EducationElections 2020FederalIssuesDemocratic Presidential Contenders Promise to Strengthen Unions, Expand Public Education

The candidates laid out their promises on expanding government in public education at a National Education Association event in Houston.
July 9, 2019
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At a candidate forum hosted by the National Education Association (NEA) union in Houston last week, Democratic presidential hopefuls outlined plans to vastly expand the role of government in public education and strengthen the influence of unions.

Of the roughly two dozen Democrats currently vying for the 2020 nomination, ten attended the forum: former vice president Joe Biden, former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary Julian Castro, former New York mayor Bill de Blasio, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), former Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), Representative Tim Ryan (D-OH), as well as Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Many common themes prevailed as the Democrat participants largely adhered to the union agenda. In addition to vast increases in federal education funding, nearly all expressed support for expanding public education to pre-kindergarten, but in varying degrees.  Reiterating his comments to the American Federation of Teachers union last month, Joe Biden said of universal preschool, “What I don’t get is why we’re even arguing about this anymore. The data is in.”

While many states, including Texas, are moving toward offering half or full-day school to four-year-olds, the nation’s education unions and Democrats say Pre-K is not enough. Biden, de Blasio, and Klobuchar called for universal Pre-K for three-year-olds, and Senator Warren has plans to offer government-funded childcare beginning at birth.

In addition to extending the scope of public education to younger children and infants, several candidates expressed support for taxpayer-funded post-high school education. Saying “12 years is not enough anymore,” Biden called for “free” community college or certification programs, but Senator Warren again went further by adding four-year college to her list of government-provided post-high school options.

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Several candidates also addressed student loan forgiveness. Klobuchar claimed that existing student loan forgiveness programs do not work, but that she would improve them. O’Rourke said he wants student loan forgiveness for those “in public service.”

Both Sanders and Warren said they would “cancel student debt” altogether.

Although forum questions and candidates offered few specifics for improving academic outcomes, there was much discussion of expanding public schools to offer “wrap-around services,” which, depending on the speaker, may include meals, traditional healthcare, mental health care, and after-school and summer care.

Julian Castro said in addition to strengthening Medicare and making it available to all, schools should be set up to meet healthcare needs without distinction between physical and mental health. Biden and Ryan also mentioned “wrap-around” services, and both Ryan and de Blasio said schools need to adopt so-called “social-emotional learning,” or SEL, which is curricula emphasizing social interaction and emotional management skills.

Despite Warren’s ambitious plans for free services from birth through college, de Blasio offered what might be the most radical proposal. Warren and a few others briefly mentioned maintaining “local control,” but de Blasio said he wants to “make federal government truly responsible for public education.”

“There needs to be actual, real federal commitment to funding schools. We need a constitutional amendment guaranteeing quality public education,” de Blasio said. “The 2020 election is a chance to make education a federal responsibility.”

The federal government is currently responsible for roughly 10 percent of all public education funding in Texas. The remaining 90 percent is derived from state and local revenue.

De Blasio also went further in his opposition to public charter schools. While several candidates have voiced opposition to for-profit charters and Sanders has called for a moratorium on new charters, de Blasio says there should be no federal funding for charter schools of any kind.

“Too many Democrats have been cozy with charter schools,” de Blasio warned.  

Beto O’Rourke, whose wife founded a charter and works to promote charters in El Paso, expressed support for non-profit charter schools. Senator Cory Booker, who did not attend the NEA forum, has also continued to verbally support charter schools and other school choice options that have benefited under-served students in his native New Jersey.

Additionally, de Blasio offered some of the strongest emotional statements of the event, saying that he was “angry” about the state of public education, the lack of respect for teachers, and the “privatizers.”

“I hate the privatizers,” de Blasio said.

Among other promises, the candidates pledged to increase teacher pay, appoint a teacher to serve as secretary of education, and end so-called “high stakes” testing.  

“Testing is not what teaching is about,” said Warren.

Perhaps conscious of the audience of nearly 10,000 union faithful, many candidates emphasized plans to strengthen unions. Warren said she would make it easier to join and she would give unions more power to negotiate, O’Rourke promised he would guarantee the right to organize, and Klobuchar claimed that Pre-K expansion plans would create 500,000 new jobs.

Of his plans for education, healthcare, and social security, Tim Ryan added, “We need to double the size of unions so we can push through this agenda.”   

With 3 million members, the NEA is the nation’s largest union, and in addition to classroom teachers represents education support staff and administrators.

During NEA deliberations following the candidate forum, representatives confirmed support for abortion as a fundamental right, but defeated a proposal to prioritize “student learning” and “renewed emphasis on quality education.” 

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.