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Democratic Presidential Candidates Make Their Pitches to Teachers' Union Leaders

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Ten Democratic presidential contenders pledged to bring back respect to the teaching profession and, in many cases, raise teacher pay as they made their pitches to the delegates of the nation's largest teachers' union.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Kamala Harris, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Rep. Tim Ryan, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren all spoke to National Education Association delegates on July 5. 

During the forum, Biden and de Blasio joined Warren in pledging to nominate a former public school teacher to the position of U.S. Secretary of Education if elected. Harris also pledged to nominate "someone who comes from public schools," and to make sure NEA is "at the table to help me make that decision."

The candidates covered a wide range of issues during the forum by responding to questions educators had posed through NEA's campaign website. The website is part of the NEA's endorsement process designed to give voice to more educators. (Last presidential election, the NEA endorsed Hillary Clinton early on in the primary, angering many delegates who preferred Sanders.) 

Each candidate came to the stage separately, giving a one-minute opening speech and answering three questions. The questions were different for each candidate. NEA President Lily Eskelsen García moderated the conversation. Here is some of what they said, in order of their appearance:

Sanders: Raise Teacher Pay, Pause Charter School Growth

Sanders reiterated his plan to make sure every teacher receives a $60,000 minimum salary. 

"We are going to have teachers who receive the respect and renumeration that they deserve for doing some of the most important work in America," he said to cheers from the audience.  

He also got a warm welcome for his plan to end federal funding for for-profit charter schools.

"Taxpayer money should be going to educate our kids, not to make Wall Street investors even richer than they are," he said. "And our proposal puts a moratorium on all new charter schools until we have a full understanding of their impact on public education."

Sanders has been criticized by charter school leaders and some other education groups for the proposed moratorium. They say that it will disproportionately harm students of color.

Castro: Tackle Segregated Schools Through Busing

Although busing was a heated argument in the last Democratic debate, Castro was the only one to mention it during the NEA forum. When asked what he would do about segregated schools, he said he would support "tools like voluntary busing."

"If we want to make sure that every child gets as great an education as possible, ... we need to do things like tackle housing segregation," he added.

Castro also drew on his experience as a substitute teacher early in his career.

"I came away with a tremendous respect for the fact that teaching takes skill, it takes effort, it takes understanding, and it takes patience," he said. 

If elected, Castro pledged to give educators a "strong voice" in his policymaking.

Biden: Make a Teacher the Education Secretary

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The former vice president said his administration will bring back respect to the teaching profession.

His education plan includes raising teacher salaries through tripling Title I funding, as well as investing in school infrastructure and expanding prekindergarten programs. He also said he would make a significant investment of $100 billion to school districts for teachers to be paid for mentoring. 

"We have to have you in the schools teaching, you shouldn't be doing two jobs or three jobs," he said.  

Biden also pledged to nominate a teacher for Education Secretary, as well as give educators more voice in policy.

"You in the classroom should be a part of the agenda as to what you are going to teach," he said. "Teachers should have the ability to have an input, and I think it should be regularized in terms of the school districts. That's a local decision, but I will put a lot of pressure to make sure teachers are in on deciding what the curricula is, what you're going to teach. ... We have to elevate teachers as the professionals they are."

Warren: 'We Do Not Need High-Stakes Testing'

Warren touted her education plan: To tax wealth of about $50 million at 2 percent a year. The money raised from the "wealth tax" would provide universal child care for every infant and toddler, enact universal pre-K, and raise the wages of preschool teachers "to the level they deserve." 

Warren was asked how she would put an end to high-stakes testing. She reiterated her plan to nominate a teacher as the Education Secretary, so that someone who has firsthand experience with instruction can make regulations. 

"This notion that it's all about testing—that it's all about what someone far off in the state capital and the national capital says, 'Here's what constitutes success and worse yet, here's what constitutes failure,'" she said. "No, that's not what education is about. Education is what goes on in the classroom, what a teacher has set as the goal, and when a child gets there, it is the teacher who knows it—we do not need high-stakes testing."

(During the Obama administration, the national teachers' unions were highly critical of the support for high-stakes testing.) 

Klobuchar: Raise Teacher Pay, Improve School Infrastructure 

Klobuchar unveiled a new policy proposal: a federal-state "progress partnership" program. Under that program, the federal government will match states' commitments to increase teacher pay. States will also work with educators to adapt high school curricula to improve workforce readiness, align school services and schedules with the needs of working families, and review the existing funding formula to improve equity. 

She also said she would heavily invest in school infrastructure. 

"You recruit teachers by making sure you have the pay, you have the good job environment, you have infrastructure in schools that people want to work in, and you're fully funding federal programs," she said.  

If elected, she said, her first 100 days in office would focus heavily on education civil rights. 

O'Rourke: Charter Schools 'Have a Place,' But No Vouchers

O'Rourke said he wants to "dramatically increase" the funding for public schools by having a permanent fund of $500 billion that will help reduce disparities between affluent and low-income school districts. He also said his administration would pay for National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification for every educator who wants to go through the rigorous process.

And his administration will expand the "master teacher" program, so veteran teachers have opportunities to mentor new teachers.

O'Rourke, whose wife started a nonprofit charter school in Texas, was asked his stance on charter schools—a topic he has been careful about addressing

"Not a single dime of our public tax dollars can go to vouchers and private schools in this country," he said. "There is a place for public, nonprofit charter schools, but private charter schools and voucher programs—not a single dime in my administration will go to them. We will fully fund public education and educators." 

Inslee: Increase Mental Health Services to Make Schools Safe

The Washington state governor was asked how he would improve school safety. He said he has fought against the National Rifle Association and guns throughout his career. 

"We need a president that has the ability to stand up on the issues of gun safety," he said. "Donald Trump is wrong on this. He says the solution is to give 1st grade teachers Glock pistols. I went to the White House in February and told him, 'You're just wrong. That's an idiotic idea. You need to quit tweeting so much and you need to listen to educators more on this subject.'"

Instead, Inslee said schools need more counselors to give mental health services to students. 

De Blasio: 'The Next Secretary of Education Should Be an Educator'

The mayor slammed charter schools in his pitch to the NEA, saying that "too many Democrats have been cozy with the charter schools." He has long fought against charter schools in New York City.

"I am angry about the state of public education in America. I am angry about the fact that you are disrespected on a regular basis in this country despite doing such important work," he said. "I hate the privatizers, and I want to stop them."  

He also touted his work in New York City schools, particularly his implementation of universal pre-K. And he joined some of his peers in pledging to nominate a teacher to the Department of Education. 

"If we want to make sure that we get away from high-stakes testing, we need a secretary of education who's going to be someone very, very different," de Blasio said. "I've got a radical idea, I hope you are all ready for it: The next secretary of education should be an educator." 

Ryan: Put a Mental Health Counselor in Every School

Ryan recently unveiled a plan to invest $50 billion to "transform public schools." That money would go toward updating school infrastructure, including making sure students have access to broadband internet and maker spaces.

And there should be a mental health counselor in every school, he said. It's "imperative" for social-emotional learning to be in every school, Ryan said. 

"So help me God, if we're going to transform our schools, we have to start recognizing that before we do anything, before we start talking about tests, we have to start talking about how we're going to take care of kids in schools," Ryan said. 

Harris: The NEA Will 'Be at the Table' 

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Harris told educators she would raise teacher pay by an average of $13,500, in order to close the gap between teachers and other college-educated professionals. 

She also said it was "immoral" that the federal government is not fully funding special education.

"Every day in America, we have children whose IEP [i.e., individualized education plan] needs are not being met, children who are being placed in general education classrooms, children who are falling through the cracks ... because the system has failed them," she said. "I will address it as one of the first orders of business."

While she did not join her peers in explicitly pledging that a teacher would be the Secretary of Education, Harris said she would nominate someone familiar with public schools (and she made a dig at Secretar Betsy DeVos in the process, saying she is "not interested in grizzly bears").

"Under a Harris administration, the person who is nominated will be someone who comes from public schools," she said. "I also promise you that you will be at the table to help me make that decision." 

Where Was Trump? 

Eskelsen García said in an interview that President Donald Trump was contacted about attending the NEA's forum and going through the union's endorsement process, but he did not respond. In her keynote speech the day before, Eskelsen García said the United States must have a new president.

"I am not being partisan when I tell you that Donald Trump disqualified himself for our consideration many times and in many ways, but most particularly on education issues, he disqualified himself with two words: Betsy DeVos," she told delegates. "He put the least qualified person to ever hold a cabinet position in charge of protecting children's access to quality, equitable public education."

After the presidential forum, delegates voted against a resolution that would have called upon the NEA to announce it supports the impeachment of Trump.

Images: Democratic presidential candidates speak during the National Education Association's presidential forum July 5, in Houston. —David J. Phillip/AP

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