Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said teachers are often scapegoated to explain low-student achievement when policymakers refuse to properly fund K-12 education—and she doesn’t appear to see unions as the driving force behind keeping less-than-stellar teachers at low-performing schools.
And she’d like to create an “education SWAT team” at the U.S. Department of Education to help intervene in struggling schools, including Detroit’s, as well as steer federal money to repairing and modernizing schools, and find a new role for the feds in improving the teacher pipeline, she said at Sunday’s Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, in response to a question about fixing urban education from a parent who is part of a group suing the academically and financially struggling Detroit public schools for better conditions.
For his part, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, said he’d make K-12 education a top funding priority by taxing Wall Street investors to provide more money for public schools. He also reiterated his calls for dramatically cutting down the cost of college, and added that he’d like to invest in childcare.
Right now, Sanders said, “you have childcare workers making McDonald’s wages.”
‘Teachers Do So Much Good’
Clinton’s remarks on unions came in response to a direct question from CNN’s Anderson Cooper who moderated the debate—he asked her point blank if she thinks unions protect bad teachers.
Clinton told him she’s proud to have the endorsement of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
“I’ve had a very good relationship with both unions, with their leadership and we’ve had really candid conversations,” she said. “We are going to have to take a look what do we need in the 21st century to really involve families to help kids who have more problems than just academic problems. A lot of what has happened ... and honestly it really pains me ... a lot of people have been scapegoating teachers because they don’t want to put the money into the school systems that deserve the support that comes from the government doing its job.”
Cooper pressed her, asking if that means Clinton doesn’t think unions aren’t to blame for keeping bad teachers on the job.
Here’s her response—note the lack of a definitive yes or no:
“I have told my friends at both unions, we got to take a look at this because it one of the most common criticisms,” she said.. “We need to eliminate that criticism. Teachers do so much good. They are often working under the most difficult circumstances so anything that could be changed I want them to look at and I want to be a good partners and make sure that whatever I can do as president I will do to support the teachers.”
Both unions came out strong and early for Clinton, even though a number of members—including the Badass Teachers Association—wanted more consideration of Sanders. Meanwhile, some in the education redesign community—including Democrats for Education Reform—have been troubled by some of Clinton’s comments about charter schools on the campaign trail. And some Democrats worry that she may be too cozy with NEA and AFT, and won’t be willing to challenge them the way President Barack Obama has.
Education Policy Proposals
Clinton also called for resurrecting a program from the 1990’s that provided federal support for school modernization. Clinton also said she wanted to create a sort of “education SWAT team” at the U.S. Department of Education where we have “qualified people, teachers, principals, maybe folks who are retired, maybe folks who are active but all of whom are willing to come and help.”
Clinton said that, as president she would “use every legal means at my disposal” to help Detroit regain control of its public schools. And once that happened she would send this “SWAT team” to the Motor City to help “get teachers in the classroom to be able to find spaces while schools are being repaired.”
It was unclear from her remarks whether this “SWAT team” would just work with schools in Detroit, or if they would be dispatched to other struggling school systems.
Clinton also said she’d like to find ways that the federal government can support teachers, in part because there’s a teacher shortage bubbling up in some of the nation’s toughest-to-work-in districts, including Detroit.
Sanders also called for greater resources for struggling schools.
“Somehow we can not come up with the money to make sure that Detroit has good and qualified teachers, somehow we can not make sure that there are summer programs for your children and after school programs” for children, he said. “We have got to change our national priorities.”
Republican candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich was also asked about Detroit’s public schools during Thursday’s GOP debate—he called for a top-to-bottom overhaul similar to what happened in Cleveland.
The Detroit debate may have been the number one K-12 bonanza of the Democratic race so far. And there were plenty of smaller edu-moments, including discussion of gun control, and the impact of the water crisis in Flint on student learning.
Photos: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (Mathew Sumner/AP); Senator Bernie Sanders (Carolyn Kaster/AP)