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Where the Democratic Presidential Front-Runners Stand on Education

By Evie Blad — March 04, 2020 5 min read
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What would a new Democratic administration mean for education? We are getting a clearer idea in the wake of Super Tuesday as the field narrows and two candidates—former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—emerge as top contenders for the nomination.

Biden had decisive victories in many primary states this week after winning the endorsements of three of his former opponents. Sanders led in California Wednesday morning as the only other candidate whose delegate count is in the triple digits. (On Thursday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, the Associated Press reported; her influential campaign has frequently focused on education and may help inform the party’s 2020 platform. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is also a candidate, but she has only won one delegate).

Want to cram for your high-stakes standardized test on 2020 candidates’ education positions? We’ve rounded up all of the 2020 candidates’ positions on key education issues, like early childhood education, civil rights, and funding, in our election tracker, which we update regularly. You can also read about the positions of candidates who’ve dropped out (most recently former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who supported charter schools and standards-based reform efforts).

What are among Joe Biden’s education positions?

The centerpiece of Biden’s K-12 education is a pledge to triple Title I funding to over $45 billion. Biden would set priorities for how school’s spend the additional funding, which is targeted toward educating students from low-income households. His plan calls for any new dollars to be spent on increasing teacher pay, expanding prekindergarten offerings, and building up rigorous course offerings in high-poverty schools. But schools have broad discretion in how they spend the federal funds, and mandating those priorities would require a change in education law. Biden also calls for “full funding” of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act within 10 years, and he would include schools in a federal infrastructure bill.

Though not particularly known for his education positions, Biden brings a long record from his decades of public service to the campaign trail. Most notable is his association with the Obama administration. But some candidates have stepped back from President Barack Obama’s approach to education reform, which included calls for teacher evaluations, support for charter schools and common core standards, and federal education initiatives like Race to the Top. While Biden has called for ending federal funding for “for-profit” charter schools on the campaign trail, he does not mention them in his education plan. Biden also championed the Gun-Free Schools law and took school safety positions after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that some civil rights advocates have linked to the growth of zero-tolerance discipline in schools.

Biden’s history became an early focus in the 2020 race when California Sen. Kamala Harris challenged his past positions on school segregation. In his early Senate career, Biden opposed mandatory “busing.” Some voters may see Biden’s anti-busing history as responding to practical concerns many voters had about the difficult realities of school integration. Others may see it as a missed chance to exercise moral courage at a time when it really mattered, desegregation historians told Education Week.

Biden has also made notable comments about race, poverty, and the role of parents. That includes a confusing debate answer about record players and “word gap” research, and an August statement that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”

What are among Bernie Sanders’ education positions?

Sanders’ education plan also calls for tripling Title I funding. But Sanders would tie fewer strings to that money than Biden would. For example, he would separately fund his his early education plan through a tax on the highest-income earners. Sanders’ plan also calls for a minimum teachers’ salary of $60,000.

Sanders has criticized the “unregulated growth” of charter schools. He wants a moratorium on new charter schools until a national “audit” of charters is wrapped up. He seeks to ban “for profit” charters (some charters are operated by for-profit entities). And he wants to halt public funding for new charter schools. Warren has also called for reining in charter schools. We explored the differences between the two candidates’ plans.

Some skeptics of testing praise Sanders’ vote against the No Child Left Behind Act. But his positions on high-stakes standardized testing are a little more complicated than they first appear.

Sanders also recently faced criticism for his praise of Cuba’s literacy efforts. Education Week visited Cuba to report on its education system in 2003. We recently reviewed those stories and Sanders’ comments.

What were among Elizabeth Warren’s education positions?

Warren’s K-12 education plan called for quadrupling federal Title I funding, strengthening union rights, more accountability for charter schools, and “fully funding” IDEA. She also wanted to change how the funding for high-poverty schools is allotted. Warren’s plan said she was “committed to working with public education leaders and school finance experts to improve the way the federal government allocates this new Title I funding.” The four formulas that dictate Title I spending have long been scrutinized by everyone from school administrators to the federal government itself. Warren said her administration would work with states to raise teacher pay.

Had she been elected, Warren would have been the first president with K-12 teaching experience since President Lyndon B. Johnson. Teachers we talked to about Warren had mixed views about the value of her year as a special education teacher early in her career. Some said that short teaching experience gives her a certain credibility when discussing education. Yet others said Warren’s short time as a teacher, which was well over 40 years ago, may not give her much insight into the challenges teachers face today.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten endorsed Warren recently. Weingarten spoke in her individual capacity. Before the race narrowed, the AFT encouraged affiliates to support Biden, Sanders, or Warren. Neither the AFT nor the National Education Association has issued a broad, organizational endorsement for a 2020 candidate.

Photo: From left, presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., take their places before a September 2019 Democratic presidential primary debate in Houston.--David J. Phillip/AP

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