did abandon the system because she put her son in private school starting in fifth grade. And in her private meeting with Sarah Carpenter from Memphis, Mrs. Carpenter said, “You know, I really just want to have the same choice that you had and I read somewhere that you sent your kids to private school.” She said, “No, no. I sent my kids to public school.” So she lied about what she did with her own kids. And I had a feeling that that was what was going to happen because the internet was totally scrubbed of where her kids had gone to school and she kept declining comment every time she was asked about where her kids went to school. So it seems like her daughter went to public school and her son went to private school, grades five through 12.

So not only is she working to deny choice to families of lesser means after having exercised choice for her own child, but then she’s telling parents, “You need to stick it out. You need to stay in this broken system and you need to be the one to fix it. If it’s not working for you, it’s on you to fix it.” But she didn’t ever do that. So the hypocrisy is insanely glaring. And then add to that too, it’s not the parent’s responsibility to do what she’s describing, number one. And number two, well she also implies that parents are embraced by schools when they have complaints or critiques or concerns. She’s almost painting a picture that, “Well, if it’s not working for you, I’m sure if you just went in and talked to them about being part of the solution,” that’s not how it works. Parents are very welcomed into schools when it comes to fundraising and when it comes to potlucks or teacher appreciation, but in most cases, not all, but in most cases schools don’t want to hear from parents when they have complaints or concerns. And they especially don’t want to hear from parents when they think the parents are out of their lane and/or are talking about sensitive issues about which they’re not experts.

So even her suggestion is ridiculous and insulting. But even if we all decided, “Let’s do what Elizabeth Warren said, let’s all try to fix these problems,” it doesn’t work like that.

Inez:    Yeah. And I mean I’m really concerned about this in general. It seems like we are moving more and more away from that really basic truth that parents and families know their kids and that you don’t have to be some kind of educational expert, you don’t need a PhD to know when something is working for your kid and isn’t working for your kid. So this professionalization of the idea that administrators or school board members or even teachers know your kid … Teachers know your kid better than anybody else who isn’t their family, but certainly administrators, right? They have probably never met your kid, and yet there’s this professionalized idea that they know best because they went to a school of ed somewhere and have taken some classes on some kind of pedagogy. I don’t know, I’m generally concerned about the professionalization aspect of it, that’s a bit of a tangent.

You made a great piece on our blog over at, go check out Erica’s blog there about this campaign event. But you noted that these parent advocates, right, the Parent Power Network that is going to different campaign events, going to the debates and making their voice heard, they’re getting treated very, very differently than other parent advocate campaigns. And you point to, for example, families who are campaigning for gun control. You say that these families are being treated, the ones who are going to every debate, that these are not well-organized teachers’ unions that have their travel paid for, right? I mean, these are families who are making that sacrifice to try to make their voice be heard in the Democratic party, but they’re being treated very differently from other groups. And why do you think that is?

Erika:    Yeah, that was one of the things that I found to be the most frustrating and actually an ugly moment for many people in the media. So what I noticed was that as soon as these parents got noticed by people that were at the event and in the media, there was immediate skepticism. “Who’s paying them? Or, “They’re obviously paid protestors.” Or, “Somebody’s pulling the strings because these parents couldn’t possibly be thinking for themselves or having the agency to decide that they’re going to go try to talk to Elizabeth Warren.” So basically what happened … I mean it was a [inaudible 00:14:58] thing for me on a personal level too, because there were a few people that were there that have been in education advocacy for decades and some I know personally, and so to suddenly hear commentators calling them paid shills was pretty disgusting.

So two of the women at the event work for this organization called Memphis Lift, and Memphis Lift is a parent advocacy organization in Memphis that helps to educate parents about different school options and just really tries to be like a home base for them when they need help and support. And that organization does get funding from the Walton Foundation, to which I say, “So what?” But what happened was people tried to start linking the Walton Foundation to this larger network of parents that had come in from all over the country to protest Elizabeth Warren’s education plan. And the reality is that they got zero funding from any billionaire philanthropists, but they asked, they actually asked for it and they didn’t get any. The answer was no. So they ended up doing a GoFundMe to try to raise money. I proudly donated to that GoFundMe.

But what I thought was so unfair was that I thought about the Moms Demand Action group, they came into existence on the heels of the Sandy Hook shooting and they caught the attention of Michael Bloomberg and Michael Bloomberg pledged them $50 million to help them launch their group. And their group is huge and all of the coverage, with the exception of very sort of fringe, in my opinion, sort of fringe groups, I didn’t see coverage of these mothers calling them paid protesters and talking as though … like for example, one person who works at The Intercept said that these black parents had an incoherent talking point. I never heard anybody say anything like that about the moms that were out fighting for gun control.

And so I’m not judging the other group of mothers on their issue, I’m saying that the media is covering groups differently based on whether or not they agree or disagree with whatever cause they’re fighting for. So when it was an anti gun group, that group was great, those women are to be honored and they know what they’re talking about and we should be supporting them and listening to them. And who cares if Michael Bloomberg gave them $50 million because their cause is so important and so great. Oh, and they also happen to be mostly white women and mostly well educated women. Okay. Well now another group of parents that looks very different, that’s mostly black and partly Hispanic and a lot of them come from low income areas and they’re out now because they’re talking about wanting choices for their children and grandchildren about where they go to school and to include charter schools. And suddenly they’re treated totally differently by those same people in the media.

And so to me the double standard was so glaring and so ugly. And also it said to me, you see people that are of a different class and a different race and suddenly you make assumptions about them, essentially saying they don’t know what they’re talking about. Oh, and someone must be telling them what to say.

Inez:    So Erika, we’ve talked a lot about school choice from the perspective of schools that are failing to meet the academic needs of families, the failing schools, right? But there are also a lot of parents who are concerned about what their kids are learning, the values they might be learning, or, sadly, about their safety while they’re in class. Whether that’s from bullies or on campus or whether that’s a real safety issue about crime on campus, which we see more and more violent incidents cropping up in public schools. How could school choice be a valuable tool for parents who are not just looking to get their kids perhaps into a school that’s performing better academically, but also are dissatisfied with some other aspects, whether that’s what their kids are learning in history class or frankly being worried about their kids when they send them off to school every morning? Which I mean just breaks my heart, nobody in America should have to worry about the safety of their child when they send them off to school in the morning. But here we are.

Erika:   So this is a really important question because I feel like a lot of people who don’t follow the issue closely don’t realize that parents are looking for options and escape hatches for all different kinds of reasons. And that a school that’s high performing on paper and that can be a great fit for tons of kids can be an absolute terrible fit for other students. To your safety point, we know that parents always rate safety as their top priority when it comes to a school for their children, and I think this also speaks again to that divide that we see where we see white more affluent liberal voters opposing choice; it’s likely because they don’t even know what it is to be zoned to an unsafe school. They take the safety of their children for granted. And so it’s not on their radar to think that there’s another mother out there terrified every morning when she sends her child to school.

So to me … and school culture has so much to do also with that safety piece, and in some schools the culture is broken and unless they make transformational change, it’s not to change, that culture is not going to suddenly turn around. So what I would say is that this is why all parents need options, because again, a school … like my kids right now are all at school, they’re all in three different kinds of schools today. One’s at a charter school, one’s at my zoned district middle school, and one’s at a parochial high school. But there’s a reason why families, and siblings even, often choose different kinds of schools for their kids. And it’s about fit. What you described as bullying is an example where a school that lost a kids love can be a school that other kids hate based solely on the fact that they’re treated differently by students. Or they could be treated differently by teachers.

There are plenty of examples of students who have found solace and have found what they needed by leaving their traditional school and either enrolling in a program online or taking advantage of some sort of a scholarship that allows them to go to a smaller, much more personalized environment. I mean, and I’m aware of students who are bullied because of their sexual orientation who end up getting a scholarship to a private school and all of that pain and harassment goes away.

And then to your point about values, I mean again, the reality is … like I read stories about what’s happening in some classrooms in public schools and I say to myself, “Holy crap, my kid’s in a public school and there’s nothing like that happening in his classroom. But if there were, I would need to get him out of there.” Which again speaks to your point that there isn’t a possibility of one size or one model being able to meet the needs of all students and all families. It’s just impossible. And the idea that the powers that be, most of whom have all enjoyed options and choices for their own families, that they would really work to trap other people’s children in schools regardless of quality, regardless if it’s meeting their needs, regardless if they’re happy.

That to me is pretty insidious because at the end of the day we are the ones that are home dealing with the stomach aches when the kid doesn’t want to go to school. The parents are the ones dealing with the tears because the kid doesn’t want to go to school. The parent is the one dealing with the fact that the reading instruction in their school is so terrible that they’re just watching their child year after year not being taught to read. And yet they know that if their school simply did it a different way their child would be able to read.

So to me, universally, this is just something that has to happen for families if we are ever going to get a place that we have an actual education system and reality that we can be proud of and that is working for families and that doesn’t depend on your wealth or your zip code.

Inez:    I couldn’t agree more. Erika, you’ve been a fantastic guest, thanks for coming on. We hope that you, the listener, enjoyed this episode of She Thinks and the podcast in general. If you do enjoy us, we’d love it if you could take a moment to leave us a rating or review on iTunes. That helps ensure that our message reaches as many people as possible. Please share this episode, let your friends know they can find more She Thinks episodes on their favorite podcast app. From all of us here at Independent Women’s Forum, thanks for listening.