‘Giving students an equal start’: Democratic presidential candidates push for pre-K at Indy conference

Five 2020 Democratic presidential candidates pointed to education as a tool for accelerating economic growth in urban communities and fighting voter suppression during a forum Thursday, with several calling for more support for pre-kindergarten, social-emotional learning, and free community college.

The forum was part of the National Urban League’s annual conference, which is being held in Indianapolis by the civil rights organization for the first time in almost 25 years.

Former vice president Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, and former Maryland U.S. Rep. John Delaney spoke to attendees about how their policies could promote equity in housing, business, and criminal justice reform.

While education didn’t dominate the forum, many of the candidates spoke in their brief remarks and one-on-one interviews with Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, about how early childhood education programs, new funding for school infrastructure, and improved workforce development initiatives can dismantle inequities — a mission that the candidates said has become only more pressing under the Trump administration.

Biden, for example, argued at length for the expansion of early education and pre-kindergarten, which he said could be covered by closing tax loopholes among the wealthy and corporations. He said schools and the government have an obligation to give all students the same opportunities and that leaders have to help the schools furthest behind in funding, infrastructure, and teacher pay first.

“Schools should be giving students an equal start in life,” Biden said. “We know the numbers. There’s no debate anymore.”

The former vice president said equity issues, including questions of educational equity, are becoming even more urgent as President Donald Trump continues to condone racism — making references to the president’s claim that there were “very fine people” on both sides of a deadly protest of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 — and fails to divert money to those most in need. If Democrats can replace Trump, Biden continued, they’ll have to work “twice as hard” to combat inequities and injustice.

Booker joined Biden, calling the looming choice citizens will make in the election a “moral moment in America.” Booker did not address his education policies in depth.

The other candidates argued that education merits a special defense because there is so much at stake: ensuring students can find jobs in the age of automation and global competition, as noted by Klobuchar and Ryan, and reducing trauma among young people that may lead to violence, mental health disorders, and a lack of economic mobility.

“I want to shift the question from ‘how do we get these test scores up?’ to ‘how do we take care of our kids?’” said Ryan, who is promoting social-emotional learning and “community schools” that could offer neighborhoods health care and other resources. “If we shift that question, it transforms everything.”

Biden and Delaney described how they plan to deliver this aid to students and their families sooner, too, by creating a national pre-kindergarten program. All candidates in the forum include pre-K in their education platforms.

“Universal pre-K is the single best investment we can make in this country,” said Delaney, whose education plan seeks to redefine K-12 education as “pre-K through 14 education” to account for early childhood education and at least two years at a community college or vocational school.

Two of the candidates also criticized the way schools are funded. Klobuchar, for example, emphasized that traditional public schools need more funding, particularly for renovating “crumbling schools.” And Delaney argued that leaders should do away with property taxes as a way to fund schools outright, calling the process “unjust” and “racially biased.”

A second group of candidates — including U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — will speak at the Indiana Convention Center at 8 a.m. Friday. Learn more about each candidate’s perspective on education with this guide.