Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX), with wife Amy Hoover Sanders by his side, holds a fundraiser at the Austin Motel on April 1, 2017 in Austin, Texas.
Beto O'Rourke's wife thrown into the spotlight
03:05 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke in 2012 called charter schools a “good idea” and said they “encourage competition” and innovation in classrooms.

The former Texas congressman’s comments came in a January 2012 primary debate during his successful bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes. His past comments could draw criticism in the Democratic presidential primary; charter schools are controversial in Democratic politics, with teachers’ unions complaining that they siphon money away from public schools – while skirting the same sort of strict accountability measures and mandates to take all children that public schools face.

“I think charter schools are a good idea. They encourage competition. They encourage innovation in the classroom, and they’re a laboratory for some of the best ideas and concepts in public education today,” O’Rourke said then. “Because remember, at the end of the day, the person that we care the most about in the educational system is the student. So let’s find out what’s best for the student. And I say, let’s try everything possible to make sure that we’re delivering the best possible result.”

“Now, I don’t think it’s an either-or proposition,” he added, pointing out that charter schools are public schools. “I do think it’s a matter of making sure that we innovate, that we encourage creativity. And as I said in my previous answer, we need to encourage a lifelong love of earning – learning, and earning – and intellectual curiosity. I think charter schools help us get that done.”

O’Rourke’s wife, Amy O’Rourke, is the former head of a dual-language elementary charter school. She now works for an El Paso non-profit, the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, that has backed the expansion of charter schools there.

Asked about the 2012 comments and O’Rourke’s position on charter schools today, O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans said, “Beto has been a strong and consistent advocate for public school classrooms in Texas and across the country. He has made it clear that our full focus should be on, and our taxpayer funds should go towards, public school classrooms where the overwhelming majority of American students attend. He believes that we should be investing in getting our public school teachers the resources they need to help their students succeed.”

“Beto believes that any public charter schools that exist across the country should deliver for students, be respectful of teachers, and have comprehensive oversight and accountability to the taxpayer,” he said.

Evans noted that the National Education Association gave O’Rourke the highest possible score for his votes during his six years in Congress.

He also pointed out – as O’Rourke frequently does on the campaign trail – that their children attend the same public school that O’Rourke attended as a child.

And he said Amy O’Rourke’s work “has been focused on serving El Paso families and expanding opportunity for students in underserved communities.”

Charter schools were once supported by Republican and Democratic presidents – including former President Barack Obama’s administration. But the politics surrounding them shifted as states slashed budgets, including education spending, following the Great Recession.

O’Rourke isn’t the only candidate for whom the politics of school choice are a potential minefield in the 2020 race. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s history of supporting charter schools and private school vouchers as he sought to turn around Newark’s school system during his tenure as mayor has earned him criticism from teachers’ unions.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren once touted the idea of an all-voucher system that would eliminate lines between private and public schools, but more recently she has shifted her stance on school choice, and in 2016 opposed lifting her state’s cap on charter schools. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who is considering a 2020 run, as Denver schools superintendent oversaw changes similar to those implemented during Booker’s tenure in Newark.

During his failed bid to oust Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, O’Rourke was endorsed by national and state teachers’ associations. While he has opposed spending public education dollars on vouchers for children to attend private schools, charter schools were not a central topic during the Senate campaign.

Still, they’ve been a flashpoint in Texas politics, with the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers in January calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion amid concerns that charters were not serving special-needs students and were receiving more money per student from the state.

As a presidential candidate, O’Rourke has called for universal pre-kindergarten and increased spending on teacher pay, telling attendees at town halls that nearly half the teachers in Texas work second jobs. He has not yet addressed the role of charter schools on the campaign trail.

Norma De La Rosa, the president of the El Paso Teachers Association, said she hopes to soon speak with O’Rourke about his position on charter schools.

De La Rosa said she never had issues with how O’Rourke voted in Congress and praised him for criticizing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She said his frequent availability at town halls in El Paso while he was in Congress “says a lot to a lot of us.”

She said she would like to see him back a moratorium on new charter schools and wants him to listen to educators about the kind of person they’d like to see in the role of education secretary.

“I know that he will be asked what Amy’s part in this is all going to be,” De La Rosa said.