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Biden, Sanders Lay Out Broad Education Platforms

By Evie Blad & Andrew Ujifusa — June 04, 2019 6 min read
Sen. Bernie Sanders, pictured above, called for a moratorium on new charter schools until officials can complete a national "audit" of charters.
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Former Vice President Joe Biden and Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have now released two of the broadest education plans to date in the campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, both promising large infusions of federal dollars for public schools and proposing policies that touch everything from teacher pay to school integration.

The candidates, who have taken the top two spots in most national polls of the crowded primary field, pitched their proposals to a warm reception from national teachers’ unions, which have not yet awarded their powerful endorsements in the race.

“What is becoming increasingly clear in light of Biden’s and other recent education proposals is that ... the country is hungry to elect a president who will not only do what is in the best interest of public education but also ensure that students have the schools they deserve,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement after Biden released his plan last week at an American Federation of Teachers event.

What wasn’t included in either candidate’s proposal: policies related to school accountability, testing, or teacher performance. The packages were also thin on specific explanations of the policy changes and funding sources necessary to make the plans a reality.

Tripling Title I

A key overlap between the two proposals: Both candidates called for a tripling of Title I aid for schools that enroll high percentages of students from low-income families, raising the total amount to around $48 billion a year.

Sanders’ plan links the boosted aid to priorities like equitable school funding and support for students with disabilities. He does not specify how or if it would be targeted toward specific uses.

Biden’s plan would tie strings to the increase in Title I funding, requiring districts “to use these funds to offer educators competitive salaries and make other critical investments prior to directing the funds to other purposes.” It does not define what salary is considered competitive, nor does it provide details of any regulations or legal changes that could be required to enact those conditions.

Biden also called for doubling school-support personnel such as counselors and nurses, the inclusion of school facilities in a federal infrastructure plan, and grants to support local school integration efforts. Biden pledged to work with states to implement universal preschool programs, and he said he’d support Obama-era civil rights guidance that outlines steps districts can take to voluntarily desegregate their schools. His plan also touches on some broader issues, like home visitations for young children and support for bans on “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines, which the plan links to school safety.

Reflecting plans from other candidates to raise educator pay, Sanders called for a nationwide minimum teacher’s salary of $60,000, saying only that he would “work with states” to pull it off. He called for more support for magnet schools and career and technical education and an unspecified national per-pupil spending floor. Sanders’ plan doesn’t detail what that floor would be or how the federal government would ensure it is met.

“In America, the quality of a child’s education should not and cannot depend on their ZIP code,” the Sanders plan says.

Such proposals would require a surge of federal funding—and the political will to secure it. The plans exceed the $76 billion education spending bill House Democrats are currently considering, and they stand in sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s repeated proposals to cut education programs.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, pictured above, unveiled a broad K-12 education plan that calls for tripling Title I money to pay for teacher salary increases and student supports.

Yet narrower ideas from Sanders’ and Biden’s Democratic rivals wouldn’t be easy wins, either; think of the plan to raise teacher pay from Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., for example, that would give teachers an average raise of $13,500 using both federal and state support. And regardless of the scope of these and other plans, the question of how various candidates would handle K-12 schools is getting more of the spotlight in the primary process than it has in previous years.

For example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., announced last month that she would nominate a person with experience teaching in public schools as education secretary. As many Democrats seeking the presidency are likely to do in the months ahead, Warren used the announcement to attack Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as someone focused on enriching wealthy interests in education, not students’ needs.

Several days before Sanders shared his vision for schools, former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro released his own K-12 plan that emphasizes many of the same issues.

Castro pledged to enact an average pay hike of $10,000 for teachers using federal tax credits and $150 billion for school infrastructure, as well as to implement a “progressive housing policy” at the federal agency he used to run in order to fight school segregation.

Debate Over Charters

A key part of Sanders’ plan threw fuel on the fire of emerging criticisms that have sprung up through the primary process about charter schools.

In his plan, Sanders makes it clear he really wants to rein in charters and blasts their “unregulated growth.” Charter schools educate about 3 million students, or 7 percent of all public school students, federal data shows.

He wants a moratorium on new charter schools until officials can complete a national “audit” of charters. He seeks to ban “for profit” charters (some are operated by for-profit entities). And he wants to halt public funding for new charter schools.

Sanders also wants changes for those charters that stick around. They’d have to have the same “oversight” as traditional public schools. And for each charter school management board, half the members would have to be parents and teachers. (Charters are publicly funded, tuition-free, independently managed schools.)

In 2016, the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter school expansion, a call Sanders directly echoed. There’s no direct federal path to accomplish these proposals, however. Right now, the the Department of Education provides $440 million to help charter schools get off the ground and for other aid. Yet states still control a big part of the policy Sanders is addressing. Another detail: Charter schools run by for-profit entities make up less than 15 percent of all charters, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Less than four years ago, Sanders expressed support for “public charter schools,” although his exact meaning was unclear. Still, some Democrats remain charter school fans; recent polling by Democrats for Education Reform found relatively high black and Hispanic support for them.

Sanders’ plan quickly inspired political reporters to ask other candidates about their positions on charters.

Some candidates, including former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, have been criticized for their past support of charter schools.

Booker brushed aside a question about charters at an Iowa event in February, saying they represent a small proportion of all schools and he wants “great public education for all of our children.” O’Rourke, whose wife, Amy, founded a charter school, said in April that there is “real value” in charter schools that are run by nonprofit organizations and share their ideas, but “we cannot charter our way out of public school challenges.”

The drive to criticize charters represents a shift. President Barack Obama’s administration was considered friendly to charter schools. But school choice advocates say DeVos has become a visible and divisive advocate for their cause, driving debates over the issue further into the public conversation.

In contrast to Sanders’, Biden’s plan doesn’t address charter schools. Asked about the issue by a teacher after he unveiled his plan at the Houston AFT event, Biden said only that he doesn’t support federal funding for for-profit charters.

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2019 edition of Education Week as Biden, Sanders Lay Out Broad Education Platforms

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