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Spin Class: These Democrats Could Face Tricky Questions About Education

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 10, 2019 3 min read
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At least three Democrats who have announced plans to seek the White House in 2020 might get into some sticky moments with primary voters when it comes to positions they’ve taken over the years on education issues such as school choice, corporate involvement in schools, and the connection between education and criminal justice.

Stances on such issues from Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts probably won’t top many voters’ list of concerns as a crowded Democratic field takes shape. But at a time when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and rolling teacher strikes have thrust schools into more national political discussions, the presidential hopefuls will probably have to bob, weave, and otherwise clarify why those positions do—or do not—matter to their presidential runs.

In a new article, we explore how those three candidates might handle their past statements and positions, and how the context for those statements might provide them with a strategy for dealing with tricky questions in interviews and debates.

Patrick Riccards, a communications and education policy consultant who’s worked with both Democrats and Republicans, said one strategy for these and other candidates would be to avoid getting into the nuts and bolts of their views about schools.

“I would wrap the issues of education into the larger issues that will rally [Democratic] voters to primaries and caucuses,” Riccards said, including “the larger social justice and equity discussions, as well as talk of guns and safety; weaving it into economic policy, as part of a stronger commitment to workforce development.”

Booker, for example, has the chance to reset the conversation among Democrats about opportunity and follow in the footsteps of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat and longtime supporter of charter schools who won his gubernatorial race last year without struggling through questions about his support for school choice, said Lauren Aronson, a former House Republican aide who also worked on education policy issues at the American Enterprise Institute, which favors school choice.

“Senator Booker has an opportunity to reposition the conversation in his party, to ask union and other Democratic leaders why conversations around education have to be a zero-sum game,” Aronson said. “He can show his support for public education—for teachers and local communities—while still encouraging more choice for parents and better quality for all children.”

Then again, Polis, unlike Booker, ran a statewide and not a national race in 2018; he also hasn’t supported vouchers, a particularly touchy issue in many Democratic circles.

Still, Booker ultimately voted against DeVos for education secretary. And Charles Barone, the chief policy officer at Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter group that developed close ties with Booker in the past, said it’s not as if that’s an unpopular position in the broader electorate.

“I don’t see how anybody has to spin it,” Barone said. “It’s hard for anybody to [support] her.”

At an event in Iowa on Friday, Booker downplayed charter schools’ place in the education debate and stressed his support for public schools, Dave Weigel of the Washington Post reported:

Click here to read the full piece.

And check out our profiles of many 2020 contenders on the Democratic side here.

Photo: People in the crowd hold signs at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016. (Deanna Del Ciello/Education Week)

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