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Make Education a Campaign Issue, Groups Urge as Democrats Prepare to Debate

By Evie Blad — September 11, 2019 4 min read
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Ten Democratic presidential candidates will gather in Houston for the party’s third primary debate Thursday. Amid talk of differing views on healthcare, foreign policy, and immigration, will education find its way onto the stage?

A coalition of education and civil rights groups hopes it will.

ED2020—made up more than 20 organizations, including national teachers unions, the Alliance for Excellent Education and The Children’s Defense Fund—is one of several organizations that have pushed for more questions about K-12 education and related policy.

“As we embark on the 2020 election, presidential candidates across the country are highlighting their vision for the future of America,” the coalition says in its mission statement. “Education 2020 calls all presidential candidates—Republican and Democrat—to recognize education as central to building a secure future, harness public opinion, and offer actionable proposals to comprehensively advance our education system— birth through lifelong learning.”

ED2020’s broad principles call on candidates to address issues like access to early-childhood education, teacher pay and preparation, and equity.

Other organizations also want more talk of ensuring student rights and addressing funding disparities. And still others are pushing for a little less talk—or less heated talk, at least—about an issue that’s generated a lot of buzz during the campaign: charter schools.

Education as a Campaign Issue

About half of the 10 candidates who met the party’s qualifications for the Thursday debate have released free-standing education plans, and others have addressed a variety of K-12 and related issues in their platforms on issues like race, gun violence, economic development, and the executive actions they would take as they first take office.

But so far K-12 education has largely stayed on the back burner during the debates: emerging as a discussion point when candidates discussed racial justice, former Vice President Joe Biden’s civil rights record, and gun laws.

“The question I believe we should be asking is, when a kid is born in the United States, what kind of life should they be able to lead?” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the former superintendent of Denver schools said as he released his education plan last week (Bennet did not qualify for the debate). “We’ve had 40 years of increasing economic inequality and an education system that reinforces that inequality instead of liberating kids from it.”

So what else should moderators ask candidates about education?

While many candidates have pledged big boosts to federal education funding, the Center for American Progress wants them to get much more specific. “How would you better target federal education funds to students and schools with the greatest need?” the progressive organization’s education leaders ask in a list of 10 questions for presidential candidates. They cite concerns about the current formula used to allot Title I funds, which are aimed to ease disparities at high-poverty schools.

Among CAP’s other questions: What’s the federal role in eliminating disparities in areas like student discipline and school funding? What makes a good school? And how would candidates “improve working conditions for educators”?

Meanwhile, more conservative-leaning groups have said candidates are focused too broadly on big funding boosts without any discussion about how to spend existing school funding more efficiently. Some have also pushed for more conversations about the federal role in ensuring high standards for all students in the era of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives more power to the states.

Tough Talk on Charters

Charter schools have been a frequent topic on the campaign trail this year. While the 2016 Democratic party platform supports charter schools with some conditions, candidates like Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have criticized them harshly. Sanders plan calls for a ban on “for-profit” charter schools (those operated by for-profit management companies), and a freeze on new charter school support pending a federal audit. Other candidates have shied away from addressing such a hot topic or pivoted to criticism of “for-profit” charters, which make up a small portion of the sector of independently run, publicly funded schools, highlighting concerns about diversion of resources from district-run schools and accountability.

This week, one group called on state and federal politicians to cool it. Chiefs for Change, which started as an offshoot of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the reform group founded by former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, said in a statement that policymakers should “end the destructive debates over public charter schools.”

“No system is foolproof, but across our membership excellent systems of school choice have helped to expand options for families, replicate great schools, foster innovation, identify schools in need of intervention, turn around underperforming campuses, and weave together diverse neighborhoods in ways that are healthy and long overdue,” the statement said. “That is why we are troubled by the current national dialogue about school choice, which is more politically polarizing than ever before and driven in part by the cynical nature of today’s presidential politics.”

Will any of these issues come up in the debate? Watch along with us Thursday and follow our analysis on Twitter @PoliticsK12.

Photo: From left, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio participate in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. --Paul Sancya/AP

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