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The 2020 Presidential Field and Education: Your Very Early Cheat Sheet

By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — November 11, 2018 14 min read
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UPDATE: We’ve created an interactive site that tracks all of the 2020 presidential candidates’ positions on education. We will update it throughout the campaign.

We know: You’re bummed that the 2018 midterm election is over. No more candidate platforms to parse. No more fundraising emails in your spam folder. No more commercials ending in “I approved this message.” You’ll miss it all.

Not to worry. The 2020 presidential election is right around the corner. And there’s a good chance that education could be a higher-profile-than-usual issue in what’s shaping up to be a large and unwieldy Democratic primary field. After all, educators—and their unions—are a big part of the party’s constituency. And you couldn’t miss the talk about K-12 funding and teacher salaries in the midterm election. Plus there are at least a couple of Republicans who might try to primary President Donald Trump—or even run against him as an independent. They could use education to appeal to the middle.

So what kind of background do many of the potential candidates have on K-12? Here’s your way-too-early cheat sheet organized into three different groups.

Obama Officials

• Former Vice President Joe Biden (D)

As President Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was in charge of spending for the more than $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included about $100 billion for education. He warned state officials not to purchase “swimming pools” with the money. He was also the administration’s point man in responding to the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six staff members dead. A task force chaired by Biden recommended more than $100 million in new mental health spending, and $150 million to help schools develop comprehensive safety plans, hire school resource officers, counselors, and more. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Biden unveiled an education plan that would provide free preschool to every child and bonuses to teachers who work in poor neighborhoods.” And as a U.S. senator from Delaware, he voted for the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, but later said he regretted it.

•Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro (D)

Julian Castro is best known for his work to expand prekindergarten while serving as mayor of San Antonio. The city paid for the program through an increase in the sales tax, approved in 2012. Castro also joined Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. and Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx in encouraging leaders in education, housing, and transportation to take action to promote socioeconomic and racial diversity.

• Former Attorney General Eric Holder (D)

Holder joined forces with Obama’s first and longest-serving secretary of education, Arne Duncan, in 2014 to issue controversial school discipline guidance to schools. Holder and Duncan used the guidance to push districts to consider racial disparities in their discipline practices. On Holder’s watch, the U.S. Department of Justice also attempted to halt vouchers in Louisiana in districts that were under federal desegregation orders.

Members of Congress

• Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey (D)

Before coming to the Senate, Booker was the mayor of Newark and one of the most prominent national Democrats to embrace private school vouchers. And he teamed up with his chief Garden State political rival, GOP Gov. Chris Christie, to help birth a new Newark teacher contract that includes merit-pay. He also persuaded Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook fame, to donate an astonishing $100 million to the long-struggling Newark City Schools. But since coming to the Senate, he’s been a lot less enthused about private school vouchers—and was a leading voice against the confirmation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, even though he once spoke at a summit organized by her school choice advocacy organization, the American Federation for Children. He worked with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and others on an amendment that would have bolstered accountability in the Senate version of a bill that eventually became the Every Student Succeeds Act. When the amendment failed to pass, he was one of just a handful of Democrats to vote against the measure. But he ultimately supported the final version of ESSA. In the Senate, he’s introduced bills to simplify the financial aid process for college students, and to offer teachers student debt forgiveness.

• Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio (D)

Brown has introduced legislation this Congress to boost funding for school construction and repairs and to increase federal aid for wraparound services at schools. After a virtual charter school in Ohio shut down this year amid a scandal about reported student enrollment, Brown also asked the Government Accountability Office to take a closer look at virtual charter schools. During the Obama years, he urged the administration not to forget about rural schools.

• Rep. John Delaney of Maryland (D)

Delaney, who is already officially running for president, is the author of the “Early Learning Act,” which is designed to help states move towards universal pre-kindergarten. He’s supported legislation he says would make student loans cheaper for borrowers. And he teamed up with a Republican, Rep. John Katko of New York, on legislation that would make it easier for borrowers to discharge student loans when they declare bankruptcy. He co-sponsored bills on school safety, student privacy, and to considerably ramp up the federal commitment to funding special education.

• Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (D)

Last year, Gillibrand authored the Computer Science Career Education Act, which would create federal grants to help foster four- and six-year computer science programs. She’s also backed the SHOP Class Act, which would bolster “maker spaces” and hands-on learning opportunities for students in career and technical education. She’s resisted DeVos’ moves to change the federal government’s approach to Title IX at schools and colleges from Obama-era policies.

• Sen. Kamala Harris of California (D)

Harris hasn’t focused a lot on K-12 during her first two years in the Senate; many of the bills she’s signed on to in the chamber deal with historically black colleges and universities and college access and affordability. Like many Democratic senators, she had withering criticism for how DeVos handled the question of whether federal money can be used to arm educators. (Ultimately, DeVos declined to take a position on the issue.) She also co-sponsored a bill to expand access to child care, written by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee.

• Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (D)

Klobuchar has introduced bills to create a new competitive-grant program for STEM, with the goal of doubling the number of STEM secondary schools from about 100 to about 200 nationwide. She’s sought to create a pilot program for districts to provide 12th graders with voter registration information. She’s authored a bill that would award grants to help districts train teachers, school personnel, and other educators on mental health conditions. And she’s the daughter of an elementary school teacher, a fact she alluded to in speaking against the confirmation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in 2017. “I do not believe she’s prepared for this job, and I don’t believe she’s committed to the kind of education that got my family from an iron ore mine in Minnesota to the United States Senate,” Klobuchar said.

• Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut (D)

Murphy has had two signature issues: Restricting gun rights to help prevent school shootings, and beefing up civil rights protections. He’s been outspoken about the need for stricter gun laws in order to help prevent school shootings, like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in his home state. He was the lead author of an amendment that would have bolstered accountability in what became the Every Student Succeeds Act. And he authored a bill that would create a competitive-grant program to help schools become more racially integrated. He’s also introduced bills aimed at helping struggling schools create a more positive school climate and to help protect student loan borrowers.

• Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas (D)

O’Rourke, who just lost in his bid to replace Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, voted in favor of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. He’s opposed to the idea of directing public funding to private schools, and he wants additional school funding in low-income and underserved areas. According to his campaign website for his 2018 Senate race, O’Rourke opposes “any regulation that discriminates against a student based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.” And he wants less emphasis on “arbitrary, high-stakes” tests.

• Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (I)

Sanders, an independent, ran an electrifying—but ultimately unsuccessful—bid for the 2016 Democratic nomination, fueled in part by his support for free college for every student. He was one of just a handful of lawmakers to vote against the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. But he supported the Every Student Succeeds Act, including an amendment to bolster accountability. More recently, he slammed the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFCSME, which prohibited “agency” or “fair share” fees that unions in 22 states had been charging to nonmembers to cover the cost of collective bargaining. And he’s hit the teacher pay issue, telling the American Federation of Teachers that the “top 25 hedge-fund managers of Wall Street make more money than all of the kindergarten teachers in this country combined.”

• Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (D)

Safe to say that Warren is no fan of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. A member of the Senate education committee, Warren started a “DeVos Watch” section of her website dedicated to monitoring (and criticizing) DeVos’ actions. Elsewhere, Warren has spoken in support of the Bay State’s charter school sector because of its oversight and accountability measures, although the senator opposed a 2016 ballot measure to raise the cap on the number of charters in Massachusetts. This year, Warren told the American Federation of Teachers that the nation is “failing” its educators.

Current and Former Governors

• Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D)

As a Democratic governor in a mostly red state, Bullock has been a big supporter of early-childhood education. He successfully sought a federal grant to help create more preschool slots, for example. He’s expressed skepticism of charter schools in the past, but in 2016 he also showed up at the first day of a charter school in his state to talk about innovation in education. He’s also signed legislation to promote Native American languages in schools.

• New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)

Cuomo just won his third term as the chief executive of the Empire State, but his handling of education issues has been one of the most controversial elements of his tenure. He’s gone to war with New York’s powerful teachers’ union over teacher evaluation—at one point he even vetoed a bill he’d previously backed to give educators more breathing room on those evaluations. The governor has also been a supporter of charter schools. In the 2018 primary, he defeated Cynthia Nixon, who made criticisms of Cuomo’s handling of education funding one of the key planks of her campaign platform.

• Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D)

As mayor of Denver from 2003 to 2011, Hickenlooper helped start the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which provides grants to needy high school students in the Mile High City. As governor in 2015, Hickenlooper signed a bill affirming families’ rights to opt out of standardized testing, but said he would not eliminate testing in 9th grade. And in 2011, in his first year as governor, he proposed a $322 million cut to school funding. “There’s nothing I’ve ever grappled with as long and hard as that,” Hickenlooper said at the time, according to Chalkbeat.

• Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D)

Two years ago, Inslee proposed a tax increase to hike teacher wages, expand early child care, fund all-day kindergarten, and more. When in 2016 the legislature passed a bill designed to keep charter schools open in the state after an unfavorable court ruling, Inslee declined to sign or veto the bill, meaning that it became law. He’s also urged Washington to protect recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

• Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D)

Patrick served as governor of the Bay State from 2007 to 2015. On his watch, Massachusetts won and implemented a grant from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which rewarded states for embracing the Common Core State Standards, dramatic turnaround strategies, and teacher evaluations tied in part to student performance. He also championed a charter school expansion.

‘Rogue’ Republicans

• Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona (R)

Flake may be best known for criticizing President Donald Trump. But he supported Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, tweeting that, “she had me at school choice years ago.” And as a member of the House of Representatives in 2003, Flake introduced legislation to authorize the District of Columbia voucher program.

• Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R)

A former member of Congress and GOP presidential candidate in 2016, Kasich has been a big proponent of both charter schools and vouchers in the Buckeye State. He’s said that he’d prefer to shrink the U.S. Department of Education. In 2011, he signed legislation that would have stripped Ohio teachers of most of their collective bargaining rights, but voters subsequently struck down the legislation. He also stuck by the Common Core State Standards even as many Republicans turned against them.

A Former Mayor

• Michael Bloomberg (D)

The billionaire businessman and former longtime mayor of New York City registered as a Democrat earlier this year. Bloomberg was involved in a huge variety of issues during his tenure as Gotham mayor, from teacher evaluations to charter schools, and generated an enormous amount of controversy in the city over his education decisions. A significant part of his education record was in his choice of school chancellors, Joel Klein and Cathie Black—the latter, previously a magazine executive, resigned from the post after just a few months. He’s also exerted his influence as a philanthropist on issues with varying connections to education, from his donations to Los Angeles school board candidates to his ongoing support for groups pushing for gun control.

State Lawmaker

• Richard Ojeda (D)

Ojeda, a U.S. army veteran and Democratic state senator in West Virginia, helped lead the teacher’s strike in that state this year. That strike was an early sign of educator discontent that spread to states like Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. Last week, Ojeda was defeated in his race for Congress. On Sunday—Veterans Day—he formalized his campaign for the presidency in 2020, filing his campaign committee paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.


You didn’t think we’d leave out the most famous potential candidate of the whole lot, did you?

Media mogul, actress, and author Oprah Winfrey batted down buzz about a political future after she gave an emotional acceptance speech at the Golden Globes in 2018, but famous friends continue to stoke interest, especially after her notable moments campaigning for Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in this year’s midterm election.

Winfrey hasn’t outlined any sort of a platform, so it’s hard to say exactly what her education positions would be. She notably broke her no-politics rule to campaign for fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama during his first presidential run, so the odds are decent that she would agree with some of his policies. Obama’s Education Department was known for aggressive civil rights enforcement, encouraging equity in how schools are funded, and wading into difficult discussions about teacher evaluations and learning standards. It’s safe to say that Winfrey, who speaks frequently about the history of African-Americans and injustice, would be drawn to civil rights and equity. But what would she think of ESSA enforcement? Does she even know what ESSA is?

So, did we leave anyone out? Let us know in the comments section below.


Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., addresses the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner reception in Washington in 2018. --Cliff Owen/AP-File

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks with supporters during a campaign rally for Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Pennsylvania U.S. Congressman Matt Cartwright on Nov. 4, 2018, in Yatesville, Pa. --Butch Comegys/The Times-Tribune via AP

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and to avoid the government shutdown in January, 2018, in Washington. --Jose Luis Magana/AP-File

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at the Des Moines Register Soapbox during a visit to the Iowa State Fair in 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa. --Charlie Neibergall/AP-File

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a news conference in SeaTac, Wash., in 2018. -- Elaine Thompson/AP-File

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Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer contributed to this article.