Just Two 2020 Candidates, Bennet and Warren, Discuss Charter Schools at Education Election Forum

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (David Becker/Getty Images)

Seven Democratic candidates discussed issues as well-trod as their plans to increase education spending and disrupt school segregation, and as little-discussed as corporal punishment and a hypothetical constitutional right to education, at a presidential education election forum Saturday.

But candidates, moderators and audience questions at the teachers-union-organized event in Pittsburgh focused only briefly on what is arguably the most contentious K-12 issue in the race: charter schools.

Just two candidates fielded questions about the topic, despite it being one of the few in K-12 that really divides the candidates, and candidates from many voters: Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose proposal to crack down on charters has attracted widespread criticism and protest from charter advocates.

Moderator Rehema Ellis of NBC asked Warren about her proposal, particularly what she’d say to the largely African-American and Hispanic families currently served by charters, who aren’t content for their children to wait for improvements to the traditional public school system.

“I’ve met with many parents and grandparents who have put their children in public charter schools, and I have no doubt about the sincerity of their efforts to educate their children,” Warren said.

She emphasized that her proposal wouldn’t affect existing charter schools, adding that for-profit charters, which she deemed “a different issue,” should be closed.

“My proposal is how about we put $800 billion into our public schools and make them all excellent schools,” she said. “This is about equalizing opportunity. This is the big division in America today.”

Though Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has a similar position, he was not asked about charters, either by moderators or the audience.

Charter supporters protested outside of the event and parent advocates say they were turned away when they tried to enter the Pittsburgh convention center. Event organizers had expressed disappointment about the planned protest and said charter backers should have asked to participate; charter advocates say they weren’t allowed to join.

One high-profile advocate said it “wasn’t surprising” that candidates didn’t bring up charters at a union-sponsored event.

“Despite the fact that charter schools level the education playing field for students stuck in failing schools, some of the candidates vying to lead the Democratic party and our nation can’t bring themselves to put students’ needs ahead of their desire to appease special interest groups and big campaign contributors,” Nina Rees, president of the Charter School Action Fund, said in a statement.

More supportive was Bennet, previously superintendent of schools in Denver, a city with a robust charter sector. Charters “have been a useful element” but “aren’t the be-all or end-all,” and they won’t be the way to scale good schools for all kids, he said.

He pointed in particular to Denver’s accountability requirements that hold charters to the same standards as district schools and require them to serve the same number of students with disabilities and English language learners.

“I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot more perfect” than other places, he said.

In addition to Warren, Sanders and Bennet, other candidates at the forum included former vice president Joe Biden; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; and billionaire Tom Steyer.

Missing at the event was Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who last month wrote a New York Times op-ed defending charter schools, embracing his previous record as mayor of Newark after seemingly backing away from his support of education reform earlier in the campaign. Booker had been scheduled to attend the forum but had to postpone a second day of campaign events due to the flu, his campaign manager said on Twitter.

Though they weren’t asked about charters, the other three top-polling candidates offered notable responses on a host of topics, including:

Buttigieg on teacher shortages: The newly ascendant candidate touted his proposal for what he called an education access corps, in which existing teacher training programs would prepare educators who commit to teaching for seven years in a Title I school. After doing so, their loans would be forgiven, and they’d be given a stipend to mentor future educators.

If we honored our teachers a little more like soldiers, as well as paid them a little more like doctors, we wouldn’t have this issue with shortages,” he said.

Sanders on standardized tests: Sanders has long been skeptical of standardized tests, and he voted against No Child Left Behind as a member of the House due to concerns about its annual testing mandate, he said.

“There is no question that we have got to keep track of every kid in this country to make sure that he or she is reading and doing math well. But there are better ways to do it than standardized testing, in my view,” he said. “The better way is for schools to be determined in tracking each kid and paying attention to each kid, not providing a test to the entire school district.”

Biden on Title IX: Biden took the lead on the Obama Administration’s now-challenged efforts to clamp down on sexual assault on college campuses. His effort grew out of a review of statistics during his time as vice president. As a senator, he had been key in passing the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, which helped reduce domestic violence and assault against women — except those of high school and college age, he said.

If Biden is elected, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s “whole notion” on the issue will be undone, he pledged. (The rules apply to K-12 as well; final rules are expected in the coming weeks.)

DeVos wants to scrap the Obama-era rules, proposing to replace them with regulations that would generally reduce the kinds of situations in which schools must intervene in cases of alleged assault. Biden’s website says he’ll reinstate the Obama rules, as well as expand reporting options for victims, improve training for college administrators and push for legislation that would require annual lessons on “healthy relationships and affirmative consent” at the K-12 level.

Help fund stories like this. Donate now!

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today