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Democrats Pledge More Money, Sweeping Change at 2020 Education Forum

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 14, 2019 11 min read
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Click here to see our interactive guide to 2020 presidential candidates and their plans for K-12 education.

Seven Democratic candidates for president promised to dramatically increase funding for public schools, as well as shifting the federal government’s role in education to encompass concerns about housing and income inequality, at a public forum in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

At the “Public Education Forum” televised by MSNBC and sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and other groups, the candidates also pledged to use their K-12 plans to address housing policy, homelessness, and general student welfare and well-being.

The candidates who spoke at the forum were Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, businessman Tom Steyer, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren

In fact, there was little daylight between the candidates at the event. And the forum showcased just how much national Democrats have shifted from their previous ocus on teacher quality, school accountability, and public school choice that often predominated during the Obama administration. The forum stretched for roughly six hours, and audience members as well as the moderators, MSNBC anchors Rehema Ellis and Ali Velshi, asked the candidates question.

Outside the event, parents who support charter schools showed up to urge the candidates to meet with them and hear their views. Bennet did meet with some of those parents afterwards, according to at least one of the activists. These protesters were attempting to build on attention drawn by those Warren at a rally last month over her charter school platform.

To see what each candidate said at the forum and additional context, click on their names below to jump to their section.

Michael Bennet Joe BidenPete ButtigiegAmy KlobucharTom SteyerBernie SandersElizabeth Warren

Michael Bennet

Bennet, a former Denver schools superintendent as well as a senator, told the forum that addressing child poverty, and making sure students having appropriate housing and other services, are keys to improving public education. “We have to massively increase what we pay teachers in this country,” Bennet said. “What we should not do is make empty promises.”

Bennet decried the federal government’s unwillingness to “fully fund” the nation’s special education law (referring to a federal mandate that Washington pay 40 percent of the additional costs linked to special education) and inadequate Title I funding. While he said the Senate is as far from the nation’s schools as it is possible to be, Bennet also made an argument against Beltway micromanagement of education: “I don’t think the job of the education secretary is to be the superintendent of America’s schools.”

At one point, Bennet said that if it were up to him, students would be in school six days a week, adding that children in poverty in particular don’t get enough learning time; he later added that as president he would not mandate six school days a week.

Bennet, who backed several of the Obama administration’s education initiatives, has been a charter school supporter. But in response to a question from the audience, he stressed that charters were only an “element” of what’s happened in the Denver school system.

“We’re not going to scale success for most kids through charter schools,” Bennet said.

Joe Biden

Although Biden as a senator from Delaware voted for the No Child Left Behind Act as a senator from Delaware, that instituted new grade-level standardized exams, the former vice president indicated that he now opposed mandated standardized testing in response to an audience member’s question. He said that testing took authority away from teachers who deserved to be given the authority to determine what happens in their classroom, and that tests did not capture the ability for teachers to motivate students to learn and gain confidence.

Yet Biden also said, “There are some lousy teachers out there. I’m not saying every teacher is a great teacher.”

Biden said that it’s in the national interest to ensure that we pay teachers fairly,” Biden told the forum, referring to the interests of Americans in general. “We’re not spending anywhere near enough.” Like several other candidates, Biden has said in his education plan that he wants to triple funding on Title I, which provides aid for low-income students. He said he would get this done by changing the federal tax system so that wealth and income are taxed at the same levels. He called Title I as well as special education funding a matter of dignity for students and parents.

Asked about his complicated history with school desegregation, Biden said he was proud of his civil rights record and argued it was better than any other candidate’s. He linked segregation in education to broader government decisions.

“De facto segregation exists because of our housing policy, our education policy,” Biden said. “We should break down school districts and make sure they cannot by definition exclude minority neighborhoods.”

Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg reminded the audience that he’s the child of two educators (both his parents were university professors) and that he’s married to a teacher, Chasten Buttigieg, who gives him “an education about education” every day. He joked that he can be brushing his teeth and out of nowhere his spouse will ask, “What about social and emotional learning? Have you thought about that more?”

In the course of his remarks, the South Bend, Ind. mayor focused a lot on the conditions outside of school buildings, saying that educators are often asked to do too much, including paying out of their own pockets for basic classroom needs.

“I see teachers expected to counsel students through hunger, through trauma, through issue after issue that they face before they even cross the threshold of a school,” Buttigeig told the audience. He also touted his Educator Access Corps to create a stronger pipline of teachers to work in schools with relatively high rates of poverty. And he scorned the idea of arming teachers as a means of protecting students in schools.

In a separate vein, Buttigieg also highlighted a part of his education plan that would give the federal government the power to sign off on “major” changes proposed for school district boundaries, as a means of addressing segregated schools and “breakaway” districts. That’s supported by groups such as the Century Foundation, which champions school integration, but it would take a massive political shift for the proposal to pass muster in Congress.

He also said that changing Title I formulas—which would require revamping the Every Student Succeeds Act—to make school funding more equitable is not just an education issue, “It is a question of basic racial justice.”

Amy Klobuchar

Klobuchar said that within the first 100 seconds of her administration, she would “fire Betsy DeVos.” (It’s highly doubtful the U.S. Secretary of Education would stick around long enough to be canned by a hypothetical President Klobuchar.)

“We should have someone with an education background as secretary of education,” Klobuchar said, saying Minnesota served as a model in this regard. That’s a reference to Mary Cathryn Ricker, who was executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers when then-Gov.-elect Tim Walz tapped her to be the state education commissioner.

Klobuchar consistently touted her concrete accomplishments in the Senate as an way to show what she can get done on education. For example, she cited her role as the lead Democratic sponsor of the STOP School Violence Act, which provides $1 billion over 10 years in grants for local school districts to implement programs to prevent and address various safety issues.

As part of her plan for her first 100 days in office, Klobuchar said she would put Obama-era guidance regarding transgender students and student discipline back into place. During the forum, Klobuchar emphasized that she would take a very different approach to civil rights than President Donald Trump. She also pledged to spend significant federal resources on school infrastructure, saying, “We shouldn’t have elementary school kids dying from lead paint poisoning.”

Klobuchar said she would prioritize getting more teachers of color into schools and helping them stay there. “If you don’t have teachers of color, you have a much higher risk of those kids [of color] not doing well, dropping out,” Klobuchar told the audience. “You want to be able to recruit and retain teachers of color. That helps keep kids in schools.”

Bernie Sanders

Sanders used his time at the forum to tout his education plan, which would triple Title I funding and set a mandatory minimum salary of $60,000 for teachers; his plan does acknowledge that this goal would require working with states willing to set such a salary floor.

“The purpose of that revenue will be to raise salaries for teachers and support staff,” Sanders said in response to a question, referring to his plan for Title I, which is earmarked for schools with large shares of low-income students.

Sanders was asked about his vote against the No Child Left Behind Act and his related opposition to standardized tests. In response, Sanders said that students should be tracked individually without resorting to standardized exams. However, he did not clarify how exactly students’ progress would be monitored at scale without such exams.

“The problem with testing ... is that we spend too much time teaching for the tests,” the senator said.

Sanders also called for major structural reforms in not just how much, but how education is funded. In neighborhoods with large shares of students of color, “the property tax does not provide the kind of funding that the schools need,” Sanders said, saying that the country needed to “break” its dependence on that tax in order to give schools more support.

But Sanders also said it was necessary to remove barriers that segregate schools, saying at one point, “Kids do better in desegregated schools.”

Tom Steyer

Steyer noted in his introduction that his mother was a teacher. He repeatedly said that public schools need more money, and he slammed states like Oklahoma and Wisconsin that had cut education spending in recent years.

However, nationwide spending on public education has risen steadily over the last decade, although not back to levels before the Great Recession in all states after adjusting for inflation. (Both Oklahoma and Wisconsin have increased K-12 funding over the last two years.)

But putting more money into federal programs such as Title I wouldn’t be nearly enough to address the issue of what schools need, Steyer stressed. While teachers need to be paid more, he said, there should also be more robust wraparound social services to help schools succeed.

“This is largely a local or state question,” Steyer told the audience. “It’s going to have to be a much bigger priority in terms of spending.”

Steyer said he backed universal prekindergarten services, and touted his program to provide nutritious meals to students “so that they can be healthier, so they can perform better in schools.”

Elizabeth Warren

Warren spent much of the forum touting her two-cent wealth tax that she says would fund a major increase in K-12 education funding, including universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year olds and a quadrupling of Title I funding. A former special education teacher, Warren also called for teachers’ pay to be commensurate with the respect they deserve.

“I don’t mean a coffee mug that you buy someone at the holidays. You pay them money ... so that they can support their family and still be able to teach in public schools,” Warren, who highlighted her year as a special education teacher, told the audience. And she said all educators should be able to collectively bargain, which is a big part of her education plan.

The moderators zeroed in on Warren’s charter school proposals, asking her what she would say to parents of color who want options beyond the traditional public schools they’re zoned for. (Background here.) “I have no doubt about the sincerity of their efforts to educate their children. And they’re looking for the best educational opportunity they can find,” Warren responded, but added that she feels it is her and the country’s responsibility “make sure that every public school is an excellent public school.”

She also denied wanting to pull the rug out from children currently in charters, saying, “I’m not proposing cutting funding for children who are in charter schools,” referencing her plan to restrict funding for charter school growth. However, Warren does want to ban “for-profit” charter schools, referencing schools managed by for-profit operators; Warren called those schools a different matter, but didn’t explain why.

Warren said she believes “that charter schools should have to meet the same requirements as all other public schools are required to meet.” Charter advocates and critics have frequently battled over whether it’s appropriate to put mandates on who serves on charter school boards and their collective bargaining obligations, for example.

Photo: Presidential candidate Joe Biden (Associated Press)

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