After calling out inequity on the debate stage, Bennet leans on his education experience to advance his presidential campaign

On the heels of his criticism of Sen. Kamala Harris and former vice president Joe Biden’s exchange on school integration at last week’s Democratic primary debate, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet isn’t calling for new efforts to integrate American schools. 

But, at the debate, after Harris was asked by a moderator if she and Biden shared the same view on school integration (she said no), Bennet, a former Denver schools superintendent, chimed in to point out that school segregation is not just an issue of the past. 

“This is the fourth debate that we have had and the second time that we have been debating what people did 50 years ago with busing when our schools are as segregated today as they were 50 years ago,” he said. “We need a conversation about what is happening now. And when there’s a group of kids in this country who don’t get pre-school through no fault of their own and another who does, equal is not equal.” 

In an attempt to capture this moment, the presidential hopeful went to South Carolina on Tuesday for a day of education-focused events. He visited the state’s “Corridor of Shame,” an area where schools are known for meager student achievement and inequitable school funding. While there, Bennet said he was driven by concern about inequities in education to join in the crowded pool of 2020 presidential hopefuls. 

Bennet, who is currently polling at less than 1% and has yet to release an education platform, spoke with Chalkbeat on Thursday about his education plans, which include universal pre-K and debt-free college. But he’s not offering up specifics on how he’d make schools less segregated.  

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

You got attention at the debate when you said that school integration isn’t an issue of the past, it’s an issue now. As president, what would you do to increase school integration in American schools? 

The most important thing we can do is make sure that we’ve got much better quality education in this country to give kids what they need. Unfortunately, especially in poor communities, we aren’t doing that. We need far better access to pre-K than we have and much better K-12 schools. For kids that are going to college, our goal is to have them graduate debt-free. For the kids that don’t go to college, they’ll be able to leave high school with a set of skills that’ll pay them more than a minimum wage. 

On the desegregation issue, these are the ones that are very challenging for the country because they’re not just education issues, they’re a legacy of housing and banking redlining and Jim Crow laws that go all the way back and have created deep inequality in our educational systems. I don’t believe there’s much of an appetite for busing on anybody’s part. There is a desire, on the part of communities that are most affected by poverty, to have much better schools in their communities. 

What would you try to do specifically to change that? 

There are things that local school districts can do to change attendance zones and the way schools operate with one and other to make them more integrated. I think the real focus at this point needs to be on making sure that kids in neighborhoods where there are no good options have the chance to go to schools in places where there are better options and we are investing much more heavily in neighborhoods where kids today have no educational opportunities. 

As president, how would you promote these opportunities for these kids? 

One of the things we have to confront as a society is that our education system is reinforcing income inequality rather than liberating kids from it. I believe the next president should have a focus on changing that. It can’t all happen, obviously, from Washington. But leading a collaboration among states and school districts and mayors in this country to drive better results for kids is something we have got to do. 

Education has got to be front and center for the next presidency. Very early on, I would gather the governors and school superintendents and mayors together to discuss how we’re going to create a situation where education is once again the wind on our back, transforming our economy as it once was rather than shackling kids to the fortunes that their parents have. Roughly, what I think that means is, as a country, we’ve got to move toward a world of universal preschool. We’ve got to have much better K-12 schools than we have and when a kid is in high school, they’ve got to be in a position to earn a living wage when they graduate. Those all may sound like obvious things, but we’re doing almost none of it in America today. 

What are the education-related topics you’d push for as president? You haven’t released an education plan yet. What would it include? 

It would include a commitment to figuring out how we get to universal preschool, a commitment to how we get to a much better set of K-12 schools, and a commitment to making sure that when kids graduate from college, they are debt-free. And for kids who didn’t go to college, that they are able to earn more than a living wage. Those would be the things I would want to be working on and I would want to use every element in the federal government to try to drive that. 

I don’t think that’s just the Department of Education. The workforce development money that we spend, the economic development money that we spend, the infrastructure money that we spend, these things need to be aligned to support communities of kids that are in the greatest need in this country. Unfortunately, the way we have approached government historically, all of these efforts have been siloed from one and other. We don’t have a committee in Congress that houses its responsibility in the well-being of children in this country. We don’t have an agency of government whose main focus, in a significant way, is focusing on the needs of children in this country and that would be the focus of my administration. 

Would you want to create an agency to accomplish that? 

I haven’t thought it all the way through, but I would want to make sure that we are organizing ourselves bureaucratically so that we are able to much better support people at the local level who today are having to fight through all kinds of accounting wars to figure out how to spend money in a way that supports the whole child in their community. So when I think about that, what I have in mind is the resources that are spent through the Department of Health and Human Services dollars to children in schools who don’t have access to healthcare. There’s a never-ending set of possibilities here.

When you were superintendent, did you focus on school segregation issues in Denver, considering that Denver is often regarded as one of the most segregated districts in the country? 

We had a number of focuses there, including the absence in many neighborhoods of quality schools or choices for kids. We worked very hard to close schools that were not serving kids well and replace them with schools that would serve them better. There were areas in the city where people were fleeing their schools, where today there’s now less migration of students going to other places. The district worked hard to change its enrollment policies at the secondary level to make our schools more integrated and to make the demographics better reflect the demographics of the whole city. 

Would you do anything different if you were in charge of Denver schools again? What would you like to see Denver do now? 

Well, it’s not my place to say what Denver should do now. They have good leadership. I think we would’ve worked harder to integrate the social service network that kids need in order to be able to succeed in schools. That was something I always wanted to do, but never got to do it. 

What are some lessons from running a school district you’ve brought to the campaign trail?

There’s certainly a lot of lessons that I’ve brought to the Senate. Certainly one is to understand that while I don’t look for conflict, it is a part of making change, so that kids a decade from now don’t have the same limited opportunities that they have today.

You’re polling at less than 1%. What’s your plan to qualify for the September debate and what role does your position on education play in that? 

I don’t know that it does play a role in that. My plan to qualify is to make sure that I get the qualifying numbers and the fundraising numbers.