Pete Buttigieg’s education plan highlights broad agreement among Democrats on K-12 policy — though differences on charters remain

Pete Buttigieg’s pre-K-12 education plan calls for raising teacher pay, addressing school segregation, and banning for-profit charter schools.

If those ideas sound familiar, that’s because they echo many of the proposals of his top Democratic rivals, who have also released education plans. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg has risen from obscurity to be a top contender, particularly in early primary states, alongside former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

“My plan will empower teachers,” said Buttigieg, whose husband, Chasten, is a junior high teacher on leave from a private school in Indiana. “I’ve seen up close the incredible challenges that educators across the country face, from late nights grading papers to emptying their own bank accounts to pay for school supplies.”

Buttigieg’s plan highlights how the leading Democratic candidates have converged on many key education policies, with one partial exception — charter schools. His proposal touches on the lightning rod issue only briefly, calling for stronger accountability, but without going nearly as far as his primary rivals, some of whom have called for halting all federal support for new charters. Warren has recently been embroiled in the debate, after being confronted by activists and parents critical of her stance on charter schools.

The campaign did not share whom Buttigieg sought guidance from in crafting the plan. But education activist Diane Ravitch said in a July blog post critical of Buttigieg that the campaign told her it had reached out to former Obama administration officials John King and Jim Shelton, as well as the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who praised the plan in a release Saturday.

You can read Buttigieg’s full plan here. Here are four things to know about it:

In many ways Buttigieg’s education plan matches his Democratic rivals — highlighting consensus on several key issues.

If you read Buttigieg’s or other candidates’ plan with their name blotted out, you would have a hard time knowing which Democrat’s plan it was. For instance, Buttigieg wants to triple Title I funding for schools that serve a high percentage of students from low-income families, which Biden and Sanders have also pledged to do. (Warren would quadruple it.)

Most or all of the major candidates have vowed to increase teacher diversity; raise teacher pay; reduce school segregation; close funding disparities; increase access to preschool programs; oppose vouchers for private school tuition; fully fund IDEA, the federal law for students with disabilities; strongly enforce federal civil rights laws, including reinstating regulations rolled back by the Trump administration; and replace Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Buttigieg’s plan is no exception on any of these counts, though it varies on the specifics in some cases. For instance, he wants parents to pay for preschool based on how much they earn, with the poorest parents paying nothing — similar to his stance on higher education, which has been met with much debate — whereas others want to offer it for free to everyone.

And the plan also touches on a number of lower-profile issues — like increasing spending on schools for Native American students or expanding access to dual-language curriculum in early years — that some other plans don’t.

Like other candidates, Buttigieg promises to support the teaching profession by raising pay and status. “We need to honor teachers like soldiers, and pay them like doctors,” the plan states. More specifically it says that some of the new infusion of Title I dollars would have to be spent on raising teacher pay to ensure it’s competitive with that of other professionals.

Many of the candidates’ ideas, particularly on civil rights, are in line with those the Obama administration espoused. Notably absent, though, from any of the major candidates’ proposals, including Buttigieg’s, are concepts like more rigorous teacher evaluations and tying teacher pay to performance, which Obama’s Department of Education promoted. Those proved controversial, and the #RedforEd movement has turned focus — and public sympathy — away from performance evaluations and toward stagnant teacher pay.

Buttigieg isn’t promoting charter schools, but takes a less hostile approach than Sanders and Warren.

The plan runs 20 pages, but charter schools get just a single paragraph. Buttigieg seeks to “ban for-profit charter schools and ensure equal accountability for public charter schools.” This is in line with a number of Democrats who largely agree on these points. (We’ll hold aside that it would not be easy for the federal government to ban for-profit schools.)

“He will work with states to ensure that policy innovations from charter programs that benefit students can be subsequently shared to strengthen the traditional public school system,” the plan promises, though it doesn’t explain how. Buttigieg also would “take action” against state and local entities that oversee low-performing charter schools.

Buttigieg is silent on the federal Charter Schools Program, a fund to support new charter schools across the country. Sanders and Warren have called for halting or eliminating it altogether. A spokesperson for Buttigieg said he would stop those dollars from going to for-profit charters. (Federal guidance already prohibits CSP money from going directly to any for-profit entity; it can, however, go to a nonprofit charter that contracts its operations out to a for-profit company, so long as there is an “arm’s length” relationship between the two entities.)

Buttigieg is taking a somewhat more favorable stance towards charters than Warren or Sanders — but a less favorable one than President Obama, who supported the expansion of charter schools.

“I think that the promise of charter schools has been that ideas can be piloted there that will then benefit the overall system and find their way into traditional public schools,” Buttigieg told Education Week in August. “But I’m skeptical that we’re going to gain a lot through expansion of charter schools when we still have such severely underfunded traditional public education.”

The charter issue is fraught politically for Democrats. Recent polling shows support for these schools has declined in the party among white Democrats, but indicates stronger, but still mixed, backing among black and Hispanic Democrats.

Meanwhile, Biden, another leading contender, did not even touch on charter schools in his education plan. But in a recently released interview with the National Education Association, he said, “No privately funded charter school or private charter school would receive a penny of federal money — none,” he said. Asked to clarify, campaign spokesperson told Chalkbeat that Biden would seek to stop federal funding for for-profit charter schools.

Buttigieg plans to tackle school segregation.

Buttigieg offers a number of proposals to address school segregation. He would create a $500 million fund to incentivize “community-led” racial and economic school integration. And he says school districts looking to make major changes to their boundaries would have to first seek clearance from federal officials, who would check to see if those changes would exacerbate racial and economic segregation.

The idea appears to be aimed at preventing so-called “breakaway districts,” in which whiter, more affluent communities establish their own school districts by leaving districts with more students of color from low-income families. (This issue attracted Warren’s attention, too; in her education plan she says the departments of education and justice would monitor attempts to create breakaway districts and possibly take action to stop them.)

Buttigieg also says he would direct the departments of education and housing and urban development to issue guidance to help states integrate their neighborhoods and schools using funds set aside to create more affordable housing in high-performing school districts. Buttigieg plans to reinstate Obama-era guidance that allowed consideration of student race in some circumstances to integrate K-12 schools, which was rescinded by the Trump administration. He would also “immediately remove” restrictions on using federal funds to bus students for desegregation purposes. But those barriers exist in federal law and would require Congress to take action.

These policy ideas come as Buttigieg has faced criticism for saying he “worked for years under the illusion that our schools in my city were integrated, because they had to be, because of a court order.” He added that that was “true within the limits of the South Bend Community School District,” but it wasn’t in the rest of the county. While South Bend’s school district does enroll a much higher percentage of black and Hispanic students from low-income families than the districts that surround it, South Bend has long struggled to fulfill the terms of a desegregation order, and even today some schools are not in compliance with it.

There’s a fund for that.

Buttigieg’s plan calls for large increases in federal spending on education, partially through specific grant programs.

In addition to the $500 million desegregation fund, he’s also calling for a $10 billion “equity fund” for early education. It would go to programs targeting low-income students of color and using “novel teaching methods and materials, targeted support services, school-family partnership programs, communication and personalization technologies, and other innovative strategies.”

There’s also a new grant program of unspecified size that would help school districts adopt new ways to discipline students, instead of suspending or expelling them. Buttigieg also says he would triple funding to $3.5 billion for an existing federal grant program that funds student safety, health, technology, and arts programs. And he would create a fund to help high-poverty districts prepare students for the workforce through apprenticeships.

In total, the campaign estimates that its K-12 education proposals would cost the federal government an extra $425 billion over 10 years — for context, public elementary and high schools got $56 billion from the federal government in a single year, 2016. Buttigieg says he’ll pay for this and other proposals in a variety of ways, including increasing the capital gains tax for top earners and repealing recent corporate tax cuts.

Curious where all the Democratic presidential candidates stand on education? Read Chalkbeat’s tracker.