Michael Bennet, fighting for traction, releases education plan focused on preschool and partnerships

Former Denver schools chief Michael Bennet hasn’t qualified for the next Democratic presidential debate. But he’s still pursuing the nomination — and trying to win supporters with his education bona fides.

Bennet released an education plan Thursday that he says draws from his experience as superintendent. While his time in that role was marked by controversial decisions to close underenrolled schools and allow charter schools to operate in district buildings, his policy plan steers clear of those ideas.

Instead, it calls for the federal government to spend more on things like universal free preschool, pay raises for teachers, and evening out spending disparities across schools.

“I spent a significant part of my life in classrooms,” Bennet told reporters on Wednesday. “I’ve seen what works.”

You can read Bennet’s full plan here. Here are a few notable elements.

500 “Regional Opportunity Compacts”

Bennet is proposing creating hundreds of local partnerships among school districts, local leaders, unions, and nonprofits that would be charged with ensuring students are prepared for kindergarten, learn to read on time, and graduate with key skills. They would receive $10 billion a year for five years, which Bennet said would be paid for by reversing President Trump’s tax cuts.

An initiative with similar ambitions kicked off in Denver in 2011, but appears to have been active for just a few years.

Free preschool

A key element of Bennet’s education proposal is his commitment to offering universal free preschool. Here, he offers a timeline: All 4-year-olds would have access by 2024, and all 3-year-olds by 2027.

Early childhood education has gotten attention from most of the Democrats vying for the nomination. But Bennet has tried to distinguish himself by insisting that he is more focused on the country’s youngest students than his counterparts pushing free college. (Bennet’s proposal would make community college free and four-year public colleges debt-free over time.)

Raising teacher pay

Bennet’s plan says his administration would work to increase teacher pay, with the goal being pay for educators “at least the equivalent amount they could earn in the private sector with a comparable level of education.” That gets at a key disparity in teacher pay: The gap between teacher pay and the pay of other college-educated professionals has grown substantially over the last 25 years, even accounting for benefits, according to a 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute.

Bennet offers no details about how he would change that, though. And recent news out of Denver indicates that there could be some short-term tension between that goal and another of Bennet’s aspirations, diversifying the teaching profession. That city saw the diversity of its newest teachers fall after salaries rose and drew veterans from other districts.

Expanding child nutrition and child tax credit programs

Bennet says he would push for legislation to offer a child tax credit of up to $300 per month per child and boost support for food stamps and the Women, Infants, and Children program. Research has shown that access to those kinds of benefits can have real effects on how students do in school — and on their health.

Creating a “future-oriented education system”

Bennet’s plan calls for revamping classroom instruction and creating an education system with “a variety of high-quality options for families.” It’s the only reference to school choice — and an oblique one, as he goes on to mention options like career and technical education and dual enrollment, not charter schools.

That’s likely a reflection of how politically polarizing charters have become. Support for charters among white Democrats has seen a notable drop since 2016, though support among black Democrats has risen.

Not mentioned in the plan are any new measures specifically designed to racially integrate schools.

“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,” Bennet told Chalkbeat in August.