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Bernie Sanders and Education: Five Facts to Know Before the Iowa Caucuses

By Alyson Klein — January 27, 2016 3 min read
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If the polls are right, only two Democratic presidential candidates stand a shot at winning the Iowa caucuses next week: former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

A self-described socialist, Sanders is largely seen as the scrappy, lefty foil to the pragmatic Clinton. He’s put out a sweeping college access proposal and been skeptical of standardized testing and competitive

grants, especially Race to the Top.

Here’s what you need to know about him:

1. Sanders voted against the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, but supported the Senate version of what became its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and an amendment to bolster accountability.

Sanders voted against NCLB in 2001 because of its emphasis on standardized testing. And in 2012, Sanders was slated to meet with “Occupy the DOE” protestors about the opt-out movement. (So he was supportive of opt-out before opt-out was cool.)

But over the past year, as a presidential candidate, Sanders seems to have taken a slightly different tack when it becomes to testing and accountability. Along with just about every other Democrat in the Senate, he supported an amendment by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that would have beefed-up accountability in the Senate version of what became ESSA. And he got some blowback for that position from teachers’ union members across the country who support him. (The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have endorsed Clinton.)

2. Sanders is making some very big promises when it comes to college access.

It’s no secret that college access has been a bigger deal in the Democratic primary than just about any other

education issue. All three contenders—Sanders, Clinton, and long-shot candidate former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley—have put out proposals on this issue. Sanders’ is arguably the most far-reaching. He wants to make public college free for everyone, and pay for it by taxing Wall Street. (Clinton has pointed out that this would benefit Republican contender Donald Trump’s kids.)

3. Sanders has been skeptical of alternative routes into the teaching profession.

When the Senate education committee considered an (ultimately unsuccessful) rewrite of NCLB in 2011, Sanders introduced an amendment that would have made it harder for alternative-route teachers (like Teach for America teachers) to be considered “highly qualified.”

4. When it came to marquee competitive grants, President Barack Obama did not have a friend in Bernie.

Even when Race to the Top was popular, at least among Democrats, Sanders had serious concerns about the program. The cumbersome application process, he argued, seriously shortchanged rural states like Vermont.

5. Sanders has made educational equity a K-12 campaign theme.

Sanders doesn’t have the long-standing relationship with minority voters that his chief rival, Clinton, is said to have, but he’s trying to take on issues that are important to those communities on the campaign trail. For instance, on his campaign website, he addresses opportunity gaps in K-12 education, noting that Black students are far more likely to be suspended, or taught by a first- year teacher than their white peers.

And he’s pitched moving away from property taxes to a more equal system of funding education. (More in this Vox piece, plus this comment from Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham, who worked on education for President Bill Clinton.)

Plus, Sanders has talked about the power of education to combat crime. “It makes eminently more sense to invest in jobs and education than jails and incarceration,” he said at a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass., last year. He’s also said that government jobs could help dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

BONUS: NEA and AFT top brass may have endorsed Clinton, but many of their members definitely seem to be “Feelin’ the Bern,” at least on Twitter.

We’ll tell you what you need to know about Clinton later this week. Meanwhile, check out our post on Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the three Republicans leading the polls in Iowa. And look for our upcoming edu-rundowns on GOP Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Billionaire Developer Donald Trump, the front-runner in the Republican contest.

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