Education rarely comes up in the presidential debates, but it had its own day in the spotlight this weekend.
In a six-hour Pittsburgh forum hosted by teachers unions and their allies, seven Democratic presidential hopefuls tried to distinguish themselves — though they made similar promises to bring new respect to the teaching profession, pour more money into high-poverty schools, and scale back, or even eliminate, standardized testing.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said the forum — where candidates fielded questions from two journalists as well as teachers, students, and community activists — represented a “paradigm shift.”
“What’s happened today kind of flipped the script,” she said.
One ongoing conflict was visible, though largely offstage. Parents and advocates for charter schools gathered outside the event to say their message was not being heard, both by candidates and the event organizers.
It was a striking juxtaposition, and one that showed how the political winds have shifted in recent years. Whereas President Obama supported the expansion of charter schools and accountability measures for teachers, those who want to be the next Democratic president have taken a very different approach. Among Democrats, charter school advocates are now playing defense, while teachers unions and philosophically aligned groups are in the driver’s seat.
Here are six noteworthy moments you might have missed:
Biden stumbles on school segregation and defends his civil rights record
Though former Vice President Joe Biden has been asked numerous times about his record on school desegregation this election cycle, he again appeared rattled by a question on the subject.
Biden said he once supported busing students as a remedy for segregation codified in law. But Biden’s record on integration is complicated. As a senator in the 1970s, he opposed busing students for desegregation purposes in Delaware, saying he was against federal intervention. In recent debates, Biden has said he didn’t oppose all busing for desegregation — only busing that was mandated by the federal government.
Moderator Rehema Ellis also asked Biden if he considered the long-standing racial segregation of the nation’s schools to be “a failure of American education.” Biden responded “no,” though it’s possible he wasn’t directly answering her question. He said the best way to address segregated schools is to “provide for the best education possible in every single school.”
Biden also defended his record fighting redlining, and pointed to his support from black voters. “I make no apologies for my record on civil rights,” he said.
Warren gets pushed on charters, stands her ground; most others aren’t questioned on the issue
Just a few weeks after Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was confronted by pro-charter school activists, she was again pushed on the issue. “Right now, the majority of children who find themselves in public charter schools are minority children,” said Ellis. “What do you say to those parents who are looking for that public charter school option?”
Warren responded by saying that although her plan would seek to limit the growth of new charters, it would not cut off funding for existing nonprofit charter schools. Her focus would be dramatically increasing funding for public schools serving many students in poverty, she said.
“I can’t let you sit here and tell me that we’ve already put plenty of money into our schools because we have not,” Warren said. “My proposal is how about we put $800 billion into our public schools and make them all excellent schools.”
Most of the other candidates weren’t asked about charter schools, though. That included Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose stance is similar to Warren’s, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He has criticized charter schools, but not gone nearly as far as Warren or Sanders in seeking to limit charter growth; he has also drawn support from a number of pro-charter donors.
Bennet met with pro-charter parents outside the forum
The Powerful Parent Network, the group of pro-charter families who recently disrupted a Warren event to advocate for school choice, was outside the event in Pittsburgh with a similar message, challenging the fact that they weren’t invited to participate in the event. On Twitter, some in the network said that they tried to enter the event but were barred by police. Organizers said there were more than 250 people present.
The Powerful Parent Network suggested that candidates come meet with them, too. Only Sen. Michael Bennet took them up on that. In a clip he posted on Twitter, he said, “We live in a country today where the quality of a kid’s education is most defined by the income of their parents.”
A separate pro-charter group was outside the event Saturday morning holding up signs like “Protect Charter Schools!” and “My Child! My Choice!”
Booker, whose new education plan is relatively pro-charter, called out sick
Sen. Cory Booker’s absence — his campaign said he was recovering from the flu — meant he didn’t get a chance to discuss his education plan, which he released Friday. In many respects, it is similar to other candidates’ plans, but it’s also more favorable to charter schools. He calls for “high-quality charters … to expand when they help meet local community needs,” but he wants to limit for-profit charters and “strengthen transparency and accountability for charters.”
Booker also reiterated his opposition to private school tuition vouchers. But he has not explained why he is still listed as a co-sponsor of a bill to reauthorize D.C.’s voucher program.
Sanders and Biden offer sharp criticism of standardized testing
Ellis noted that Sen. Bernie Sanders voted against the No Child Left Behind Act nearly two decades ago because of its emphasis on standardized testing. What would he do instead?
“We need to keep track of the individual progress kids are making,” he said. “And if they’re not making progress, let’s deal with that.” Sanders said individual schools should be in charge of monitoring the progress of every child.
Biden was also sharply critical of standardized testing, which is required by federal law in grades three through eight and once in high school. One questioner, who linked testing to eugenics, asked Biden if he would commit to “ending the use of standardized testing in public schools.” Biden said he would.
“Teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know,” he said. Biden also distanced himself from the Obama administration in saying that he opposes using test scores to evaluate teachers — a key priority of Obama’s education department.
Bennet: States should not take over local school districts
In response to a question from Chicago activist Irene Robinson, who pointed out that many city school districts, such as Little Rock, Arkansas and Houston, have faced state intervention in their schools, Bennet said he’d “never seen a state takeover of a school district that’s worked well in America.”
“They don’t work well and we shouldn’t do it,” said the former Denver schools superintendent.
The issue hasn’t gotten much attention from other candidates, but it disproportionately affects school districts that enroll predominantly African-American students, according to a 2018 book by a Rutgers political scientist. The research on the outcomes of state takeovers is mixed: in some cases, like in New Orleans and Lawrence, Massachusetts, it led to academic gains, but in other cities like Detroit, Memphis, and Philadelphia, it didn’t move the needle.
Curious where all the Democratic presidential candidates stand on education? Read Chalkbeat’s tracker.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to two pro-charter protests as one.