Presidential Hopefuls Vie for Votes of Public Education Supporters

Put seven Democratic presidential candidates in a convention center hall with more than 1,000 teachers, parents, students, and education activists and what do you get?

A healthy dose of platitudes and campaign promises, of course, balanced with some pointed questions and personal stories regarding the state of public education in America.

All this took place at the December 14 Public Education Forum organized by the National Educators Association and the American Federation of Teachers, in concert with other labor and community groups. It was broadcast live by MSNBC and moderated by Ali Velshi, host of “MSNBC Live,” and Rehema Ellis, an education correspondent with NBC.

The forum was held inside Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center, out of the rain and away from the small crowd of pro-charter school protesters gathered outside. The protest appears to have been organized by the Powerful Parents Network, the same group that recently interrupted an Elizabeth Warren campaign event.

Former Denver Public Schools superintendent and current presidential candidate Michael Bennet spoke first at the December 14 forum, followed by Pete Buttigeig, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden. (Cory Booker, who infamously pushed charter schools as mayor of Newark, had been scheduled to appear but canceled due to illness.)

“We’re talking about ending the disgrace of this country having the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth.” 

Bennet neatly embodies what has happened to public education due to business-minded reform efforts. Although he had no past experience working in schools, he lead the Denver Public Schools from 2005-2009. Chalkbeat education writer Erica Meltzer noted in May that Bennet “pursued a policy of aggressively closing low-performing and under enrolled schools” while also allowing charter schools to co-locate in underutilized district buildings.

Bennet also embraced merit pay, a controversial strategy touted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and one which ultimately helped pave the way for the 2019 Denver teachers strike, according to Meltzer. 

Although Bennet has not qualified for the December 19 presidential debate in California and is not likely to become the party’s nominee, the education reform ideas he implemented in Denver—although they have become far less palatable among Democrats—have not been completely eradicated from the party.

Buttigieg’s on-stage appearance at the forum offered a hint of this. While speaking before the crowd, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor offered some audience-friendly taglines, such as the notion that districts wouldn’t be struggling to retain staff if “we honored our teachers more like soldiers and paid them more like doctors.”

But in the pressroom where reporters gather to ask follow-up questions of the candidates, Buttigieg was put on the hot seat for continuing to attend fundraisers with billionaires like Reid Hastings of Netflix. 

Hastings is a well-known supporter of charter schools who has also advocated for the elimination of publicly elected school boards. Buttigieg did not disavow the support he is getting from Hastings and other high-profile donors, including education reform supporter Laurene Jobs, insisting his campaign will take the funds but follow any marching orders. 

This puts him at considerable odds with Senators Sanders of Vermont and Warren of Massachusetts, who both wowed the progressive-leaning crowd. Warren took the stage before Sanders and smoothly handled a few curveballs from moderator Ellis, who had clearly read up on the tug between public education supporters and parents whose children are already enrolled in charter schools.

After Warren thoroughly outlined how her education plan would fund public college programs, and not for-profit ones, Ellis addressed her with a direct question about school choice: “Senator, you’ve talked about cutting off funding for charter schools, am I right?” 

Hackles raised, perhaps because charter schools are such a messy topic for Democrats, Warren quickly told Ellis that she would not block funding for existing charters.

“What I believe is that public money needs to stay in public schools,” Warren said, eliciting loud cheers from the crowd. Ellis was not thrown off task by the applause.

“Right now,” Ellis pointed out, “the majority of children who find themselves in public charter schools are minority children, black and brown children.” She asked what politicians who oppose charters should say to parents who feel they can’t wait for their local public school to provide “academic excellence.” 

Warren swung the conversation around to a central point, saying she would use her influence as President to make sure “every public school is an excellent school.” Ellis pushed her further, citing the billions that have been pumped into education in recent decades, seemingly with no results.

Warren swung the conversation around to a central point, saying she would use her influence as President to make sure “every public school is an excellent school.”

This gave Warren the opening to argue that schools need more money overall, and that any existing charter school will need to play by the same accountability rules as district schools—now a tenet of many Democratic candidates’ education platforms.

Warren’s campaign has paid heed to a 2019 report from the Network for Public Education that documents the billions in federal funds that have been poured into the charter school industry in recent years. 

Often, the report indicates, money has fallen into a black hole—leading the anti-privatization group In the Public Interest to declare that charters are “opening and failing like start-ups.”

Warren’s appearance was followed by Sanders, who was greeted with a hero’s welcome. He took the forum in another direction by further calling out the immense issues social inequality has laid on the doorsteps of schools across America.

“When we talk about education, we’re talking about more than schools,” Sanders noted. “We’re talking about ending the disgrace of this country having the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth.” 

Sanders’ time on stage reflected how the conversation around education has evolved since the Obama Administration, with Sanders referring to the myriad of issues that can impact classroom instruction, including food insecurity, mental health needs, and the deprofessionalization of teaching.

It is no longer acceptable, it seems, to simply talk about schools only in terms of the academic achievement gap between whiter, wealthier students and students of color from marginalized communities. This is true now thanks in large part not only to the recent teachers strikes that have taken place across the country, but also because of the organizing heft of community and philanthropic groups such as the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the progressive Schott Foundation.

As forum attendee Jitu Brown of the Journey 4 Justice Alliance noted earlier in the day, “We don’t have failing schools—as a public we’ve been failed.”

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