By Kim Lyons
PITTSBURGH — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to put $800 billion into Title I schools. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders says teachers need to be paid at least $60,000 a year. And South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg wants to create an “Education Access Corps” that would staff Title I schools –those with the highest concentrations of students in poverty — and allow teachers’ student loans to be forgiven.
Seven of the Democrats running for president told an audience of educators and students their plans for public education reform at The Public Education Forum 2020. The day-long forum, held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh, was the first major event of the primary season focused exclusively on public education.
The forum was organized by education and community groups including the Schott Foundation for Public Education, an educational advocacy organization that provides grants and other resources toward increasing the quality of public education, the American Federation of Teachers and the NAACP. MSNBC was the event’s media sponsor.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., did not attend because of an illness. Former Obama administration official Julian Castro was at another event.
“We recognize that having an election doesn’t make a democracy, and having a democracy doesn’t deliver equity in society,” Schott CEO John Jackson said. “We recognize that our democracy is on trial and justice is on the ballot. We the people would like to know what they the candidates have to say about justice. What are their plans to evolve our democracy?”
The first candidate to speak was U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, of Colorado, a former superintendent of the Denver Public Schools. He said one way to address childhood poverty is to extend the school year. “I think kids should go to school six days a week,” Bennet said.
Asked about state takeovers of public school systems, Bennet said “I have never seen a state takeover of a school district that worked well,” adding, “we shouldn’t do it.”
Buttigieg introduced himself to the audience with his family’s education bona fides. “I am the son of two educators and I am married to a teacher who is literally going to be grading everything I say today,” Buttigieg said . “So hopefully this goes well.”
Buttigieg’s Education Access Corps would partner with existing teacher training programs to create a credential that would be portable to any state in the country.
Teachers who take part in the program would be required to commit to teaching at a Title I school for seven years, and in exchange would have their student loans forgiven.
Warren, D-Mass., a former teacher herself, said teachers need to be treated with more respect. “And when I say respect, I don’t mean a coffee mug that you buy someone at the holidays, I mean you pay them a salary so that they can support their families and still be able to teach in public school.”
In addition to canceling student loan debt and investing heavily in public schools, Warren said she would seek to cut funding to charter schools. “Public money should stay in public schools,” Warren said.
A gathering of pro-charter school protesters rallied outside the convention center, chanting, “our children, our choice.” Charter schools are privately operated institutions that receive taxpayer money. Their advocates are mainly political conservatives who believe they offer an alternative to public education.
Sanders, I-Vt., who has long advocated for canceling student loan debt, like Warren, said teachers should be paid better, and defended his vote against No Child Left Behind. Sanders said he believed it had too much focus on standardized testing. “The problem with testing is we end up spending too much time teaching to the tests,” Sanders said, to loud applause from the audience.
Moderator Rehema Ellis, of NBC News, asked Sanders about the practice of lunch-shaming, when kids are denied school lunch because they don’t have enough money to pay for it.
Sanders said not only should the government subsidize lunch for children in public schools, but “breakfast and dinner as well.”
Businessman Tom Steyer was asked if he believed America believes in educating all its children. “We have to reframe this argument. The idea that cutting education is cutting expense is the stupidest idea I have ever heard in my life. It is also deeply unjust,” Steyer said.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., whose mother was a second-grade teacher, said teachers are put into too many different roles: counselor, school nurse and more.
“You increase pay and support for teachers,” she said, which she would do by rolling back the estate tax exemption. Klobuchar said “we need a president who will look at our schools not in isolation but look at our schools as a whole and our kids as a whole, and how you budget things and the policies you put in place are a value statement,” she said. “I’m someone who not only governs from the head but from the heart. And we really need that right now in America.”
The last speaker, former Vice President Joe Biden was asked about how he would deal with segregation in public schools.
“We should break down school districts and make sure they do not by definition exclude minority neighborhoods,” Biden said. “The way to deal with this is to provide for the best education possible in every single school.”
Kim Lyons is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist.