Ten Democratic presidential contenders pledged to bring back respect to the teaching profession and, in many cases, raise teacher pay as they made their pitches to the delegates of the nation’s largest teachers’ union. Former Vice President Joe Biden; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro; U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren; Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke; and Rep. Tim Ryan all spoke to National Education Association delegates this month. The NEA invited all Democratic presidential candidates, but the rest were unable to attend. (The union also invited President Donald Trump, who did not respond.)
During the forum at the annual Representative Assembly, Biden and de Blasio joined Warren in pledging to nominate a former public school teacher to the position of secretary of education if elected. Harris also pledged to nominate “someone who comes from public schools” and to make sure the NEA is “at the table to help me make that decision.” The candidates covered a wide range of issues during the forum by responding to three questions educators had posed through NEA’s campaign website. Each candidate came to the stage separately and answered different questions. Here is some of what they said, in order of their appearance:
Raise Teacher Pay, Pause Charter School Growth
Sanders reiterated his plans for every teacher to receive a $60,000 minimum salary and to end federal funding for for-profit charter schools.
“Taxpayer money should be going to educate our kids, not to make Wall Street investors even richer than they are,” he said. “And our proposal puts a moratorium on all new charter schools until we have a full understanding of their impact on public education.”
Sanders has been criticized by charter school leaders and some other education groups for the proposed freeze. They say it will disproportionately harm students of color.
Tackle Segregated Schools Through Busing
Although busing was a heated argument in the first Democratic debate, Castro was the only one to mention it during the NEA forum. When asked what he would do about segregated schools, he said he would support “tools like voluntary busing.”
“If we want to make sure that every child gets as great an education as possible, ... we need to do things like tackle housing segregation,” he added.
If elected, Castro pledged to give educators a “strong voice” in his policymaking.
Make a Teacher the Education Secretary
The former vice president’s education plan includes raising teacher salaries through tripling Title I funding, as well as investing in school infrastructure and expanding prekindergarten programs. He said he would invest $100 billion for teachers to be paid for mentoring.
Biden also pledged to nominate a teacher for education secretary, as well as give educators more voice in policy.
“You in the classroom should be a part of the agenda as to what you are going to teach,” he said. “Teachers should have the ability to have an input, and I think it should be regularized in terms of the school districts. That’s a local decision, but I will put a lot of pressure to make sure teachers are in on deciding what the curricula is, what you’re going to teach.”
‘We Do Not Need High-Stakes Testing’
Warren said she would tax families’ wealth of above $50 million at 2 percent a year and use that money to provide universal child care, enact universal pre-K, and raise the wages of preschool teachers “to the level they deserve.”
Warren, a former teacher, was asked how she would put an end to high-stakes testing. She reiterated her plan to nominate a teacher as the education secretary, so that someone who has firsthand experience can make policy.
“This notion that it’s all about testing—that it’s all about what someone far off in the state capital and the national capital says, ‘Here’s what constitutes success,’ and worse yet, ‘Here’s what constitutes failure,’” she said. “No, that’s not what education is about. Education is what goes on in the classroom, what a teacher has set as the goal, and when a child gets there, it is the teacher who knows it—we do not need high-stakes testing.”
During the Obama administration, the national teachers’ unions were highly critical of federal support for high-stakes testing.
Raise Teacher Pay, Improve School Infrastructure
Klobuchar unveiled a new policy proposal: a federal-state “progress partnership” program. Under that program, the federal government would match states’ commitments to increase teacher pay. States would also work with educators to adapt high school curricula to improve workforce readiness, align school services and schedules with the needs of working families, and review the existing funding formula to improve equity.
She also said she would heavily invest in school infrastructure.
“You recruit teachers by making sure you have the pay, you have the good job environment, you have infrastructure in schools that people want to work in, and you’re fully funding federal programs,” she said.
Charter Schools ‘Have a Place,’ But No Vouchers
O’Rourke said he wants to have a permanent fund of $500 billion that will help reduce disparities between affluent and low-income school districts. He also said his administration would pay for National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification for every educator who wants to go through the process.
O’Rourke, whose wife started a nonprofit charter school in Texas, was asked his stance on charters—a topic he has been careful about addressing.
“Not a single dime of our public tax dollars can go to vouchers and private schools in this country,” he said. “There is a place for public, nonprofit charter schools, but private charter schools and voucher programs—not a single dime in my administration will go to them. We will fully fund public education.”
Increase Mental-Health Services To Make Schools Safe
The Washington state governor was asked how he would improve school safety. He said he has fought against the National Rifle Association and guns throughout his career.
“We need a president that has the ability to stand up on the issues of gun safety,” he said. “Donald Trump ... says the solution is to give 1st grade teachers Glock pistols. I went to the White House in February and told him, ‘You’re just wrong. That’s an idiotic idea. You need to quit tweeting so much and you need to listen to educators more on this subject.’”
What schools do need, Inslee said, are more counselors to provide mental-health services to students.
Bill De Blasio
‘Next Secretary of Education Should Be an Educator’
The mayor slammed charter schools in his pitch to the NEA, saying that “too many Democrats have been cozy with the charter schools.” He has long fought against charter schools in New York City.
“I am angry about the state of public education in America,” he said. “I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.”
He also joined some of his peers in pledging to nominate a teacher to head the Department of Education.
“If we want to make sure that we get away from high-stakes testing, we need a secretary of education who’s going to be someone very, very different,” de Blasio said. “I’ve got a radical idea. ... The next secretary of education should be an educator.”
Put a Mental-Health Counselor In Every School
Ryan recently unveiled a plan to invest $50 billion to “transform public schools.” That money would go toward updating school infrastructure, including making sure students have access to broadband internet and maker spaces.
What’s more, Ryan said social-emotional learning and a mental-health counselor should be in every school.
“So help me God, if we’re going to transform our schools, we have to start recognizing that before we do anything, before we start talking about tests, we have to start talking about how we’re going to take care of kids in schools,” he said.
The NEA Will ‘Be at the Table’
Harris, who pledged to raise teacher pay, said it was “immoral” that the federal government is not fully funding special education.
“Every day in America, we have children whose IEP [individualized education program] needs are not being met, children who are being placed in general education classrooms, children who are falling through the cracks ... because the system has failed them,” she said. “I will address it as one of the first orders of business.”
Although she did not explicitly pledge that a teacher would be her secretary of education, Harris said she would nominate someone “who comes from public schools.”
“I also promise you that you will be at the table to help me make that decision,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Democrats Vying for President Make Pitches to Teachers’ Union