Candidates’ forum explores equity and opportunity

It was a refreshingly candid look at public education by seven candidates who hope to become president of the United States. Aiming to restore the revered place education once held in American life, candidates Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Elizabeth Warren took turns describing, sometimes in vivid detail, how their presidency would help children thrive.

Randi with forum hosts

Held Dec. 14 in Pittsburgh and moderated by NBC News education correspondent Rehema Ellis and “MSNBC Live” host Ali Velshi, the daylong forum gave viewers a chance to judge for themselves each candidate’s passion for public education. It was sponsored by the AFT and 10 partners, together representing 7 million union members, educators, parents, students and community activists.

The forum concluded the first phase of the AFT Votes endorsement process. So far, “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Opportunity for All” has been the only major presidential campaign event dedicated to public education, giving our members a chance to ask pointed questions about reversing the damage caused by decades of defunding.

“What’s happening today flips the script,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said from the stage to a packed hall of more than 1,200 participants. “It is a paradigm shift because the candidates have a chance to listen to what we’ve witnessed from the lens of our lived experience. Teachers bear a huge responsibility for the nation, but they don’t have the respect or the resources they need.”

The crux of it: money

The candidates fielded questions about how they would go about reviving cash-starved federal programs like Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as well as dedicating infrastructure funds to fix crumbling schools and colleges.

Elizabeth Warren

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told the audience that she knew she wanted to be a public school teacher since second grade, and then she did get to work as a special education teacher. “I’ve lived my dream job,” she said. In her quest for her other dream job, Warren wants to create opportunity for all children. To do that, she would implement a two-cent wealth tax. “As a nation, it’s time to make a real investment, and we can do this by asking those at the very top just to pay a little more,” she said.

Warren’s wealth tax on the richest individuals and corporations would generate nearly $800 billion to fund her education proposals, including plans to address the teacher shortage, provide tuition-free college education and cancel student debt.

“Here’s the deal,” said former Vice President Joe Biden. “How can you [tell] a special ed teacher, ‘Sorry, we don’t have the resources.’ It’s just wrong.” So how would he persuade Americans to raise funds for special education? It would save the public billions of dollars, Biden said, to have people with disabilities be able to maintain their independence when their parents are gone. “It’s a drop in the bucket compared with how much it will cost if we don’t do it,” he said. “The idea that we have this godforsaken tax break for the wealthy, when we can’t find the money to fund Title I and IDEA. ... I’m going to fight like hell to make sure they’re fully funded. It’s a moral obligation.”

Joe Biden

Biden said community college should be free, and the nation can easily afford it at $6 billion a year. He said workers need to get retrained, so he would double the money for Pell Grants. He said he’d spend 7 of every 10 federal education dollars on preschool, tripling revenue by taxing income and wealth the same way. He would set minimum teacher pay at $60,000, send every 3- to 5-year-old to school, and hire more counselors and social workers.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders vowed to triple funding for Title I and ensure teacher pay of at least $60,000 a year. In New Hampshire, Sanders said, some teachers start out at $28,000 a year. “How absurd is that?” he asked, decrying a case in which a young man is able to earn more working at a state liquor store than as a teacher. What’s more, Sanders endorsed a $15-per-hour national minimum wage to lift up school and college support staff. “Nobody anywhere in America should earn less than a living wage,” he said. “Count me in as an ally for support staff.”

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, too, called for paying support staff a family-sustaining wage. “We need to respect the dignity of work,” she said, “and make sure we’re there for everybody in the education system.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., said he would triple Title I funding. “When property taxes are the main source of school funding,” he said, “it punishes poor kids.”

women stand on stage

Financier Tom Steyer said the key to the nation’s success is money for public K-12 schools and historically black colleges and universities. He condemned how corporations have bought their way into controlling public policy. They see education merely as a cost. “The idea that cutting education is cutting expense is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” he said, adding that if voters don’t stop it, the nation will fail. “In my blue, blue, blue state of California, they’re trying to put forward the idea that teachers are greedy. They are telling a bunch of lies that are based on racism. It’s baloney. We have to stand up to them. We have to change that.”

Until Philadelphia Federation of Teachers board member Hillary Linardopoulos asked about it, Klobuchar hadn’t heard of a PFT teacher who contracted an incurable lung disease from asbestos at her school. Klobuchar was not surprised. She said she would bring back the estate tax, which would yield $100 billion that could go to repairing schools. “You can’t do an infrastructure program unless you include schools,” she said.

Klobuchar listed as her top two priorities curbing homelessness and expanding preschool. “We are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have a good early childhood policy in place,” she said. “As president, I can get this done.” Third would be pay equity for teachers. “We’ve got a guy in the White House now who’s running this country like one of his bankrupt casinos, and is treating you like a bunch of poker chips.” The tax breaks he handed to the rich aren’t “milk money,” she added. “This is big money that can be used to fix our schools.”

Klobuchar drew strong applause for saying she would rid the federal government of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Audience at Public Ed Forum

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, the first school superintendent in U.S. history to run for president, said the country needs to massively increase teacher pay. When he was a superintendent, Bennet implemented a merit pay system. “Lots of people thought it was a good idea, and for a long time it was, because teachers earned more.” Bennet wants to improve pay because “our entire system of teacher compensation comes from a labor market that discriminates against women.”

All for one, one for all

Sanders thanked teachers for topping his list of donors, and returned the favor by calling for a universal commitment to public education: universal child care, universal college and universal school meals. Asked about school lunch shaming and whether the government should pay for school lunch for all, he said: “You know what? And breakfast and dinner as well. This gets back to my point: I believe in universality. I want all kids to get a decent meal and a decent education.”

Bernie Sanders

Warren spoke along the same lines. “We need to show teaching some real respect and pay educators enough to support their families and still be able to teach in public school,” she said. Asked about cutting funds for the expansion of charter schools, Warren told the audience, which included charter school parents and students, that “public school money needs to stay in public schools. It’s my responsibility as the president of the United States to make sure that every public school is an excellent public school.”

Buttigieg addressed the level of disrespect aimed at teachers. “We want teachers to feel valued and honored,” he said. “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 of shortages because it sends a message that we recognize the importance of teachers.” Asked how he would ease the national teacher shortage, he suggested creating teacher training programs in colleges and universities, including HBCUs, to provide a portable teaching credential. Recipients would be required to teach at a Title I school for seven years, in exchange for debt forgiveness and a stipend.

Biden added to calls of respect for school employees, recalling his job as a school bus driver. “By the way,” he said, “bus drivers and the folks in the cafeteria know a hell of a lot about what’s going on.” He made it clear how much he loves educators, several times name-checking his wife Jill Biden, a community college educator, and telling the audience, “I’ll hang around if you want to talk to me.”

Finally on the topic of respect, Biden said some universities don’t want to share their statistics about sexual violence on campus because it would make them look bad. He said women drop out of college because they feel they have no recourse after an assault. So Biden wants colleges to “prove to me you’re getting something done, or we’ll cut your Title IX funding. No man has a right to touch a woman unless she can say yes,” he said to applause. “If I’m president, Betsy DeVos’ whole set of notions, from charter schools to campus sexual assaults, will be gone.”

Union rights are human rights

Educators feel threatened and demoralized in the face of attacks from ultra-right-wing conservatives, Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang told Sanders. She hailed the wave of Red for Ed school strikes across the country that started last year, and asked Sanders how he would make it easier to organize and protect unions.

Shakeer Franklin

Sanders applauded teachers for leading a political revolution. He called for card check union recognition, penalties if an employer refuses to negotiate a first contract, and repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act and so-called right-to-work laws.

“Thank you for organizing a union,” Warren told a graduate student from Wayne State University in Detroit who asked her a question, “because organizing a union is where we start. Collective bargaining is at the heart of education.”

Students played a big role in the forum. Shakeer Franklin, a 10th-grader from Baltimore, said how excited he’d been to learn about the event, especially that it would include ideas about HBCUs and restorative practices. “They going to talk about public schools? Dope!” he told his teachers. “Let’s get it!”

The AFT partnered with 10 other unions and nonprofits to sponsor the forum: the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education—Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino.

To learn more about the AFT’s endorsement process and mobilization for the 2020 elections and to take action, visit To watch the video, click here

[Annette Licitra, Adrienne Coles / photos by Kion Lofton and Pamela Wolfe]