Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet criticized his opponents for the Democratic presidential nomination Wednesday, saying they’ve focused too much on ambitious proposals to forgive student debt and not enough on yawning inequality in the nation’s K-12 education system.
Bennet, who previously served as superintendent of the Denver public school system, made his remarks as he prepared to release an education plan that imagines a “new American Dream” built on regional and state-federal partnerships to ensure children meet milestones of well-being and opportunity. Among those milestones: Children should be able to read by 3rd grade, and they should be able to enter college without needing remediation.
“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?” Bennet said in a call with reporters. “We’ve had 40 years of increasing economic inequality and an education system that reinforces that inequality instead of liberating kids from it.”
While several of Bennet’s competitors have sought to address school funding inequality by broadly expanding Title I, the federal fund designed to address the needs of high-poverty schools, Bennet’s plan would also put states on the hook for helping to ease financial disparities between districts.
His administration would “provide federal funding support to states and localities that make an effort to provide significant financial support to rural, high-poverty, and otherwise underserved schools to close the financing gaps that lead to achievement gaps.”
“This starts with a major expansion of Title I and IDEA funding, which have long helped push back against these disparities,” Bennet’s plan says. “But we must go far beyond the current levels of support for disadvantaged students through these programs to fully overcome the ongoing and large gaps that still exist in financing, including asking more of state and local governments who have underfunded disadvantaged schools and students.”
The plan also calls for $50 billion in federal funding over five years and federal leadership and technical assistance to help launch 500 local Regional Opportunity Compacts, “which will connect the dots between what is taught in schools, what skills local employers need, and how we support students so they can enter the workforce.” Bennet said he would pay for his plans by closing tax loopholes.
Among other things, Bennet’s plan also calls for:
- Providing universal prekindergarten in partnership with states;
- Expanded child tax credits of up to $300 a month;
- An emphasis on strategies like early home visiting and parent engagement;
- Addressing student loan debt through a variety of proposals, including student loan forgiveness for teachers and other professionals in high-need areas, working with states to rein in the cost of higher education, allowing student loan debt to be discharged in bankruptcy, and providing free community college for all;
- Improved teacher training and residency programs;
- Partnerships with minority serving institutions, like historically black colleges and universities, to recruit more teachers of color;
- Federal grants to help schools change discipline practices and address the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term that refers to disproportionately high rates of discipline for black and Latino students and students with disabilities; and
- Grants to help schools expand the school day or the school year.
Like many of his opponents, Bennet’s plan addresses teacher pay. It does not outline a specific federal commitment or funding stream, but it calls for setting a goal that “every educator in America is compensated with at least the equivalent amount they could earn in the private sector with a comparable level of education.”
As Denver schools superintendent, Bennet negotiated changes to the district’s pay-for-performance plan, working with the teacher’s union, and started a rating system for schools. As President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he seriously considered making Bennet his first education secretary.
As senator, Bennet has served on the education committee and has been involved in many proposals related to school improvement and funding.
As a presidential candidate, he said he’s been disappointed at the lack of discussion of education among other candidates. Aside from an exchange between Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former Vice President Joe Biden over school desegregation in the 1970s, the biggest education moment in the Democratic debates so far came when Bennet put a spotlight on continued inequality in education, saying “equal isn’t equal” when outcomes and opportunities still differ greatly for children.
Bennet criticized his opponents Wednesday for “running off on these tangents that appeal to the social media base of the Democratic Party” without addressing other persistent issues in education.
Unlike Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Bennet did not pledge to nominate a public school teacher to the role of education secretary, but he said he would like to see someone with experience as a teacher or someone who grew up in poverty in the role. And he criticized U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a popular target on the campaign trail.
“The idea that the Trump administration, that Donald Trump in particular, believes that Betsy DeVos is the right person to be in that job is a disgrace,” he said.
Photo: Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., speaks during the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN July 31 in Detroit. --Paul Sancya/AP