Bernie Sanders’ education plan to take aim at segregation in public schools


Sen. Bernie Sanders will unveil an education plan in South Carolina on Saturday that addresses de facto segregation in American public schools.

The Vermont senator’s campaign says the plan is multi-faceted and partly aimed at reducing segregation in the public school system. It would end funding of for-profit charter schools and place a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools, which the campaign notes is a priority of the NAACP.

Sanders’ plan will be announced on the 65th anniversary weekend of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled school segregation laws unconstitutional. Yet research shows that over the last several decades, public schools across the country have become increasingly segregated.

A 2019 study by UCLA and Penn State reported that three years ago 18 percent of U.S. public schools were “intensely segregated,” meaning that their student population was less than 10 percent white. According to the study, in 1988 only 6 percent of public schools met this definition. “Research shows that segregation has strong, negative relationships with the achievement, college success, long-term employment and income of students of color,” the study said.

Sanders has named his plan after Thurgood Marshall, who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case and later went on to become the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court.

South Carolina was once ranked one of the most integrated states for black students, but now nearly half of its public schools have student bodies that are at least two-thirds one race.

Dr. Bobby Donaldson, the director of the Center for Civil Rights History & Research at the University of South Carolina, said it’s timely for Sanders to roll out his plan on the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education“You have one of the most compelling cases of 1954, now serving as a backdrop to address where we go from here, in terms of dramatically improving the educational outcomes for all citizens,” he said.

The setting of this educational policy rollout also has significance. Once the epicenter of slavery, South Carolina has a long history of segregation, especially as it relates to public schools. In 1949, Briggs v. Elliott, the first of five cases that would later be combined to make Brown v. Board of Education, began in South Carolina.

Briggs v. Elliott was filed by a group of parents who challenged segregation in Clarendon County public schools, after their initial requests for the county to provide school buses for black students were ignored. Although not as well known as the broader Brown v. Board of education, Donaldson argues that Briggs v. Elliot was transformational in that it showed working people they could be engines of change in their underserved communities.

“A lesson to be learned from Briggs v. Elliot [is] that it’s great to have a Bernie Sanders come through and hopefully galvanize the public,” he said. “But ultimately, the real thrust will come from those areas when they decide and agree that this is unacceptable and now is the time for change.”

South Carolina state representative and Sanders surrogate Terry Alexander told CBS News that Sanders’ timing shows a level of “consciousness” that recognizes past and future obstacles. Alexander said the plan “reminds us, reminds South Carolina, reminds African Americans in particular, that we still have struggles ahead of us when it comes to educating our people, and our children.”

Alexander represents Darlington and Florence counties, situated in a portion of the state commonly referred to as the “Corridor of Shame,” a reference to some of the lowest-performing school districts in the state. Alexander, a member of the state legislature’s education committee, said the increase in segregation and decrease in funding has impacted the region’s economy. “Education and economic development goes hand in glove,” Alexander told CBS News.

Sanders’ campaign said the 2020 presidential hopeful will discuss those issues and a slate of others, including underfunding, at his Saturday town hall in Orangeburg. This will be Sanders’ first visit to Orangeburg, the biggest city in mostly rural Orangeburg County, since officially launching his 2020 presidential campaign. In 2016, Sanders secured only 11 percent of the county’s votes in the South Carolina primary.

The city is also home to Orangeburg School District 5, which is one of the state’s lowest-performing school districts and has a student body population that’s 87 percent black. In South Carolina, more than 75 percent of the schools that have predominantly black student bodies are located in the lowest-performing school districts.

South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said improving those school districts is the top priority for the state agency.

“It is a long process to reverse years of poverty and racial inequality [but] are working on it,” she said. “We are working to try to provide additional support and additional opportunities for the students and for the teachers.”

Brenda Murphy, South Carolina’s NAACP conference president, said that 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the state still has educational challenges to overcome.

“You have to look at [this] in terms of communities, level of poverty, who’s in that community,” Murphy said. “In a rural setting, when you’re funding schools, you have to look at the needs of the people in that community and you can’t just fund based on per student you have to look at the community as a whole.”


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