When it comes to education, there’s consensus among 2020 Democratic candidates on some basic reforms, like reducing gun violence in schools and raising teacher pay.
But beneath the surface, there’s broad disagreement between the contenders about policy specifics, including how to implement and pay for a range of ambitious education proposals — such as reducing college costs, how to solve the skyrocketing student debt crisis, and ways to rebuild public schools. And despite the focus many Democratic primary voters place on education — especially the college-age millennials who make up a core part of the party’s base — education is not listed yet as a key issue on several campaign websites.
Other issues, like health care and immigration, have dominated the 2020 cycle so far, but Democratic presidential candidates have already begun competing for key endorsements in the education sector, including engaging directly with teachers’ unions to ask for their support ahead of the primaries.
The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union in the country, recently revamped its endorsement process in an effort to get candidates to engage more directly with the union’s 1.7 million members.
Union’s president Randi Weingarten said in an interview that she’s already met in person with Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke. Weingarten said she has also held calls with other Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker.
“It’s too early to tell when that endorsement decision comes, but there will be an endorsement,” Weingarten told PBS NewsHour. “I’m endeavoring to meet with all of them.”
The candidates’ divergent education platforms reflect how far left the Democratic Party has shifted on the issue, and the larger quandary they are facing: whether to appeal to the party’s grassroots that have become more progressive overall, or stake out centrist positions that could be more popular in a general election.
As the primary season approaches, here’s a look at where the Democratic field stands on key education issues.
1. School safety
In her 2017 confirmation hearing, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos famously testified that allowing guns in schools might be a good idea because it could protect children against grizzly bears. That remark was among several she made during the hearing that drew exasperated concern from Democratic lawmakers, who — aside from feeling her comments were divorced from the reality of the American educational system — support gun control measures, like more expansive background checks, to help prevent school shootings.
The controversial comments also signaled the wide gulf on education policy between the Trump administration and Democrats — a divide that will be on full display as 2020 candidates flesh out their education proposals.
On the issue of school safety, a 2018 Trump administration report recommended increasing “highly trained armed personnel” at schools, something the NRA has recommended after school shootings like the massacre last year that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. However, a Gallup poll from last March found 73 percent of U.S. teachers oppose the idea of carrying guns in school, and 58 percent said “carrying guns in schools would make schools less safe.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who this week became the 18th major Democratic candidate to enter the presidential race, has adopted gun violence prevention as the signature issue of his campaign. Swalwell had just been elected to Congress — but not yet sworn in — in 2012 when the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, took place.
“I figured Congress would have to act” after the Sandy Hook shooting, Swalwell said in a recent statement. “As Republicans stymied all efforts since then, I started to grow frustrated – but the clear, loud, unwavering voices of the Parkland generation have inspired me to renew our efforts.”
In an interview, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, another new entrant into the 2020 primary field, said arming teachers was not the way to address gun violence in schools.
“More guns being on school property, that’s just not a good idea in my mind,” said Ryan, who is married to an elementary school teacher. Ryan said his solution would be “comprehensive” and include background checks, closing loopholes around assault weapons and increased mental health care.
Sarah Lerner, a teacher who survived Parkland and still works at the Florida high school, told NewsHour in February that having a gun in her classroom wouldn’t have helped.
“I went to college to become a teacher, to be an English teacher, not to be a bouncer or a police officer,” Lerner said. “Just like a police officer couldn’t come in and do my job, I shouldn’t be expected to go into my classroom and do theirs.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke has also addressed the issue of guns in schools, though he hasn’t proposed specific policies to reduce the threat. “The threat of violence in those schools, asking teachers to stand between those students [is] absolutely unconscionable,” O’Rourke said at a campaign stop last month.
Other 2020 Democrats have also waded into the debate, or taken action on the issue before launching their presidential campaigns.
Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Florida, and a presidential candidate, has pledged to reduce gun violence by 50 percent in his first term, citing the Parkland massacre as the driver of his ambition. A Stoneman Douglas student was a featured speaker at his campaign announcement.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, who signed two landmark gun bills in Colorado, has argued that gun control measures make schools safer. “We have gun-free schools, and I don’t think in anyway that makes them more vulnerable,” Hickenlooper said at an event in Washington, D.C. last year.
2. College tuition and student debt
Democratic candidates have a growing number of proposals on how to approach skyrocketing student debt, with some calling for tuition-free college and others offering ways for borrowers to relieve their loans.
Student debt and tuition costs were key issues in the 2016 Democratic primaries, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., floated different plans to tackle the problem. Three years later, the issue hasn’t gone away: Americans currently owe almost $1.6 trillion in student loan debt spread out among 44.7 million people, according to debt management website Student Loan Hero.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker — all Democratic presidential candidates — co-sponsored the “Debt-Free College Act of 2019,” which would provide federal funding to colleges that commit to helping students pay for admission and avoid acquiring debt.
The bill differs from a proposal Sanders put forward calling for all public universities to be tuition-free.
Sanders’ “College for All Act” would provide $47 billion per year to states to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public universities for families bringing in less than $125,000 annually. Sanders’ plan drew support from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, another 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, another contender, has also endorsed tuition-free college.
Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and 2020 candidate who has never run for office before, suggested a different approach. Yang told PBS NewsHour in an interview that higher education institutions should track how much debt students take on, how long it will take them to pay it off, and which majors incur the most debt.
Students “should absolutely be considering their careers and debt load after college when deciding which college to attend,” Yang said. “By creating a federal database of these statistics, we can ensure that students who are making probably the most important financial decision yet in their lives are doing so with better information.”
2020 White House candidate and former congressman John Delaney has suggested yet another path: reforming laws that hinder borrowers who have declared bankruptcy from discharging student loans.
President Donald Trump has also recently seized on the issue of student debt. “I’m going to work to fix it, because it’s outrageous what’s happening,” Trump said of the problem last month before signing an executive order to expand free speech on college campuses. The president added: “We’re going to work on that very soon. I’ve always been very good with loans.”
But the White House 2020 budget proposal would eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, created under former President George W. Bush. The program allows borrowers who have made 120 qualifying monthly loan payments — and maintained full-time employment in either a government organization or nonprofit — to apply for loan forgiveness.
In 2017, DeVos also froze an Obama-era rule that allows students to erase their debt if their school committed financial fraud. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., responded by suing the Education Department for halting protections for students defrauded by for-profit colleges.
Some Democrats have used the administration’s moves to highlight their opposition to Trump’s stance on student debt — a key issue for young voters, who make up an important part of the Democratic Party’s base.
Earlier this month, Gillibrand and Warren sent a letter to the Consumer Finance and Protection Bureau asking for clarity on how the bureau has regulated the student-loan industry under Trump. “We are concerned that CFPB leadership has abandoned its supervision and enforcement activities related to federal student loan servicers,” the senators wrote.
3. Charter schools
Former President Barack Obama supported charter school expansion as part of his broader education reforms. The position rankled teachers’ unions, and the issue remains divisive within the Democratic Party and on the campaign trail. So far, most Democratic presidential candidates have said charters still have a place in the education system, but require more oversight than they’ve had in the past.
Ryan, for example, introduced the Charter School Accountability Act to increase oversight of charter schools, which receive public funding but have more freedom than traditional public schools. But Ryan said in his phone interview with the NewsHour that he was not against charter schools altogether.
“We welcome innovation in the education field, but you’ve got to be playing by the same rules,” Ryan said. “People making lots of money off these for-profit charters, that’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Other 2020 Democrats have also staked out pro-charter school positions while at the same time calling for other education reforms.
Buttigieg’s campaign told NewsHour that the South Bend, Indiana mayor believes charter schools have a place in the school ecosystem, but that they shouldn’t replace investment in traditional public schools.
Booker, a former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, has supported charter schools and “school choice.” In 2010, Booker teamed up with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the state’s then-governor, Republican Chris Christie, to overhaul Newark’s education system. Results of the $100 million effort led to mixed educational results, and sparked an exodus from public schools to charter schools. Additionally, in 2016, Booker spoke at an event hosted by the American Federation for Children, a school choice lobbyist organization founded by the DeVos family.
O’Rourke has also supported charter schools, and called the privately run but publically funded model a “good idea” in a 2012 Texas primary debate. O’Rourke’s wife, Amy Sanders O’Rourke, founded a charter school in the couple’s hometown of El Paso, Texas, and served as its first superintendent.
Past support for charter schools isn’t a deal-breaker for teacher unions, said Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. But Weingarten said it’s vital that candidates show a willingness to engage union members and respond to concerns about the charter school movement.
The competition with charter schools for students and public resources was at the center of at least one major teacher protest in recent months. Los Angeles public school teachers went on strike in January for the first time in three decades over a contract dispute and staffing shortages that intersected with debates about how charter schools affect school districts.
4. Teacher pay
Democrats included a pay hike for teachers in the party’s “Better Deal” 2018 midterm platform, as teacher strikes swept across the country last year. The plan called for raising teacher wages using revenue raised by canceling the tax cuts for high-income earners included in the GOP tax law Trump signed in late 2017.
The proposal was supported by teachers’ unions. But while there’s unanimous agreement in the party that teachers need to be paid more, there’s no clear consensus among 2020 presidential candidates about the best way to pay for the raises.
In her first major policy proposal, Harris published an op-ed last month outlining her plan to raise the average teacher’s pay by $13,500 in her first term in office.
Harris’ teacher pay proposal garnered support from Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a 2020 contender who has said investing in education would be one of her top budget priorities as president.
Another Democratic presidential hopeful, author Marianne Williamson, wrote on her campaign website that she would work to provide teachers “autonomy as well as compensation that reflects their professional stature,” but didn’t provide specifics on how to cover salary increases.
During his presidential campaign announcement on March 1, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee touted that teacher pay had gone up during his tenure.
“Economic innovation and leadership for the future we know starts in our schools, that’s why I’ve led our state to invest billions in our schools, expanded early childhood education, made college more affordable, and finally have given educators the deserved raise they deserve,” Inslee said.