PITTSBURGH — Seven Democratic candidates for president on Saturday offered plans to make their mark on American schools.
Though the vast majority of education decisions in the U.S. are made at the state and local levels, candidates who participated in a public forum sponsored by 11 education groups vowed to increase federal spending in schools — some by enormous amounts — and proposed other ways to make schools more equitable and to support teachers, students and parents.
The six-hour forum at a downtown convention center, moderated by Ali Velshi, host of “MSNBC Live,” and Rehema Ellis, an NBC News education correspondent, streamed live on NBC News Now, MSNBC.com and NBC News Learn.
Each candidate spoke for 25 minutes, fielding questions about K-12, early childhood and higher education from the moderators and members of the audience, made up of more than 1,000 students, parents and community members.
The event — one of the first times public education has been the main focus of the 2020 presidential race — featured Sen. Michael Bennet, Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. An eighth candidate, Sen. Cory Booker, had planned to participate but canceled Friday when he came down with the flu.
Watch it here. These were some of the highlights:
People arriving for the forum Saturday morning were greeted by more than 100 charter school parents, educators and advocates who protested under umbrellas in the rain.
Supporters of the publicly funded but privately managed schools say they have concerns that some candidates, notably Warren and Sanders, have called for cutting federal funding for new charter schools and restricting their growth. Warren and Sanders say charters draw money from traditional school districts and aren’t subject to the same rules.
Some of the candidates “have not included charter schools for the most part in a positive way in their platform,” said protester Sonya Toler, who works for the 13-school Propel charter network in Pittsburgh.
Those candidates might be courting the votes of large teachers unions like the American Federation of Teachers, which was one of the sponsors of the forum, Toler said, but “they can’t forget the vote of the people who work and send their children to our schools. They vote as well. Charter schools need to be a part of their platform.”
The protesters say they were excluded from the forum and not allowed to participate or question candidates. Forum organizers say charter school backers would have been included if they had asked. Tolder said she did ask but was rebuffed.
Charter schools comprise just 7 percent of public schools across the nation, but they still earned a lot attention at the forum.
Warren interrupted a moderator who suggested she wanted to “cut off funding” to charters.
“I’m not sure I’d call it cutting off,” she said, noting that she doesn’t want to stop funding to existing schools. “What I believe is that public school money needs to stay in public schools.”
Charter schools are public schools typically required to admit students through a lottery, including students with disabilities. Their students have the same standardized testing requirements as other public schools, but in some parts of the country, the schools are run by for-profit management companies. Even those run by nonprofits are not always subject to open-records laws and other regulations that apply to government agencies
Warren has been confronted on the campaign trail by charter school parents who say charter schools give a choicev to low-income parents who don’t have the option to move their children to a private school, as Warren did with her son when he was in fifth grade. Warren said she is sensitive to those parents.
“They’re looking for the best educational opportunities for their children,” she said. “But I believe it is our responsibility as a nation to make certain that every public school is an excellent public school:”
Other candidates said they support charter schools but want them held to higher standards across the country.
Bennet said he oversaw charter schools when he was schools superintendent in Denver, where they are held to the same standards as district schools..
“I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot more perfect than almost any other area,” he said.
He singled out Detroit, where he said schools have been negatively affected by policies supported by U.S. Education Secretary Besty DeVos, a philanthropist who helped expand charter schools in her home state of Michigan before joining the Trump administration.
After the forum, Bennet retweeted a picture of himself meeting with pro-charter activists.
Buttigeig, who has been less critical of charter schools than some of his opponents, has joined them in calling for tighter rules. He fielded questions after the forum about a fundraiser being hosted for him by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, a prominent charter school donor.
“There are 700,000 donors to my campaign. Some of them may disagree with me on some of those issues,” Buttigieg said. “But my stance will not change, including my support for teachers and my support for labor.”
Much of the media attention on education has focused on how candidates want to lower the cost of a college education and reduce or eliminate college debt. Those issues came up on Saturday, as did a host of spending proposals to give children the kind of education that would help them succeed in college
Sanders, Biden and Buttigieg said they wanted to triple the funding to Title I, the federal government’s main program for schools that serve children from low-income families. Warren said she wants to quadruple the funding.
Candidates said the extra money could be used to address a host of educational challenges, including raising teacher pay and hiring support staff, such as school psychologists.
Warren dismissed a question about how to make the formula the government currently uses to distribute TItle I dollars more equitable, saying she wants to put so much money into the program that how it’s distributed won’t be an issue.
“The question is not how do we take what we currently spend at the federal level and move it around,” she said, adding the government needs to “invest what it takes to create a quality opportunity for every one of our children.”
Several candidates also called for funding early childhood education, with some calling for preschool to be free for all 3- and 4-year-olds and others calling for it to be free to children from needy families.
“If you had $10 to spend and that’s all you had to spend on education, I’d spend seven of them on preschool,” Biden said.
But Title 1 is not the only federal programs the candidates suggested boosting.
Klobuchar said she would help schools but also work to improve affordable housing, arguing that fewer homeless children would put less of a burden on schools
When asked whether the federal government should expand the free lunch program to all children so no one is “lunch shamed” for being unable to pay for a meal, Sanders responded, “You know what? And breakfast and dinner, as well.”
Candidates want schools to become less segregated
Several candidates offered solutions to how to make schools less segregated in response to recent studies showing that six decades after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, American schools are increasingly racially segregated.
Sanders, who said his elementary school class in Brooklyn had just one black student, said additional funding is one solution to inequality in schools. He also vowed as president to beef up the education department’s office of civil rights to investigate violations.
Biden, who was taken to task by Sen. Kamala Harris (who dropped out of the race last week) during a debate last summer for his opposition to school busing in the 1970s, seemed flustered when asked about segregation at the forum but asserted he is “extremely proud” of his civil rights record.
“It’s as good or better than anybody in politics,” he said.
Candidates tried to connect personally
Most of the candidates played up their personal connections to education, highlighting spouses and parents who worked in schools. Biden spoke of his experience with teachers who helped him as a child with a stutter.
“I had teachers who first and foremost worked on my confidence, told me I was smart, told me I could do what I needed to do, sat with me and gave me the confidence to stand up and try to speak,” he said.
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