Education is hardly the only issue driving the 2020 presidential campaign. But policies affecting schools and students are emerging as some of the most talked-about.
Within the crowded field of Democrats seeking to unseat Donald Trump, some candidates are reckoning with long-standing stances on education issues — including Cory Booker, who has downplayed his past support for charter schools on the campaign trail. Others, such as Kamala Harris, are formulating wide-ranging education policy plans for the first time. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has distinguished himself by taking an aggressive stand against charter schools.
We’ve collected what we know about each Democratic candidate’s views on education issues here and filled it with links where you can learn more. We’ll continuously update this page as candidates share more.
Michael Bennet, Colorado senator
- After Bennett announced his candidacy in early May, Chalkbeat recapped his education track record as superintendent and senator.
- The superintendent of Denver Public Schools from 2005 to 2009, Bennet became closely tied to the education reform movement. He closed low-performing Denver schools and changed the district’s merit pay system in a way that favored newer teachers. Both decisions led to pushback from veteran teachers and some students, but he’s defended them recently.
- In Congress, he helped author the Every Student Succeeds Act, the overhaul of No Child Left Behind. Bennet is also known as a vocal opponent of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. He has tried to distinguish school choice as it’s played out in Denver from DeVos’s approach to choice.
Joe Biden, former vice president
- As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden is tied to the constellation of education policies that Obama encouraged. They include evaluating teachers in part through their students’ test scores, the expansion of charter schools, and common standards for what students should learn.
- In late May, Biden rolled out his education platform while speaking to the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers unions. The highlights of his plan: tripling Title I funding, implementing universal pre-kindergarten, and doubling the number of health professionals in schools. Read his full proposal here.
- Biden also said he doesn’t support any federal funding going to for-profit charter schools and wants to see charters do away with admissions tests. (Most can’t use them anyway.) His education platform doesn’t mention charters.
- In the 1970s, Biden worked with Republicans to sponsor federal legislation aimed at barring busing from being used to integrate schools. He argued that busing was “racist” because it presumed that black students’ success depended on going to school with white students — in stark contrast to what civil rights groups were arguing at the time. He also argued that sending white children to “inferior schools” would turn their families against integration in American society. Now, he’s interested in reinstating Obama-era desegregation guidelines that were repealed by the Trump administration last summer.
- His campaign was accused of plagiarism because Biden’s education platform lifted a sentence from XQ Institute without attribution.
Cory Booker, New Jersey senator
- Booker has been a leader in the school choice movement, setting him apart from most other Democratic candidates. You can read our overview for details.
- Booker has promoted charter schools, test-based accountability for low-performing schools, and ratings for teachers linked to student performance.
- He also has supported private school vouchers, a policy few Democrats favor. He is currently a cosponsor of a bill to reauthorize the federally funded D.C voucher program.
- As mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Booker solicited and won a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that led to performance-based teacher pay, school closures, and more charters. Currently about one in three public school students in Newark attend a charter.
- At his presidential launch, Booker said he plans to run “the boldest pro-public school teacher campaign there is,” noting that his state’s teachers unions had previously endorsed him.
- Booker threw his support to public schools at a campaign event in Iowa last month. “I’m a guy who believes in public education and, in fact, I look at some of the charter laws that are written about this country and states like this and I find them really offensive,” he said.
Steve Bullock, governor of Montana
- As governor, one of Bullock’s signature agenda items has been getting state-funded preschool for Montana. Since 2015, he’s tried three times with no success to get a statewide program going.
- He’s been able to freeze tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities and grow school breakfast programs. His administration also increased internet access at schools and nearly doubled the number of high school students in dual-enrollment programs.
- Bullock has expressed his opposition to charters that operate outside the direct control of school districts (as charter schools in most states do).
Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana
- Buttigieg joins the large crowd of Democratic candidates calling for higher teacher pay. His plan: steer federal funds to Title I schools. He also wants to make debt-free college a reality for some of the nation’s poorest students. (He has $130,000 in student loans of his own.)
- As for-profit charters, he doesn’t think they should “be part of our vision for the future.” He also said, “I think the expansion of charter schools in general is something that we need to really draw back on until we’ve corrected what needs to be corrected in terms of underfunded public education.”
- The mayor’s husband is a theater educator who until recently taught at a private Montessori school. Chasten Buttigieg tweeted disparagingly about a poll asking whether South Bend schools should switch to a four-day week, saying that what teachers actually want is a “living wage please.”
Julian Castro, former U.S. secretary of housing and development
- As mayor of San Antonio, Castro expanded pre-K access, saying that having more children in high-quality early childhood programs would benefit the city over the long term. The program, financed through a sales tax, served just 8% of local 4-year-olds last year. As president, Castro wants to create a grant-funded, universal “Pre-K for USA” program.
- His “People First Education” platform also includes things like a $150 billion plan to grow technology use in schools, increasing access to dual-enrollment programs, and ending tuition at all public colleges.
- His presidential platform includes implementing of a federal tax credit that could boost teacher pay by $10,000 per year.
- Castro’s wife is an educator. She was a math teacher in public elementary schools for many years and now works as an education consultant.
Bill de Blasio, New York City mayor
- As mayor, he made universal pre-K available to 4-year-olds and expanded “community schools,” which offer a range of social services. De Blasio also launched a $773 million school turnaround plan for New York schools that was perceived to be ineffective and will not continue.
- He’s faced pressure to address the high levels of racial segregation in the city’s schools, but has favored solutions that emerge from neighborhoods and individual schools.
- Last year, de Blasio laid out a plan to overhaul New York’s test-in high school admissions process in an attempt to increase their number of black and Hispanic students.
- Here’s Chalkbeat’s broader look at de Blasio’s education record.
John Delaney, former U.S. representative from Maryland
- Delaney wants to guarantee students two years of free community college. He is also calling for a “rethink” of the education system, with a push for personalized learning and the addition of courses like financial literacy. Delaney’s full plan is on his campaign’s site.
- While in Congress, Delaney twice authored unsuccessful bills to expand universal pre-K.
Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. representative from Hawaii
- Gabbard supports free community college and also wants to see tuition at four-year public colleges and universities waived for families making up to $125,000 per year.
- Last month, she tweeted that teachers need to be paid more. In February, she expressed her support for the teachers striking in Los Angeles.
Kirsten Gillibrand, New York senator
- Gillibrand has said that she wants to see increases in teacher pay, smaller class sizes, and expanded pre-K access.
- In 2017, she authored the Computer Science Career Education Act that would have created grants to schools for STEM programs.
- Gillibrand was the only Democrat to vote against the confirmation of John King as education secretary in 2016. It was an unusual move to oppose a nominee from her own party and state. She cited King’s controversial tenure as New York’s state education commissioner.
Mike Gravel, former Alaska senator
- The 89-year-old is the oldest presidential candidate and he doesn’t plan on hitting the campaign trail for his presidential bid.
- On his website, Gravel says he wants to change how schools are funded so that property taxes don’t play a role, offer tuition-free public university for undergraduates and graduate students, and have a “Student Debt Jubilee” that would forgive all public student loan debt.
Kamala Harris, California senator
- Harris added one of the first education ideas to the campaign cycle, with a proposal to use federal funding to boost American teachers’ salaries by an average of $13,500.
- Previously, Harris had advocated for increased school funding in California, her home state, and tweeted support for Los Angeles teachers who went on strike for higher pay and better working conditions.
- She also has criticized DeVos and rejected the education secretary’s suggestion about arming teachers in response to school shootings as “ridiculous.”
- As a prosecutor, Harris launched an initiative to prosecute parents of truant students. She has continued to defend the initiative against criticism that it disproportionately affected poor families.
- In 2016, Harris, then California attorney general, won a multi-million dollar settlement against the for-profit charter operator K12 Inc over “alleged violations of California’s false claims, false advertising and unfair competition laws.”
John Hickenlooper, former governor of Colorado
- As Denver mayor, Hickenlooper helped create a college scholarship program for low-income students in the city. He didn’t control the schools, but supported his former chief of staff Michael Bennet who became Denver superintendent (and whom Hickenlooper later appointed to the U.S. Senate).
- Hickenlooper supported a referendum that would have generated billions of dollars for education. Voters rejected it in 2013.
- When running for mayor in 2003, Hickenlooper said he would be open to a private school voucher plan.
- Read more from our coverage of Hickenlooper’s education track record in Colorado.
Jay Inslee, governor of Washington
- His campaign is currently focused on climate change and clean energy, and education isn’t listed as a topic issue on Inslee’s campaign website.
- As governor, Inslee signed a tax hike to increase teacher wages.
- Inslee was long an opponent of bringing charter schools to his home state, but charters were approved through a voter initiative. After the state Supreme Court struck down charter schools as unconstitutional, Inslee abstained from signing a charter school bill that created a workaround to allow charter schools to remain in the state. Inslee’s abstention allowed the law to go into effect, to the chagrin of charter critics.
Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator
- Klobuchar has proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that would, in part, be used to repair schools.
- She wants to see teacher pay increases, free community college, and reduced interest rates for student loans, and expanded Pell grants.
- At a town hall hosted by the American Federation of Teachers in May, Klobuchar said she’s against private school vouchers and for holding charter schools to “high standards.” She also said, “I don’t think you see me focusing on charter schools when you look back on my career.”
Wayne Messam, mayor of Miramar, Florida
- Messam wants to cancel $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.
- According to his campaign website, Messam plans to increase teacher wages and give more students access to “learning experiences that will unleash their potential.”
Seth Moulton, U.S. representative from Massachusetts
- Moulton has said that all young Americans age 17-24 should serve in the military in exchange for certain benefits, including 60 to 100% in-state tuition coverage.
- Moulton has been backed by Democrats For Education Reform and has expressed his support for school choice, including the (unsuccessful) bid to raise the state charter cap in 2016.
Beto O’Rourke, former U.S. representative from El Paso, Texas
- O’Rourke, whose children attend public schools, has criticized what he says is “arbitrary, high-stakes testing” in public schools.
- In 2012, O’Rourke praised charter schools. “They encourage innovation in the classroom, and they’re a laboratory for some of the best ideas and concepts in public education today,” he said at a debate. In April of this year, he said he values non-profit charters with state oversight, but doesn’t support for-profit charters.
- He has vocally opposed vouchers and other policies “allowing our public tax dollars to be pulled out of our classrooms and sent to private schools.”
- O’Rourke’s wife, Amy O’Rourke, directs an organization aimed at improving education options in El Paso, including by recruiting new charter schools to the area. She began her career as a classroom teacher and later launched a dual-language charter school in El Paso.
Tim Ryan, U.S. representative from Ohio
- In Congress, Ryan has pushed for more accountability for charter schools and salad bars in schools.
- One of his key pieces of his platform as a congressman: increasing access to social-emotional learning programs. In a video on his campaign’s website, he’s seen meditating with a classroom full of students.
Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator
- In a 10-point platform called “A Thurgood Marshall plan for public education,” Sanders outlines his agenda, including tripling Title I funding, creating a per-pupil spending floor, and spending $5 billion on summer and after-school programs. He also proposes using federal funding to spur school integration.
- Sanders has proposed making community college free for all, with states paying about a third of the bill and the rest coming from the federal government.
- He has expressed support for teachers across the country who have gone on strike or walked out to demand higher pay and better working conditions. He’s also said teacher starting salaries should be at least $60,000.
- And he has proposed curbing charter school growth by eliminating federal grants and banning for-profit charters (which presidents cannot do).
- In Congress, he voted against the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.
Eric Swalwell, U.S. representative from California
- Swalwell lists “no-interest federal student loans” and “debt-free college for public university students who do work-study and commit to bettering their communities after graduation” among initiatives he’d enact in his first 100 days in office.
- He voted against the Washington D.C. private school voucher program.
Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator
- Warren is campaigning on a promise of college affordability, including making community college free for all. She’s also proposed cancelling student loan debt for 42 million Americans.
- Under Warren’s pre-K plan, anyone making under 200% of the federal poverty level would be eligible for free child care and free pre-kindergarten programs. For those above that line, child care centers and preschools would charge a maximum of 7% of that family’s income for their service.
- Warren has released policy plans on a number of issues — but not K-12 education.
- She also vowed to appoint a public school teacher as education secretary under her presidential administration. “Betsy DeVos need not apply,” she said at a rally in Detroit.
- Warren opposed an unsuccessful 2016 Massachusetts ballot initiative that would have allowed more charter schools in the state, while also saying that “many charter schools in Massachusetts are producing extraordinary results for our students.”
- Warren fought for stronger test-based accountability provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act, a stance that drew the ire of the Massachusetts teachers union.
Marianne Williamson, author and activist
- On her campaign’s website, Williamson says “undereducation is a form of oppression.”
- Williamson wants to implement an array of changes in education, including reducing standardized testing and creating a “whole-person educational system.”
Andrew Yang, entrepreneur
- Yang was the CEO of Manhattan Prep, a test-prep company that was bought by Kaplan Test Prep in 2009. He was brought on by founder Zeke Vanderhoek who subsequently started The Equity Project, a New York City charter school. On his website, Yang praises the school, which pays teachers six-figure salaries.
- He’s also the founder and CEO of Venture for America, a program modeled after Teach For America, which places recent college graduates in startups.
- A proponent of early childhood education, the entrepreneur wants universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and supports increasing teacher pay.
- Despite or perhaps because of his background in test prep, Yang tweeted in March, “As someone who was very good at standardized tests growing up I think they are a terrible measurement of anything other than whether you are good at the test.”
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