Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bennet wants you to know how much he cares—really cares—about education. Speaking at the Public Education Forum 2020, Bennet began his remarks by declaring he is “the first school superintendent in the history of America to run for president of the United States.” Bennet led the Denver school district from 2005 to 2009 before he was appointed to fill the state’s empty U.S. Senate seat. “Every single thing I do in the Senate runs through the lens of the kids that I used to work for in Denver,” he said.
Not that other Democratic presidential candidates at this strictly education-focused event weren’t equally intent on convincing the crowd they’re also deeply committed to educating the nation’s children. After all, the forum was sponsored and organized by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers along with some other labor unions and civil rights and education advocacy groups. An audience of 1,500 in attendance seemed to be comprised mostly of educators and former educators from across the country.
Seven candidates each took to the stage one after the other, including Bennet; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; billionaire activist Tom Steyer; former Vice President Joe Biden; and Senators Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. (New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who has since left the race, had committed to attend but dropped out due to a bout of the flu.)
But Bennet at times seemed the most passionate among the candidates, raising his voice and jabbing the air on a number of occasions in response to questions from MSNBC’s Ali Velshi and Rehema Ellis and from the audience.
He accused his colleagues in Washington, D.C., especially in the Senate, of being out of touch, calling the Capitol’s marbled hallways “the farthest place in the universe” from the world of local schools. He claimed to be the only candidate in the race who had pledged to end poverty in this generation, referring to his sponsorship of the American Family Act.
Bennet grew especially incensed when the discussion turned to the issues of the funding inequities in the public education system. He called the conditions of schools in poor American communities “a disgrace.” He denounced the nation’s system of funding schools primarily by local property taxes.
In response to a question from a New York City parent on the need for more funding of full-service schools that provide for all the needs of students from low-income households, Bennet became especially animated in explaining his pledge to do something about funding inequities that exist in most states, where schools serving students from low-income households receive less money than schools with white students from better-off communities.
“We have to do the opposite of that,” he shouted and insisted that addressing the funding inequity was the only way to close the achievement gap that exists among low-income black and brown students and their better-off white peers.
In our current system, “equal is not equal,” he said repeatedly. “I am the only politician in this race that’s saying that.”
Yet, it was in the press gaggle that followed his stage performance where Bennet’s passionate exhortations were undermined by reporters’ questions.
Specifically, I pointed out to Bennet that while he had a lot to say about inequality and the achievement gap, Denver school district’s racial achievement gap is among the worst of all the major metropolitan school districts in the nation. “You’ve said everything you’d do as president would be run through the lens of Denver,” I asked, “so what would you do differently as president to address the achievement gap?”
“That’s true about the achievement gap in Denver,” Bennet replied. “It’s what keeps me up at night.”
Bennet then pivoted to a recent study from a Stanford University-affiliated education research center that found Denver students significantly outpaced their peers in other parts of the state for growth in standardized test scores.
Repeating that Denver’s stubbornly wide achievement gap “drives me crazy,” he claimed that his leadership of the school district had at least achieved “partial improvement.”
Bennet also faced close questioning by reporters on this year’s teacher strike in Denver that resulted in the district tossing out the teacher merit pay system Bennet had installed during his tenure. Another journalist questioned whether a recent school board election that brought into office a slate of candidates who opposed policies Bennet initiated signaled that Denver voters were rejecting the whole array of reforms Bennet had instigated, including not only teacher merit pay, but also school closures in black and brown neighborhoods and a wave of new charter schools that often employ harsh disciplinary practices to drive the test scores of students of color upward and push out the low achievers.
Bennet said he was “not offended” that the district is changing some of his policies but that his “ideology hasn’t been discredited.”
But the overall impression of Bennet’s visit to the Public Education Forum 2020 was that his foundering campaign—polls consistently place him at rock bottom in voter support—was not helped by being a self-proclaimed education candidate at a national event focused on education that was attended primarily by educators.
The polite applause he received from the crowd contrasted noticeably from the standing ovations that greeted both Sanders and Warren. Numerous attendees posted negative reactions to his comments on Twitter. And popular education bloggers in the audience noted how “unimpressed” the crowd was with what Bennet had to say.
Moreover, the tepid reception Bennet got was emblematic of how Democratic voters, at least those who are aligned with teachers and public schools, are taking the party in a completely different direction on the most urgent education issues, including charter schools, standardized testing, and mainstays of current education policy. And most of the candidates are following them.
From the Ashes of Arne Duncan
At an event in which nearly every speaker vehemently denounced current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, no one even mentioned the last Democrat to hold that position for a significant length of time—Arne Duncan during the Barack Obama administration.
Under Obama-Duncan, racial segregation in schools worsened; school funding plunged in most of the country, with widening inequities as billions more went to schools of white students than to schools of nonwhite students; racial disparities in school discipline grew, and achievement levels, as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress, stagnated and then declined, with low scorers losing the most ground and achievement gaps widening.
The teaching profession also took it on the chin as fewer college graduates chose to enter degree programs, and the percentage of black teachers declined, an alarming trend as research shows teachers of color help close achievement gaps for students of color.
Public schools under the previous administration faced increased competition from an explosive growth of charter schools, thanks to Duncan’s generosity to fund more charter startups with federal grants and his demands that states lift their cap on the number of charters they allowed.
One might argue that because education policy is mostly a state and local affair that Duncan shouldn’t bear any of the blame for these negative trends. Yet Duncan had no problem influencing states and local school districts to accept the national imperatives of the Democratic Party, which included adopting new Common Core Standards, splurging on new data systems for tracking “accountability,” and erecting intricate new teacher evaluations connected to standardized testing.
From the ashes of the Duncan years, there’s clearly now a new vision for education in the Democratic Party rising.
‘Democrats Have Shifted’
“The forum showcased just how much national Democrats have shifted,” Education Week reported, “from their previous focus on teacher quality, school accountability, and public school choice that often predominated during the Obama administration.”
In contrast to the Obama-Duncan years, not one candidate, not even Bennet, the most Duncan-like, mentioned the need to raise academic standards, which was for decades the holy grail of the Democratic Party’s education platform.
No one talked about “raising the bar” on school and student performance, and when the issue of “accountability” came up, it was in reference to the need for charter schools to be held to stricter accountability.
The candidate who faced the harshest grilling on charters was Warren, who has come out for ending the federal government’s charter school grant program that wasted more than $1 billion on charter schools that never opened or closed quickly.
When Ellis accused Warren of ending federal funding of charters, Warren corrected her by pointing out her plan does nothing to decrease federal funding for existing charters. Warren insisted her position is that “public school money needs to stay in public schools” and that charters need to “meet the same requirements as all other public schools.”
When Bennet fielded a question about charter schools “targeting back and brown neighborhoods,” he drew the false distinction between “private” and “public” charter schools and erroneously claimed that in Denver, only the school district could authorize charters. As Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, one of the sponsors of the event, pointed out in her post on the personal blog site of education historian Diane Ravitch, “What he did not mention is that the Denver Board’s decision to not authorize a charter school can be overturned by the state board.”
What was also startling was how the language of the education debate in the Democratic Party has shifted from a focus on outcomes—principally standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance—to inputs—the financial and societal supports schools and teachers need to educate students.
Many of the candidates pledged to significantly increase funding for Title I, the federal program that provides additional funds for schools serving students from low-income families, with some candidates, including front-runners Biden and Sanders, calling for tripling the funds, and Warren calling for quadrupling the funding. Several of the candidates called for putting more money into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, which funds education for children with disabilities) including Biden, who wants to invest $139 billion over 10 years, and Warren, who wants $800 billion for IDEA and Title I.
Candidates also advocated for putting more federal funding into programs that address factors outside of schools that affect student learning, including poverty alleviation, childcare, and health and nutrition.
Statements in favor of the federal government’s standardized testing mandates were few and far between. “A problem with testing is we end up… spending too much time teaching for the tests,” Sanders said. Instead, he proposed that schools track the progress of individual students rather than for the government to use standardized tests for assessing a whole school.
Instead of calling for incremental change and “meeting in the middle,” most of the candidates proposed bold changes and big ideas, especially Warren, whose calls for a tax on corporations and wealthy citizens to pay for free college and her other government investments in education drew a “face” from Ellis but received a thunderous ovation from the crowd.
More cautious positions, like Bennet’s commitment not to “make empty promises,” drew little response from the crowd. An exception was Klobuchar, who was warmly received by the crowd even though one of her chief selling points was her claim to be the only candidate with a track record of “getting things done” by winning over Republicans and pushing through legislation.
Perhaps many in the audience momentarily forgot that when Democrats in the previous administration got a lot of things done for education, many of those “things” were really bad?
We’ve ‘Flipped the Script’
In her closing remarks, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said, “What has happened today… flipped the script.”
First, despite the seriousness of the issues and the earnestness conveyed by the participants, the mood of the event was buoyant, almost celebratory. Education has been mostly ignored in previous presidential elections, and the topic had not come up for serious discussion among the candidates in televised debates prior to the Public Education Forum 2020.
But at an event in which candidates knew they would have to field some tough questions about education issues and be held closely accountable for their answers, most of the leading candidates—including the front-runners—showed up and welcomed the dialogue.
Furthermore, the tables were turned on who controlled the dialogue.
“How many times have we been dictated to, have we been told to do?” Weingarten asked. Teachers, students, and community organizers who’ve wanted more of a dialogue with political candidates and elected officials have often been “silenced,” Weingarten stated.
But what unfolded in Pittsburgh was “a paradigm shift,” she said, because the candidates had to “actually listen” to the folks who inhabit the world that is “the farthest place in the universe,” to use Bennet’s words, from education policymakers in Washington, D.C.
The candidates heard that “the priorities of the federal law should be to level the playing field to make sure that kids… actually have the things they need,” she said. “These candidates are listening to us.”
The change in heart of Democratic candidates has been a long time in coming.
Ravitch in her forthcoming new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, explains that for the past two decades at least an education “agenda has remained the same” regardless of which party has been in power. But “its strategies of high-stakes testing, standardization, and privatization have not succeeded,” she writes.
Countering the prevailing education regime is what Ravitch calls “the Resistance” that formed over time but became most visible when teachers recently walked off the job in numerous states and cities around the country to protest the attacks on their profession and the deplorable school conditions their students are made to face every day.
“Time and again, the Resistance has won,” Ravitch writes. “They spoke out, they stood up, they organized, they voted.”
The Resistance was hugely present in the halls of the Pittsburgh convention center, and the presidential candidates clearly felt its might.
Yet the effort to throw off the entrenched regime still has a long way to go, especially now that the charter school industry occupies such a huge financial footprint in Democratic Party politics.
A group of about 100 charter school advocates came to the Forum and attempted to disrupt the meeting. When they were blocked by security guards, they organized a competing event at a nearby hotel.
The only candidate who attended that event was Michael Bennet.
This article was produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. To learn more about school privatization, check out IMI's free ebook, Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education.
Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, and a a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.