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Democratic Convention Speakers Praise Teachers, Decry Gun Violence in Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 28, 2016 5 min read
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Odes to teachers and calls to prevent gun violence in classrooms highlighted the K-12 talk during Wednesday night’s Democratic National Convention program, devoted mainly to boosting presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

During the final speech of the night, President Barack Obama said he was proud of teachers, but that more work remained to be done “for every child who needs a sturdier ladder out of poverty” and access to a quality education. He did not mention the Every Student Succeeds Act, which he signed last December and which reauthorized federal K-12 law for the first time in 15 years.

He emphasized Democratic nominee’s plan to ensure access to preschool. (She doesn’t have a comprehensive K-12 plan, though.) And Obama praised Clinton for her work on behalf of students in special education, echoing the theme of speeches from Tuesday.

Several of the lead-up speeches also linked education to top Democratic priorities.

In his speech, Kaine recalled gun violence in Richmond, where he was elected mayor, as well as the “horrible mass shooting” at Virginia Tech University in 2007, and how the state responded by closing a loophole in the state’s background check for purchasing guns. He also discussed the state’s expansion of early education. (Kaine was introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the ranking member of the House education committee.)

And as he did last week when he gave his first speech as Clinton’s vice-presidential pick, Kaine highlighted efforts to address school segregation by his father-in-law, former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton.

“He integrated Virginia’s public schools, so black and white kids would finally learn together, and the family enrolled their own kids, including his daughter, Anne, in those integrated inner-city schools,” Kaine said of the former governor, who was in attendance Wednesday night.

And he highlighted his work with Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Senate budget committee to increase funding for education.

Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden also threw a spotlight on education, albeit briefly. The vice president praised teachers who buy school supplies for students out of their own pocket, and added, “Being a teacher is not what they do, it’s who they are.” And Jill Biden praised community colleges as “America’s best-kept secret.” Jill Biden is a community college teacher who has helped Obama lead an initiative for free community college.

Speakers Discuss Sandy Hook and Gun Control

Wednesday night here didn’t focus so intently on education and children the way the previous night’s speeches did. But in addition to Kaine’s speech, education did figure into remarks about gun violence, municipal infrastructure, and other topics over the course of the second-to-last night of the convention.

One of the most charged moments was when Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut spoke about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Murphy praised Clinton for being willing to take on the “gun lobby” and said he had had enough of shootings across the country and “enough of children dying in our classrooms.” Murphy held a push for greater gun control in the Senate that lasted 15 consecutive hours earlier this year.

Attacking Republican nominee Donald Trump for being in favor of putting more guns in schools for protection, Murphy said, “This is a fate we cannot accept.”

Right after Murphy spoke, Erica Smegielski, the daughter of Dawn Hochsprung, the Sandy Hook Elementary principal who was killed in 2012 by a gunman along with five other adults and 20 children, said she should be watching the DNC at home with her mother, not speaking at it. And she spoke in favor of fewer guns in schools, not more.

“We don’t need our teachers and principals going to work in fear. What we need is another mother who’s willing to do what’s right,” Smegielski said in support of Clinton.

Children in Poverty and Bullies

Earlier in the evening, Scott gave a shout-out to Clinton for seeking educational equity and trying to help children reach their “full potential.”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the Democratic nominee will fight for universal prekindergarten. (Clinton’s record on early education in Arkansas got some attention in President Bill Clinton’s speech Tuesday night.) And former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Clinton’s former rival for the Democratic nomination, bashed Trump by saying that instead of wages being too high (as the GOP nominee has said), the costs of child care and the number of children living in poverty are too high.

“Here’s what I learned in elementary school on the playground: Bullies are just cowards in disguise,” O’Malley said in a jab at Trump.

The mayor of Flint, Mich., Karen Weaver, also spoke, calling attention to the lead poisoning of the city’s water that continues to be an issue for Flint and other U.S. cities—Weaver called Flint a “city in crisis.” (Our own Corey Mitchell and Denisa Superville have written about lead in schools’ water this year.)

Moderate but Solution-Oriented?

We’ve focused a lot on how delegates feel about Clinton. But what about her vice-presidential pick?

Reaction to Kaine from the perspective of education was generally positive—but he’s also getting a boost from his wife from at least one delegate.

While there’s some sentiment that Kaine is too moderate, Sandra Klassen, who is the subchair of Virgina’s delegates who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders, said those who “know him best” are enthusiastically behind the move.

“He brings integrity and ethics to the ticket,” said Klassen, who retired years ago from her job as the executive director of the International Council on Education for Teaching, a non-profit organization that works on global development through education. “He is a genuinely nice person who cares about people.”

And she’s a big fan of Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, who just stepped down as Virginia’s Secretary of Education. In fact, Klassen said she gave Holton a copy of Diane Ravitch’s book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Holton “appeared receptive” to the book’s ideas, in Klassen’s view.

And Amy Laufer, a Clinton delegate and the chair of the Charlottesville City School board and a former middle school math teacher was unabashedly enthusiastic about Kaine.

“My two sons who have special needs took advantage of his expansion of early-intervention services. In my mind he comes up with real solutions for real problems,” she said.

Assistant Editor Alyson Klein contributed to this post.

Photos: An observer listens to a speech about gun violence by Erica Smegielski, the daughter of the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. who was killed in 2012, at the Democratic National Convention on July 27 (Deanna Del Ciello/Education Week); Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, waves as Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., center, hugs his wife Anne Holton on July 23 (Andrew Harnik/AP); Democrats on the floor the Wells Fargo Center at the DNC on July 27 (Deanna Del Ciello/Education Week)

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