Before I drove to Pittsburgh on Saturday for the Public Education Forum 2020—where all of the leading Democrats running for President would explain live on MSNBC their plans for supporting public education—I considered what I hoped would happen at this day-long event. After all, not once in any of the televised Democratic candidate debates so far has even one question been asked about public education.
I went to Pittsburgh as an invited member of the audience, but before I left home, I wrote down the question that I would have posed to each candidate if I could have asked a question: “Please explain how, as President, you will change the narrative about closing or taking over or privatizing so-called ‘failing’ public schools and how you will build the public will for adequate investment to overcome the challenges for public schools in America’s poorest communities.”
What encouraged me all day Saturday, beginning in the event sponsors’ introductions and continuing in the half hour question and answer sessions with each of the seven candidates—Sen. Michael Bennet, Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren—is that the event sponsors had set up the day to ensure that candidates would carefully consider that very same question: “How will you change the narrative about closing or taking over or privatizing so-called ‘failing’ public schools and how will you build the public will for adequate investment to overcome the challenges for public schools in America’s poorest communities?” All of us who sat in the beautiful convention center next to the Allegheny River—along with those viewing the event live on MSNBC (or who can now watch the event online)—were challenged to consider the same question.
Sponsors (complete list of event sponsors) created an all day seminar where the more than 1,000 invited participants listened as candidates for President talked with citizens in the communities where children are challenged by poverty and homelessness and where state support for the public schools has fallen, sometimes precipitously, in the decade following the 2008 recession. Questions from MSNBC moderators Rahema Ellis and Ali Velshi were probing overall, despite that Ellis’s questions sometimes seemed to lean toward looking for support of high stakes, test-based accountability and at one point seemed to push a candidate to endorse the creation of charter school escapes for children “trapped” in so-called “failing” schools. Moderators’ questions to each candidate were balanced by those posed by representatives of event sponsors including the New York City Alliance for Educational Justice, the Center for Popular Democracy Action, the Journey for Justice Alliance, and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, organizations whose members represent the very communities whose public schools are most challenged. Invited audience members came from all across the U.S. I sat next to a 32 year special education teacher from Albuquerque, New Mexico, a woman who has spent her entire career working with special education students in the schools of the Navajo Nation.
Jitu Brown, executive director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, described state takeovers and school closures and declared, “We don’t have failing schools, but we have been failed…. People are fighting for justice (in their public schools) all over the country.” One questioner—a public school student from Camden, New Jersey, asked why his school doesn’t have a librarian or a music teacher when he knows about other schools near his which have a library and a music program. A participant in the 34 day hunger strike which, in 2015, saved Chicago’s Dyett High School from closure asked a candidate, “What will you do to help local schools avoid closures forced by privatizers?” Several questioners asked candidates to support full-service, wraparound Community Schools, voiced support for culturally responsive curriculum, and asked candidates to address the school to prison pipeline with restorative justice programs.
Primary sponsors of the forum included labor unions—the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Certainly fair pay for teachers and aides, bus drivers and custodians was part of the conversation, but NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia and AFT President Randi Weingarten framed the event by defining “teachers’ working conditions as students’ learning conditions.” A thread running through the entire day’s discussion was the implication for our society of a growing exodus of teachers from the profession. We learned about staff churn and too many substitute teachers in the schools serving poor children, and we learned about the continuing dropoff in the number of college students who seek to enter the teaching profession. All day long, candidates themselves worried about what it means that teachers’ salaries have not kept up with salaries in other professions requiring similar education and credentials.
Education is primarily a state by state responsibility—with the federal government providing less than ten percent of funding and states and local school districts providing all the rest, but there are several ways Congress and any candidate for President can significantly affect America’s public schools. Title I, created in the 1960s as part of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty, is the federal funding budget line designed to support schools serving children living in concentrated poverty. Funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1975 with a promise that the federal government would pay for 40 percent of the cost of educating disabled students is the other large federal spending line for education. IDEA has been underfunded every year since its passage, and that investment keeps dropping. This year Congress funded only 14.7 percent of the cost, leaving the rest to come from local school district budgets.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covered Saturday’s event and summarized candidates’ statements about increasing the federal investment in Title I, IDEA, and the amelioration of child poverty: “Federal funding for schools dominated much of the discussion, with many of the candidates pledging to triple or quadruple funding for Title I… Several of the Democrats also pledged to invest more money into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which funds free public education for children with disabilities. To Mr. Biden, it would be $139 billion over 10 years to invest in the disabilities education act, paid for by raising the corporate tax rate. To Ms. Warren, the number is $800 billion for IDEA and Title I—using the money generated from a 2% tax on fortunes above $50 million.” Pete Buttigieg proposed, “a program in which existing training programs at colleges and universities could give portable licenses so teachers can teach anywhere in the country, and if they commit to teach in a Title I school for seven years, their student loans are forgiven.” Tom Steyer demanded the eradication of child poverty, and Amy Klobuchar detailed additional federal priorities, beyond investing in schools in the poorest communities, which she said would alleviate the problems for the poorest children in public schools: combating homelessness, raising the minimum wage, investing in mental health support, and correcting bad immigration policy. Many of the candidates advocated investing in child care and a majority supported universal pre-Kindergarten programs. The candidates described an array of tax reforms and tax increases which they say would make it possible to increase support for public schools.
Elizabeth Warren has also, to her credit, proposed eliminating the federal Charter Schools Program, and one of the sponsoring groups, the Network for Public Education released a new report last week, Still Asleep at the Wheel, condemning the U.S. Department of Education’s failed management of this program which has invested at least $1.17 billion since 1995 in charter schools that never opened or quickly shut down. The new report also shows how for-profit charter management companies have raked off profits from federal Charter Schools Program dollars awarded to supposedly nonprofit charter schools. And last year, as part of the Charter Schools Program, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos created a new National Dissemination grant program which is funding charter school advocacy groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to do lobbying on behalf of the expansion of charter schools. Despite that sponsors and supporters of Pittsburgh charter schools were protesting Saturday outside the convention hall, the moderators of the televised Public Education Forum 2020 and the questioners representing the sponsoring organizations kept the event pretty well focused on what must be done to improve the public system that serves the mass of our nation’s young people. Traditional public schools serve approximately 50 million children and adolescents while today charter schools serve only 6 percent, even as research demonstrates that charter schools extract urgently needed tax dollars dollars out of the school districts where they are located.
John Jackson, President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, one of the sponsors of Saturday’s event, published a column last week in the (paywalled) Chronicle of Philanthropy. His commentary was reprinted by the Schott Foundation. On Saturday he opened the Public Education Forum 2020 with words from that column: “American public schools, as our nation’s only mandatory network of institutions for children and families, are a lifeline to opportunity in every urban, suburban, and rural community. That’s why we believe the public education system is also the lifeline for advancing our democracy. For young people, our public schools are where they often experience their first engagement with society or initial feelings of being pushed out. It’s also where they are first protected or over-policed, learn about justice or experience injustice. And it’s where parents and everyone else in the community have the best opportunity to advance efforts to create a more just society, whether that is by putting pressure on local school boards or dealing with local control of state funding. Our educators can’t help young people achieve their learning goals without adequate resources, and that financial support is key to tackling the disparities that today mean our schools offer unequal education depending on a student’s race, gender, disability or socioeconomic status… To what degree are candidates’ policies and proposals seeking real change—or simply attempting to once again justify the denial of rights and opportunities to those long marginalized by our American system and society?”
If you were unable to be present in Pittsburgh at last Saturday’s Public Education Forum 2020, I hope you will watch and listen carefully to at least part of the video.