Democrat – CO Sen. Michael Bennet

Colorado senator discusses education and explores how to fix a system that he says, at times, produces ‘catastrophic’ outcomes for children.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet was initially appointed to the seat vacated when Ken Salazar became interior secretary in '09 and won the position outright in '10. He'd previously made a name for himself in public service and as a savvy businessman. For his service as Denver public schools superintendent, Time listed him among 11 leading educational activists. Bennet also has a J.D. from Yale Law School and served in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration before entering the business world as managing director of an investment firm.


Tavis: Senator Michael Bennet is serving his first full term in the U.S. Senate following his time as the superintendent of the Denver public school system. His victory last November over a Tea Party-backed candidate was one of the few bright spots for Democrats in the midterm elections. Senator Bennet, good to have you on this program.
Sen. Michael Bennet: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me, Tavis.
Tavis: My pleasure. Let me start with some news of the day internationally, and then we’ll come to the all-important issue of education. So President Obama has made a statement about the bloodshed in Libya. It’s been noted that he did not mention Muammar Qaddafi by name. Is that, to your mind, an observation by the president, or solidarity with the Libyan people? Those are two different things.
Bennet: Well, I think it’s certainly solidarity with the Libyan people, and I don’t know why the president didn’t mention Qaddafi. It may have been because he doesn’t want to back into a corner at a moment when it may be that he will leave.
I hope that the world can learn a lesson from Egypt and what we saw there, which was largely peaceful demonstrations, not violence, from the government or from the protestors. We have the chance now for democratic elections in Egypt, which three weeks ago nobody would have even imagined.
Tavis: The world, you said, should learn lessons from Egypt. What should we, the American body politic, learn from Egypt, because we weren’t – on any given day, I wasn’t sure where our government was on what was happening in Egypt. Did we want Mubarak to stay, are we trying to cut a deal with him, are we negotiating with this guy? Are we on the side of the people? Are we on the side of the power?
I don’t want to see the same thing happen in Libya, where again we’re making observations as opposed to being in solidarity with.
Bennet: Well, I think that to my mind, the Egypt crisis was handled extremely well, I thought, by the administration. Some of this stuff, you don’t know from one day to the next what’s going to happen, and I know that can be frustrating to people.
The one thing I think we do learn from all of this is that there’s a real hunger in the Middle East among a lot of people that have felt oppressed and kept down for a long time, with rising food prices and other kinds of things. The Egyptians just want an economy that would work for them, and I hope they’re able to build one with a secular government.
Tavis: Oil prices, as you well know, are creeping up, given what’s happening in Libya, so should the American people be concerned, and how concerned should we be about $4 gasoline plus this summer?
Bennet: Well, it’s obviously not going to help us with our economic recovery, but I think there’s a more important and fundamental question, which is how long is it going to be the energy policy of the United States that we want to choose to ship billions of dollars a week of our Treasury to the Persian Gulf for the privilege of buying their oil?
We should have an energy policy here that’s producing our energy domestically, creating jobs here in the United States, and giving us a much more secure national security than we have today as a result of, frankly, having no energy policy.
Tavis: Everybody in Washington, Republican or Democrat, has, respectfully, some statement, some sentiment near what you’ve just said, about the fact that we need a new energy policy. Even though I see these reasons, as the American public sees, every single day, especially given what’s happening in Libya now, but there’s no shortage of reasons why we have to enact what you’ve just said, and yet, pardon my English, there ain’t no energy policy forthcoming. What’s the problem?
Bennet: I think the problem is that a lot of what happens in Washington – and a lot of the reason it seems broken to people – is because it’s completely wrapped around the axle with these special interests. What looks like a partisan debate to people is not, strictly speaking, in my view, in the sense that it’s a battle of ideas.
What it is is a battle of a bunch of special interests that are trying to protect their incumbent interests, and by definition are therefore backward-looking rather than supporting the innovation we need in the 21st century. Our economy needs to be the most innovative economy in the world if we’re going to be able to compete. This also relates to the education conversation.
But we need to make sure our policies are supporting the innovators and the entrepreneurs. The people in my state, for example, that are figuring out how to wed natural gas and clean technology together to create energy independence for our state, even, that we’re working on now.
So we’ve got to – this is going to take leadership, just like everything else – the debt, the deficit, and everything else that we’ve got to –
Tavis: Since you mentioned education, I’ll take your segue and roll into that, although it feels a little weird, because I think, and for those who watch this show, they know this, for me there is no issue more important than the issue of education. So it seems a little weird to be getting to it second behind these world events. But I digress on that point.
So we know that one of the major issues right now, vis-à-vis education, is No Child Left Behind. Something has to happen to it between now – we hope, at least – between now and the time that kids go back to school this coming fall. So I ask what is going to happen, Mr. Former Superintendent, with No Child Left Behind?
Bennet: Well, I think what we need to do – we’ve done a – the one thing that No Child Left Behind has done which is of benefit is it’s shown us, in a very crude way, how catastrophic the outcomes are for children, especially children living in poverty in this country, and I choose that word carefully. Catastrophic is what it is.
Our kids from poverty are showing up in kindergarten with a third the number of words that they’ve heard as more affluent children, and only nine out of 100 kids coming from a poor ZIP code in this country can expect to graduate from a four-year college, which means that 91 are not. At the eighth grade, only 16 or 17 of those hundred kids are proficient readers or proficient mathematicians.
Those are the kinds of outcomes that no one with an education would ever tolerate for their kids, so we’ve got to change the system. My view, coming out of the superintendency, is that almost everything, all the incentives and disincentives in the system, are not aligned to the outcomes we want for kids at the end of the day, and what we can do at the federal government is limited, but one of the things we can do is incentivize the work of people that are trying to do it differently, which is, I’m happy to say, more and more the case, that there are people trying to do the work differently all across the country.
Tavis: Given your point, I assume that means that you agree with, and if not, tell me your view, on the incentivizing program, as they would put it, that the Obama administration has rolled out called Race to the Top.
Bennet: I agree with it strongly. Never has such a small amount of money – it’s big money by our standards, but not by the federal government’s standards, four or five million dollars. There are states all over the country that changed a lot of antiquated rules in order to be eligible for that money. Colorado was one of them. We were very unjustly denied that money, and I still support –
Tavis: (Laughs) I knew that was coming.
Bennet: But I still support the program. Look, it’s time for us to admit that we spend a lot of time in the popular press talking about how we’re losing the race for mathematicians and losing the race for engineers, and that’s true. But we’re also losing the race for people to teach people to be mathematicians and engineers, and I think the reason for that is that we architected that system – how we pay teachers, how we train teachers, how we educate teachers.
In a labor market that discriminated against women, and said, you’ve got two choices – one’s being a teacher and one’s being a nurse. So how about coming and teaching Julius Caesar every year for 30 years of your life, at a low current compensation but with a pension at the end?
It’s time for us to admit to ourselves that that set of incentives is not going to work for people coming out of college today that we desperately need in the classroom.
Tavis: I think you and I both agree that something radical – my word, not yours – something radical has to be done to get education right in this country, however we define that. Something really radical ultimately has to happen. I’ve said on this program before I don’t think education ought to be a race. I think in this country education ought to be a right.
I’ve also said on this program that I think, then, that we ought to consider something really radical, like a constitutional amendment that guarantees every child in this country access to an equal, high-quality education. I know that doesn’t – I know you can’t prejudge outcomes, but you well know, having been a superintendent, that in 50 states in this country we got 50 different ways of doing it.
Depending on what state you’re in, you’re allotment for money for education is different. Washington State has a lot more money than Mississippi does dedicated to education, because we’ve got all these different models that don’t work.
What about a constitutional amendment that guarantees every child, at least, the same starting point – access to an equal, high-quality education?
Bennet: Well, I don’t know about the amendment; I haven’t thought about that. I’ll think about that a little bit.
Tavis: It’s a radical concept.
Bennet: But it seems to me that it’s a fundamental part of our creed that as the land of opportunity we’re a place that if you show up and you work hard and you do what you’re supposed to do, that you can succeed and that your family can succeed as a result. You can provide more for your kids and for your grandkids.
We’ve just come out of a decade, even before this recession, the first decade in our country’s history where median family income actually fell. Never has happened before. So families in my state are earning less at the end of the decade than they were at the beginning, but their cost of higher education has gone up by 40 percent, their cost of healthcare is up by more than that.
People are having a hard time getting ahead. Now, you take all of that and you think about it through the eyes of a child living in poverty in one of America’s cities, and you say, “What chance do they really have?” There are whole places in this country, in cities like the one we’re sitting in right now, where you can ride any bus you want and you won’t find a school that you or I would send our kids to.
Tavis: But you’re making my point, though, and I agree. It’s part of our creed, whatever that means, to use your word, respectfully, but it’s not being actualized anywhere. What I think I hear you suggesting to me is that race and class are a part of that and nobody wants to acknowledge that.
Bennet: Well, and I think it’s also not right that it’s not being actualized anywhere. So there are examples of –
Tavis: That’s not true, though, Senator. It is being actualized in certain places. That’s my point about the role that race and class play in this education debate.
Bennet: Right. The question is, to the extent that we do find successes, like just coming to top of mind the achievement for schools in Connecticut that outperform not only schools in New Haven but outperform the schools in the state of Connecticut, one of the most affluent states in the country, with children that are exactly the children that we’re talking about, proves that it can be done, and I’ve seen where it is done.
The mandates that people like me, superintendents, try to impose tend not to work. What tends to work is incentivizing a group of adults that are in a building to want to pull together with a visionary leader, because you really need a great principal to do the work, and whose focus is not just on teaching the kids, although that’s very important, but their focus is also on perfecting their craft as teachers.
That is the difference between a school that can succeed with children living in poverty and a school that can’t.
Tavis: How much of this has to do – it sounds silly, but let me ask you, again, given your back story here as a superintendent – how much does this have to do with the fact that we live in a country where we don’t really elevate and celebrate and revel in what teachers do?
There are all kind of folk in our society who get a whole lot more love, as it were, than teachers do, and I say that because I’m looking at these numbers – there aren’t a whole lot of folk rushing now to become teachers, even.
Bennet: Right, right. I think that’s a huge piece of this. Again, I was talking earlier about the labor market that said you can be a teacher, you can be a nurse. There’s a real chance you were going to get the best British literature student in her class to be your British literature teacher under those circumstances.
Now there are a million things that she can do, and we have to make the profession more attractive. It’s not just about pay. It’s also about leadership in the building; it’s also about working conditions.
But we’ve got to start behaving like this is the most important job that’s out there. It’s the hardest job, it’s much harder than yours or mine, but we treat it like an afterthought. Let me give you an example on the resource question you just raised a minute ago.
Because of the way – I won’t bore everybody with the details, but because of the way we budget at district level and because of what the federal government insists on in reporting, if you are a poor child in this country, you’re likely to be in a high-poverty school where the teachers are paid less than in a more affluent school, where they’ve been around for a longer period of time.
But both schools are billed at the average teacher’s salary, which means there’s a huge subsidy running from poor children in the country to more affluent children, who also need to be served, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what we’re doing.
We’re one of three countries in the OECD that spends more money on its wealthier kids than it does on its poor kids.
Tavis: I’m out of time now, but I have one more question I want to ask you, and I’m going to ask this question of the senator. You can find his answer to the question on our Web site at I wanted to ask him, given what we see happening in Wisconsin specifically, but now spreading to Ohio and Indiana and other places, specifically in Wisconsin, what this means for the future of teachers, given how they seem to be under attack by certain people in Wisconsin.
We’ll get Senator Bennet’s response to that after I tell him thank you for coming on the program.
Bennet: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Senator, good to have you here.
Bennet: I appreciate it.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm