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Federal Q&A

Q&A With Presidential Candidate Tom Steyer: ‘Trump Doesn’t Believe in Education’

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 12, 2020 7 min read
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Read about all of the presidential candidates’ positions on education issues in our 2020 tracker.

When Democrats discuss education in the 2020 presidential race, the candidates are keen to play up their support for educators and the need for the federal government to be more aggressive in several areas. Tom Steyer is no different. But how does the investor and philanthropist think his plan differs from those offered by other candidates?

Earlier this week, we spoke with the Democratic presidential candidate by phone about school funding, education civil rights, and what he would say to parents who want greater school choice, among other significant K-12 topics.

We wrote about Steyer’s education plan when he released it last week. In addition to following in the footsteps of other Democratic presidential hopefuls who want to triple Title I aid for disadvantaged students, Steyer wants to cut the nation’s dropout rate in half by the end of his first term, support a national reading initiative that focuses on scientifically backed instructional methods, and provide new federal support for school integration efforts. And he wants to incentivize states to raise teacher pay using federal aid, as well as forgive teachers’ student loan debt after they’ve taught for a decade.

You can read our interview with Steyer, which has been edited for clarity, below. Go here for our conversation with candidate Pete Buttigieg last year. And go here to read our 2019 interview with former presidential candidate Julián Castro.

• You’ve done a lot of work about, you know, increasing the number of young voters and getting them more involved in politics. Has that shaped your views on K-12 education policy? And if so, how?

Steyer: Well, let me say that young people are the biggest generation in American history, the most diverse and the most progressive. And if they don’t vote, then we don’t have a representative democracy and they were voting at half the rate of other American citizens, and that’s a disaster for the democracy. So, you know, I think that the majority of political organizers and the Democratic Party felt it was too expensive to go out and talk to young voters. ... So the reason that NextGen [a reference to the progressive nonprofit group Steyer founded in 2013] took that on was because no one else would do it, and it was a glaring hole in the American political system and led to I believe, really bad outcomes and if it continues, if young people don’t vote, that will be a disaster for America.

• There are certain similarities between several candidates’ K-12 education plans, such as tripling Title I funding. How did you decide on that figure for your plan, and what do you think makes your plan stand out and makes it more substantive than those of your 2020 competitors?

Steyer: I think I view education as the future prosperity of America. You know, think about the 21st century. What is going to make countries succeed? It’s going to be having people in those countries be productive and successful, and any country that doesn’t recognize that and act on it really substantially in my mind, doesn’t understand the 21st century. So secondly, I view [education] as the greatest lever for mobility in our society that if people, if young people from low-income families get a quality education starting, you know, at the latest at [age] three, then they have a completely different, they’re on a different trajectory in life and we have much more mobility, and if they don’t, we don’t. I view this as both economic success and economic justice.

You mentioned that other people have aggressive education, Title I numbers. ... I view the relationship of spending on defense to the spending on education as being specifically untenably inappropriate, and wildly so. Obviously Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in education. His administration doesn’t even refer to it as public education. ... And so I think I’m very different from people in terms of specifically saying that when it comes to priorities within the government, I actually prioritize this completely different. I think that I’m willing to put that on the table specifically and with reference to [Department of Defense spending] because I think that that relationship just reflects values that I disagree with deeply.

• So I think it’s fair to say you’re focused heavily on the African-American vote. There is a notable percentage of African-American parents who believe that increasing school choice, including expanding private school vouchers, is the best way for them to improve their child’s child’s educational experience. What would you say to those parents?

Steyer: I believe that the way that we’re going to do a better job for American children is by improving the public school system and supporting teachers to do that and that that is the best single way we can do it. That’s what I believe in. I believe that the way that we solve this issue is by putting more emphasis, more support, and more money into the public school system and enabling the teachers there to succeed and putting children first. And I believe we need a broader educational mandate. ... And I’m not saying that there isn’t a big job, this is a tremendously important job, but that’s the overwhelming need for what we have to do.

• Democrats have put a lot of emphasis, including you, on providing resources for education, additional resources. But what’s the responsibility of the federal government in your view to ensure progress and to hold states and schools accountable for how students are doing? What’s the right balance between resources and oversight?

Steyer: Money in and of itself is not the answer. If you see that the systems, either state systems or national systems that work, have a broad strategy, you make decisions within the system to meet the mandate and the strategy. ... Obviously the bulk of the funding in education comes from local school districts and states. The federal government can use its funding power to incentivize and push toward things. But there’s no way to get away from the underlying facts.

We’ve had a series of basically wildcat teacher strikes around the country, and most of those are in deep red states where there’s a sense that education is a cost to be minimized, where they by and large have grossly inadequate teacher salaries, grossly inadequate support, and honestly where they’re viewing K-through-12 education as a cost, not an investment. They’re viewing it as a trade-off with tax money to big rich people and big corporations. And you know, when you go to those states, which I have done for years, and see what that means in the lives of young Americans, it’s painful to watch. ... So the [question] of how the federal government uses its clout to push states to be more progressive and be more responsive to young people, and provide both more effective and more just education, is a huge issue within that gigantic issue. And if you don’t do this, you are in effect legislating [inequality] for the next generation.

• Some of Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ most significant moves have involved rolling back civil rights guidance addressing transgender students and racial disparities in student discipline, as you’re probably aware. Would you re-institute those protections, and how else would you focus on education civil rights in your administration?

Steyer: Of course I would. I don’t think there’s any way to think about education in the United States without being aware of race and that segregated school continue to be much more the norm than the exception. And I don’t understand how it’s possible to think that that could end up being a just outcome.

It seems like this is one of the many ways where Mr. Trump and his administration have chosen to try and divide Americans and to get political capital out of taking away protections, and I couldn’t disagree more. That’s a big part of what this administration is about, which is to go and separate Americans and then take away their protections under the law. I view that as trying to move to a less just, more prejudiced America. And I absolutely oppose it.

• Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren used to be a public school teacher, as you probably know, and candidate Bernie Sanders is getting a large share of his donations from teachers. What if anything do you think should make you attractive to teachers in particular as a presidential candidate?

Steyer: I’m a huge supporter of teachers. If you look at our plan, I’m huge supporter of teachers. I believe that not just their pay, but their treatment reflects something that dramatically underestimates their importance. And I think I outlined [in my plan] how much lower their pay is relative to people, other professionals with similar educational attainments.

I think a lot of it has to do with pay. But a lot of it has to do with support in terms of everything from having mental health professionals on staff and librarians and nurses, but also giving people support for continuing education and treating them as the serious professionals that they are, as stewards of the future. And so, you know, I believe that I have been standing up for this group of people as strongly or more strongly than anyone else, because I believe [in] it, and I believe that this is the engine of American prosperity.

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer participates in a primary debate hosted by CNN and the New York Times at Otterbein University Oct. 15 in Westerville, Ohio. --John Minchillo/AP

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