Vying for an endorsement from the nation’s largest labor union, 10 Democratic presidential candidates responded to educators’ questions on issues ranging from charter schools to gun violence Friday during a National Education Association (NEA) forum.
“They came to listen to you,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said during the live-streamed event in Houston, held as part of the union’s annual convention. Each candidate was given a minute to make an introduction and then faced three questions, with three minutes to answer each one. The candidates did not interact with each other, sitting down with Eskelsen Garcia individually.
In the order in which they took questions, the 10 participants were Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro of Texas, former Vice President Joe Biden of Pennsylvania, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep Tim Ryan of Ohio and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
The forum came in the midst of what the pro-charter Center for Education Reform has referred to as a “jihad” against charter schools, and as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is urging Sanders to drop his proposal to keep new charter schools from being created.
“On behalf of the five million children who want to attend a charter school if space were available to them, we ask you to abandon your call for a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools and back away from calls for additional regulations that are not in the best interests of schools or students,” reads a letter signed by 244 charter school administrators, board members, parents and other community leaders from across the U.S.
The letter cites data showing that more than half of black and Hispanic Democratic voters support charter schools.
In a recent article for the Education Commission of the States, former Minnesota state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, who authored the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, commented on the bipartisan efforts that were necessary to pass the bill and suggests that level of cooperation has been lost.
“Without compromise, my chartering bill would not have passed,” he wrote. “With so little compromise today among state and federal lawmakers, innovation is stifled and gridlock prevails.”
Here’s a summary of the candidates' responses on charter schools and other key topics, as well as additional comments related to their education platforms.
Sanders' Thurgood Marshall Educational Plan would end federal funding for for-profit charters and place a moratorium on new charter schools "until we have a full understanding of their impact on public education," he said. O'Rourke and de Blasio also commented on charter schools, with O'Rourke saying there "is a place for public, nonprofit charter schools," while the New York City mayor promised no federal funding for charters.
"Too many Republicans, but also many Democrats, have been cozy with the charter schools," de Blasio said. "We need to hold our own party accountable, too."
Sanders, Biden, Klobuchar and Harris faced questions specifically related to funding for schools.
Sanders said he would triple funding for Title I for low-income schools and that his plan "moves aggressively" toward smaller class sizes and would increase spending on after-school and summer programs.
Biden also said he would triple funding for Title I, from $15 billion to $45 billion. Schools would have to focus on equalizing teacher pay and increasing school psychologists and other support professionals. Meanwhile, Ryan said his plan would put $50 billion into Title I.
Several candidates, including Biden, Klobuchar and Ryan, said school infrastructure is a priority. Biden and Ryan said they would propose $100 billion to repair schools, and Inslee said he would reverse the Trump tax cuts to fund technology.
In addition, O'Rourke, Inslee and Harris said they would focus on fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
"There is a mandate that the federal government pay 40% of the special education needs ... of our children and they are not doing it. They are doing about 15%," Harris said, adding that a bill to reauthorize IDEA, which she co-sponsors, would be a priority if elected. "We have children whose [Individual Education Program] needs are not being met."
De Blasio said the "federal government should be focused on funding schools at the local level" and also called for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing children a right to a quality education.
Sanders, Klobuchar, Ryan and Harris each discussed strategies for increasing teacher pay.
Sanders mentioned his proposal that every teacher earns at least $60,000 a year, as well as his support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour "so everyone in a school is paid at least a living wage."
Klobuchar said she would raise teacher pay by changing the estate tax structure and create incentives to reward states for "investing in teachers," and Harris said her plan increases teacher pay by roughly $13,500 a year and creates a matching fund with states.
Forgiving student loan debt was another item several candidates said would put more money in teachers' pockets, and Ryan said he would expand tax credits for teachers who spend their own funds for school supplies and other resources for their classrooms.
Early childhood programs
Biden, Warren, O'Rourke, Inslee and de Blasio all expressed support for universal preschool and other programs for young children. "What I don't get is why we're even arguing about this," Biden said, referring to data showing benefits of early learning programs.
Warren's plan for a 2% tax on wealthy Americans, she said, would fund universal child care and pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and raise wages of early-childhood educators.
De Blasio touted his efforts to provide universal pre-K for 4 year-olds in New York City and to expand that to 20,000 3-year-olds this fall.
Almost all of the candidates highlighted their connections to schools, saying they are either the "product" of public education, have parents or other relatives who were teachers, are married to teachers, or have children in public schools.
Castro said he worked as a substitute teacher in his former high school between college and law school. And Warren made several references to her background as a special education teacher. "Let’s put a teacher in the White House," she said.
Education secretary pick
Anti-Betsy DeVos comments tended to receive the most cheers from the 10,000 delegates in the convention center.
"The first thing I would do ... is make sure the secretary of education is a teacher," Biden said, adding that, "I promise I’m not going to appoint my wife," who has had a career as a community college English professor.
In another shot at the current education secretary, Harris said, "I will not be interested in grizzly bears," referring to DeVos' comments during her confirmation hearings about allowing teachers to be armed. Harris added that she would nominate "someone who comes from public schools."
Castro and Biden also faced questions related to teachers having an impact on education policy. Castro said he would include teachers on commissions and provide them other opportunities to have a "strong voice." Teachers, he said, "have so much to give to inform education policy."
And the former vice president mentioned teachers having influence over curriculum. "You in the classroom should be part of the agenda as to what you are going to teach," he said.
Only Inslee and Ryan faced questions regarding school safety. Inslee said even though he lost his seat in Congress when he voted to ban assault weapons, he doesn't regret his decision.
"We need someone who will stand up to the NRA," he said. And he added that instead of arming teachers, "We need a functioning mental health care system so your students have mental health care in the U.S."
Ryan said he supports universal background checks for gun purchases, studying gun violence as a public health issue, increasing mental health services in schools, and focusing on bullying prevention. "I believe it's imperative for us to have social and emotional learning in every school so that we can make sure that all of these kids ... are connected to each other, to the teacher, to the school."
With the last word of the forum, Harris also addressed gun violence, saying that if elected, she would give "Congress 100 days to pull their act together on this and put a bill on my desk for signature."
At a time when the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision against unions' agency fees are still playing out, several candidates also voiced support for stronger unions. Warren said she wants to make it easier for teachers to join unions and "give those unions more power when they come in to negotiate."
O'Rourke also said every educator should have the "right to organize," and Ryan said doubling "the size of the unions" is the way to protect pension benefits for retired teachers.
Because the event was not a debate, Biden and Harris didn't get the chance to continue their exchange regarding busing that took place during the nationally televised debate in Miami June 27. During that event, Harris referred to Biden's opposition to busing minority students so they could attend better schools, while Biden said he wasn't against busing at a local level but that he opposed "busing ordered by the Department of Education."
Only Castro on Friday faced a question regarding desegregation, saying he supports voluntary busing. And citing his experience as HUD secretary, he emphasized fair housing enforcement and expanding housing opportunities in higher-income areas so students would have the "ability to go into school districts that traditionally they couldn't afford to be in."