Leading Democratic presidential hopefuls gathered in Pittsburgh Saturday for a public education forum where educator unions and organizations, along with students, parents and various civil rights groups, questioned candidates on key K-12 issues.
“Our work today is to encourage democratic presidential candidates to step up to the plate,” said Jitu Brown, national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance, before candidates including U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg addressed voter concerns on issues from teacher shortages and salaries to closing achievement gaps and addressing segregation in districts.
“Now the real question is, what does it mean to support public education?” NAACP president Derrick Johnson asked. “The delivery system can be inequitable. How are we going to make public education a priority?”
Beside Warren, Sanders and Buttigeig, the participants who sought to answer those questions and more from the audience were Michael Bennet, a Colorado senator and former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, former Vice President Joe Biden, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire activist Tom Steyer.
Here are their responses on key education issues.
Teacher pay and shortages
“We can’t pay our teachers like we’re living in the 19th century anymore,” Bennet said, adding he would support federal funding to incentivize increased teacher pay if elected.
While all candidates supported increased teacher pay, only a few spelled out details of their plans. Sanders and Biden proposed setting the minimum teacher salary at $60,000. Sanders also said he would raise the minimum wage overall to $14 per hour and would penalize districts for refusing to negotiate with unions.
Warren said she would make public higher education tuition free, to allow for “anyone who wants to be a public school teacher,” and Buttigieg offered a public service loan forgiveness program that would kick in “within the first few years” of graduation instead of after a decade.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg and Biden both expressed support for increasing professional development and said they would compensate teachers for mentoring the next generation of educators.
School and program funding
Bennet, Biden, Buttigieg and Sanders all want to triple Title I funding from $15 billion to $45 billion, while Warren suggested quadrupling its budget with funds from a two-cent tax on the wealthiest Americans.
Buttigieg condemned the use of property taxes to fund public education, saying “poor kids are being punished for being poor” as a result, but offered no alternative. Sanders said the nation must “break our dependence” on property tax that adversely affects students of color to “make sure every school district in this country gets the funding they need.”
Warren specified that she would pour $800 billion in public schools to “equalize opportunity," and Bennet said the next president “ought to use some federal money” to fund education instead, but didn’t lay out a plan as to how.
Bennet, Biden, Steyer and Buttigieg applauded schools providing wraparound services and said they would support more community schools. Warren was the only one who specified providing $100 billion in “excellence grants” that she claims would support community school models.
Biden and Warren also said they would fully fund IDEA, while Sanders said he would “substantially increase” its funds and Bennet suggested tripling them.
Despite it being the seventh anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and although school safety is relatively high on the list of educators’ concerns, only a few of the candidates emphasized plans to address school safety.
Klobuchar and Sanders were among the candidates who addressed the national concern, with Klobuchar pointing to her efforts behind the bipartisan STOP School Violence Act that passed last year.
When a student said he has “never felt safe with police in [his] school,” Sanders said ensuring the safety of black and brown students was one of his “highest priorities,” but then said he will promote “common-sense gun safety legislation.”
While multiple candidates stressed the importance of making universal early childhood education a priority, Klobuchar said she would push for the passage of Sen. Patty Murray’s Childcare for Working Families Act if elected president. Warren said she “wants full daycare available” for children from birth to 5 years of age, would federally fund universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and would raise the wages for early childhood educators.
Meanwhile, Biden said he would provide only for 3-to-5-year-olds to attend full-day preschool.
Biden suggested he would limit charter growth and reverse Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ related policies, while Bennet said that charter schools should be held to the same standards of performance and accountability as public schools.
Warren clarified that while she wouldn’t cut off funding for established charter schools, she would limit charter growth, encourage accountability and close for-profit charters.
“I believe that public school money needs to stay in public schools,” she said.