Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) took questions from teachers and other AFT members and leaders at an AFT Votes town hall May 13, describing her plans to lift up working families, make college affordable, cancel existing student debt, provide universal child care and preschool, raise the wages of preschool teachers and child care workers, and create a wealth tax to pay for it all.
AFT President Randi Weingarten introduced Warren, praising her record as a former public school teacher, attorney, professor and founder of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and noting that she has long been “a friend of students and educators and nurses” and steadfastly “on the side of the vulnerable and … those who don’t have power.” Joking that “she has a plan for everything,” a reference to Warren’s reputation for backing up her rhetoric with specific policy proposals, Weingarten paved the way for Warren to describe some of those plans.
“The first one is that I will name a secretary of education who has been a public school teacher,” said Warren. “No more Betsy DeVos.” The crowd erupted in cheers and applause. “I want someone who is committed to public education. I want someone who has seen tattered textbooks or tried to manage when there are too many kids in a classroom.”
Warren is deeply committed to education, and she often shares her own story of growing up in a working-class family she says couldn’t afford college application fees, much less tuition. Nevertheless, she got a scholarship and worked as a waitress to attend a “commuter college,” and eventually made it through law school. She believes in the power of education and, to that end, is proposing a debt-free college program that would cover tuition and fees and also expand Pell Grants so that low-income students would have money for expenses such as transportation, textbooks and rent.
“We can make every public technical school, two-year college and four-year college, tuition- and fee-free for every one of our kids,” said Warren, adding her proposal for historically black colleges and universities: “And we can put $50 billion into HBCUs that are chronically underfunded in this country.”
Warren also wants to cancel student loan debt for 95 percent of borrowers, by canceling student debt up to $50,000 for borrowers who earn less than $100,000 a year. Student debt is a problem that plagues not only individuals but also the economy, she said, because people who still owe on their student loans are unable to purchase homes and start businesses. “No great country builds a future by crushing people trying to get an education,” she said.
Providing education at the youngest end of the spectrum is also essential, said Warren, who supports universal child care and preschool, and higher wages for child care workers. “We can raise the wages of every preschool teacher and every child care worker to the professional level that they deserve,” she said.
All of these public services could be funded by a wealth tax, which would tax “the giant estates in this country,” said Warren—those valued at $50 million or more—at 2 cents on every dollar. Warren explained the tax would affect just 75,000 families, the top one-tenth of 1 percent, and it could pay for a host of services. She ties the tax to government policies that generally favor the wealthy, from the United States Supreme Court case Citizens United, which ruled corporations have the same rights as citizens, to tax laws that disproportionately burden working-class families.
“There’s been one central question that’s always been at the heart of my work,” said Warren. “What’s happening to working families in America? Why is America’s middle class being hollowed out? Why is opportunity shrinking in this country? The answer is that we have a government that makes decisions … for people who have money.”
She continued, “When we see a government that works great for those with money and not really for everyone else, that is corruption, and we need to call it out.”
AFT members in attendance were enthusiastic about the exchange, asking engaging questions and thanking Warren for coming to listen to them. “Thank you for talking for the teachers and also speaking up for the unions and giving a voice to the needs that we have,” said Benjamin Hoover, a teacher in Philadelphia. Meredith, who teaches first grade, called Warren a “role model” for herself and her young daughters. “I’m a public school teacher, but maybe one day I could be president,” she said.
The May 13 event was part of a series of AFT Votes meetings between AFT members and presidential candidates; the AFT Votes process is “about making sure that our members and our leaders can actually have real conversations with candidates,” said Weingarten. It will eventually lead to the AFT’s endorsement in the 2020 elections. Watch the video of the Warren event here.
[Virginia Myers/photos by Pamela Wolfe]