As he continues his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders keeps hammering away at concerns that resonate with many educators, including higher-education access and income inequality.
But with a few exceptions, pre-K-12 issues have been left out of Sanders’ speeches at rallies, town halls, and other high-profile political events. And his record on school issues in his combined 25 years in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives also hasn’t been a big part of his campaign.
To the extent he has focused on education, Sanders has spent much of his time pitching a proposal to raise taxes to provide free tuition to public colleges and universities—a more dramatic plan to increase college affordability than his rival, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has proposed.
True, during a town hall event in Columbus, Ohio, broadcast by CNN this month, Sanders also said he supported “public charter schools” but not “privately controlled” charters. Some charter schools—which are publicly funded but operate outside the regular district structure—are overseen by private management organizations. Some also contract with private providers for various services.
And earlier this month, Sanders backed the Chicago Teachers Union’s plans for a work stoppage on April 1 and blasted Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel for closing schools.
That statement was taken as an encouraging sign by Mark Naison, a professor of history and African-American studies at Fordham University and a co-founder of the Badass Teachers Association, a group of teachers opposed to standardized testing and the Common Core State Standards.
Several members of the group are running in local or state elections, and say they take inspiration from Sanders’ broader positions, even if he isn’t talking as much about schools as they’d like. The group criticized the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association for endorsing Clinton last year, well before the official start of the primary season, although it hasn’t officially backed either candidate.
“It’s not like Bernie Sanders provided, six months ago, a clear alternative on education policy. Now, we see the beginnings of one,” Naison said.
And despite the endorsements of Clinton by the two national teachers’ unions, support among their rank and file is not monolithic.
Last year, at the time of the endorsements, for example, state-level unions like the New Jersey Education Association and the Massachusetts Teachers Association (both state-level NEA affiliates) did not endorse Clinton—and last month, AFT President Randi Weingarten estimated that for every three of her union’s members who backed Clinton, one supported Sanders.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment about his positions on K-12 policy in the campaign.
His path to the Democratic nomination remains difficult. After last week, Clinton led Sanders in pledged delegates by a count of 1,214 to 911. (Clinton also has a lead in “superdelegates,” Democratic officeholders and party officials who are not chosen through the primary process and can independently pick a candidate to support.)
Despite his public support for the Chicago union on the eve of the Illinois primary earlier this month, Sanders lost the state to Clinton by a narrow margin, although he did pick up some delegates in the state.
In the Senate, Sanders is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. As a member of the House, he voted against the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 because of its focus on standardized testing, although he backed a Senate version of what ultimately became its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act. He also supported an amendment that would have beefed up accountability in ESSA. (The amendment failed—Sanders did not vote on the final bill.)
He’s also expressed skepticism on alternative pathways to teaching such as Teach For America. He doesn’t like competitive-grant programs like Race to the Top—a signature initiative of President Barack Obama’s administration—because, in Sanders’ view, they shortchange rural schools that don’t have sophisticated grant writers.
While the Vermont senator has made broad statements about his desire to support public education over prisons, the fact that he hasn’t leveraged K-12 as the underdog candidate is probably deliberate, said William Howell, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago who studies federal education policy and politics.
“A big reason why Sanders has been so effective is that he has a very clear message. It’s about rising inequality, Wall Street. It’s about bankers who have run amok,” Howell said. “If he gets into the business of what happens in a classroom, or how we fire or hire teachers or how we pay teachers, it’s not that it’s inconsistent with his message, ... but it risks being something of a distraction for him.”
What also might discourage Sanders and other candidates from pushing precollegiate policy to the forefront on the campaign trail is the recently signed ESSA, the latest version of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While the next administration will have a role in overseeing how the law works in practice, its recent enactment will effectively prevent the general-election winner from pushing the kind of sweeping policy changes for public schools that Sanders wants for higher education, Howell noted.
Hats in the Ring
When the NEA last July endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic primaries, Larry Proffitt, an 11-year middle school science teacher in Dickson County, Tenn., “threw a fit,” he said. A Sanders supporter and a member of the Tennessee Education Association, which is an NEA affiliate, Proffitt—another Badass Teachers Association member—is seeking to represent House District 66 in the state legislature as a Democrat.
He isn’t sure whether Clinton might have come closer to his own views on education if the national unions had waited longer before endorsing her.
As for Sanders, Proffitt said, “He believes in the common man having the jobs here in our country, and he believes in our public education system.”
In justifying the AFT’s Democratic-primary support for Clinton, Weingarten said in a statement that “Hillary understands that to reclaim the promise of public education, policymakers need to work with educators and their unions.” And when the NEA officially announced its endorsement, union President Lily Eskelsen-García cited Clinton’s background as “a law student who said, ‘Instead of going to Wall Street, I’ll go to the Children’s Defense Fund.’ ”
A spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, Steve Baker, said last week that his union simply decided last year it wasn’t ready to make an endorsement. A committee of 80 to 100 NJEA members could vote to endorse a candidate next month, Baker said.
For Ezra Howard, a Sanders supporter who taught English as a second language at a magnet school in Tennessee’s Shelby County schools for five years and is now teaching at a private school in Portugal, the quick move by the national unions to back Clinton is still irksome. He said their decisions largely represented “a matter of people in power standing with other people in power” instead of listening more closely to their memberships. (Howard said he is still registered to vote in Tennessee, but is not a union member.)
Sanders’ message that public institutions like colleges and universities need to be free resonates with Howard, as does the senator’s call to give education spending a priority over other concerns. But he said that Sanders’ remark about charters didn’t really clarify what they are and are not.
“I think it’s a reflection of people’s knowledge about charter schools in general,” Howard said. “I’d like him to flesh that out, for sure. But it’s the inequities he’s talking about that affect public education—those resonate with me.”
During her own campaign to represent Ohio’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House, retired teacher Janet Garrett of Oberlin, Ohio, has taken the time to attend a couple of Sanders rallies in her state. (Earlier this month, Garrett won the Democratic primary and will face incumbent Republican Rep. Jim Jordan in November.)
A member of the Badass Teachers Association who said she “shares a lot of values with Bernie,” Garrett said she’s focused on connecting education issues with economic opportunity.
“We’ve got such an uneven educational system because of the way we fund schools,” Garrett said. “That’s another thing that resonates with me ... how he talks about income inequality.”
But she’s also disappointed that nobody running for president is speaking as specifically and directly about education as she would like, and in the way she would like.
‘A Chance for Real Change’
Naison, the co-founder of Badass Teachers, who said he plans to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein for president, acknowledges that since Sanders is running as a Democrat, “for him to come out openly against the Obama administration’s education policies might have hurt him more than helped him.” (Naison cited Race to the Top and support for charter schools as examples.)
Yet because Sanders already faces a tough climb to win the nomination, Naison added, “at this point in the campaign, it might make sense to do it.”
Proffitt, the Tennessee teacher and aspiring state lawmaker, is confident that Sanders would refocus discussions on issues such as gaps between disadvantaged people and the rest of society.
“I’m inspired that there’s a chance for real change because he’s running,” Proffitt said.
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A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2016 edition of Education Week as Sanders Gets Educators’ Attention Despite Limited Specifics on K-12