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Your Guide to Education in the Democratic Debate: Charter Schools, Teacher Pay, and Betsy DeVos

By Evie Blad — June 23, 2019 7 min read
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The 2020 presidential election will turn on one issue: Education.

Just kidding. It almost certainly won’t.

But there’s been more talk of education and education-related issues in the Democratic primary than in some past contests. Candidates have released competing proposals on issues like raising federal education spending, addressing student debt, and boosting teacher pay. And some have criticized charter schools.

But education is often left out of presidential debates or barely mentioned at all. Will it come up in the Democrats’ first debate this week? And if it does, what are the issues candidates are most likely to comment on? Grab your popcorn and tune in with the Politics K-12 team on our Twitter feed as we watch slates of 10 candidates tackle the issues on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Until then, study up on the issues here.

Or skip to the bottom to read a cheat sheat on candidates’ ties to education.

Is there public interest in hearing about education at the presidential debates?

The federal government plays less of a role in education than it does in some other issues, and education policy is complicated so it’s often not considered an attractive way for candidates to differentiate themselves from their peers. Some national polls don’t even include education on the list of issues they ask primary voters about.

But 5 percent of Democratic primary voters responding to a recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll identified education as the single topic they most want to hear the candidates discuss. Here were the most common replies:

What education topics are candidates most likely to discuss?

We gave our Magic 8 Ball a good shake to predict what K-12 education topics might surface this week. See if you agree.

School Segregation - Former Vice President Joe Biden’s recent comments on working with segregationist senators in the 1970s and 1980s have put a spotlight on race issues. For Biden, that includes his past criticisms of busing as a means of integrating schools, saying it amounted to a “quotas” forced at the federal level. Biden’s 2020 education plan calls for federal grants to support local school districts in voluntary integration efforts. Candidates have also touched on integration in their proposals. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who will share a stage with Biden, has proposed federal desegregation aid, including funding for transportation to help integrate schools.

Charter Schools - Democrats have long supported charter schools as an alternative to district-run public schools, but they have increased calls for transparency and accountability for the independently operated schools since they first emerged in 1991. That criticism has intensified in the 2020, as candidates like Sanders criticize “for-profit” charters, those that are managed by for-profit companies under agreements with public agencies that authorize them. Other candidates, like former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, have personal connections to charters, and have shied away from broadly criticizing them on the campaign trail.

“Lunch Shaming” - Candidates were quick to comment on a viral Twitter story about a 9-year-old boy who paid off his classmates’ overdrawn school lunch balances with allowance money he’d saved up. As we wrote earlier, sad stories about “lunch shaming,” the practice of witholding meals from students with overdrawn accounts, provides an accessible way for candidates to express concern about child poverty. Some candidates, including former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, have called for free school meals nationwide.

Betsy DeVos - From the start of her confirmation hearings, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been a highly visible and divisive member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, especially as she promoted a private school choice proposal and reversed Obama-era civil rights guidance on issues like transgender-student rights and racial equity in school discipline that some conservatives had slammed as federal overreach. A typical voter might not be able to pick a past education secretary out of a line-up, but 2020 candidates have won attention for criticizing DeVos. Massachussetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called DeVos the worst ever education secretary and pledged to appoint a classroom teacher to the position. By contrast, Booker may have to answer some tough questions about his work with DeVos as mayor of Newark.

Teacher Pay - Perhaps trying to draw from the momentum of teacher protests and strikes, many candidates have called for federal efforts to increase teachers’ salaries. Some have made unspecified proposals while others have suggested setting national minimum compensation levels. But how would such plans work? Is it the federal government’s role to supplement educators’ salaries? And should such efforts be universal? Or should teachers who work in high-poverty and hard-to-staff schools be first in line for a pay bump?

School Shootings - Several candidates have supported gun restrictions, like limits on high-capacity magazines and universal background checks, that have been championed by student activists from March for Our Lives, the group that assembled after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla. While federal data show schools are, on the whole, growing safer, two of the five most deadly K-12 shootings in recent history happened in 2018—in Parkland and in Santa Fe, Texas—putting the rare but terrifying possibility of school violence front and center in some voters’ minds. California Rep. Eric Swalwell has made calls for gun restrictions central to his campaign, and some supporters worked to help him meet the Democratic Party’s debate criteria in hopes he would raise the issue on stage.

The Big Education Issue Candidates Should Debate (But Probably Won’t)

There’s a great chance candidates will mention increased federal education spending, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendent’s Association. But Ng is concerned they might leave out a crucial part of that conversation: how candidates plan to ensure that any infusion in federal dollars actually makes a difference for cash-strapped schools and low-income students.

Thousands of school districts still have not recovered from the Great Recession, recent studies found. And many states have struggled to meet demand for education, especially where legislators are shy about increasing taxes to pay for it.

Several candidates have promised unspecified federal boosts in education spending. Some, like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have said they will include schools in a federal infrastructure proposal. Biden and Sanders have both pledged to triple Title I funding, which is designed to assist schools where a large number of students are from low-income families.

But Ng wants to know what kind of rules will they put in place to ensure that new federal dollars help the schools and students most in need. Some education researchers have said the existing, complicated Title I formula doesn’t always channel its funds to the schools with the most high-poverty students.

“Are you going to fix the underlying formula? Or are you going to exacerbate the ongoing inequities?” she asked.

Lightning Round: Candidates’ Connections to Education

Here’s a sampling of candidates’ education ties that could surface in a debate.

Photo: A podium at a 2016 presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., in September 2016.--Patrick Semansky/AP