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'I Am Pro Good Schools.' Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate Charter Schools, Equity

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People who've pushed for more discussion of education in the presidential primary got their wish Thursday when Democratic candidates debating in Houston spent several minutes discussing equity and support for K-12 schools.

The discussion touched on charter schools—which have been an especially divisive subject on the trail—and led to answers that touched on school funding, Title I grants, teacher pay, and how factors like residential segregation affect educational equity.

But the candidates largely focused on their established educational positions. And they largely avoided specifics.

Charter Schools

While some candidates, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, have been aggressive about criticizing charter schools on the campaign trail, others have been reluctant to comment on them. The Democratic party's 2016 platform supported the publicly funded, independently operated schools, but some vocal constituencies have questioned if they are properly held accountable and if they divert money from district-operated schools.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren touched on those concerns in her answer.

"Money for public schools should stay in public schools; it should not go anywhere else," she said, apparently referring to district-run schools. But Warren has not yet released a K-12 education plan that details how she would handle the issue.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who worked with school choice advocates on a school turnaround plan as mayor of Newark, took the issue head-on.

"I saw the anguish of parents who were just so deeply frustrated that they didn't have access to a school that served their [children's] genius," he said, referring to his time as mayor. "We closed poor performing charter schools but, dagnabbit, we expanded high-performing charter schools. We were a city that said we need to find local solutions that work for our community. The results speak for themselves."

Moderators called entrepreneur Andrew Yang "the most vocal proponent of charter schools" and asked him why he was comfortable taking that position when others had questioned their place in the education system.

"Let me be clear, I am pro good school," Yang said. 

In addition to allowing charter schools, Yang said he believes teachers need higher pay and schools need to "lighten up the emphasis on standardized tests." 

While several candidates clarified that they weren't fully opposed to charter schools, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro said they also shouldn't be viewed as a silver bullet.

"It is a myth that charter schools are better than public schools. They are not," he said.

Castro said that while he is not "not categorically against charter schools" he would require "more accountability than they have now."

Castro and other candidates, like Sanders and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have given few details on how they would rein in charter schools at the federal level. The schools are largely governed by state and local policy, but there are some targeted federal grants that support their development.

Supporting Schools

Buttigieg did not discuss charter schools directly Thursday night, but he repeated a frequent talking point he started circulating when he launched ads attacking U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a school choice proponent, last month.

"Step one is to appoint a secretary of education who actually believes in education," Buttigieg said.

Schools have also got to do more to support "critical thinking and social-emotional learning," he said, giving the second mention of social-emotional learning from a presidential debate stage in the 2020 campaign.

Buttigieg's education plan calls for an unspecified increase in Title I funding, federal money designed to support schools with high enrollments of low-income students. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders have both proposed tripling that funding to support everything from higher teachers' salaries to increasing the numbers of school counselors and support staff in poorly resourced schools.

But some groups, like the Center for American Progress, have pushed candidates to go beyond pledging more funding and to get more specific about how they would address concerns about how Title I is distributed.

"More can be done at the federal level to reduce funding inequities and ensure that all schools have the resources they need to provide students with a high-quality education," the organization said in a list of education questions candidates should answer this week.

In comments that have been heavily criticized, Biden pivoted to his calls for more education funding, and for home visiting programs, when moderators asked him about his past comments about race. ("I don't feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather," Biden told a Delaware newspaper in a 1975 interview. "... And I'll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.")

Biden did not address his past comments on race directly.

Teachers "have every problem coming to them," he said. "We have to make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not daycare. School. We bring social workers in to homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It's not want they don't want to help. They don't know quite what to do."

Teacher Pay

Buttigieg, Sanders, Biden, Warren, and California Sen. Kamala Harris all touched on previously announced plans to make federal investments in teacher pay. Harris also outlined her plan to boost federal funding for historically black colleges and universities in part to build the pipeline of black teachers to public schools, which have a largely white educator workforce.

And Booker and Castro called for policies to address issues like neighborhood segregation, poverty, and environmental quality as a way of improving children's educational outcomes.

"Strategies like investing in our children work," Booker said. "I'm tired of us thinking about these problems isolated from these other issues."

Photo: From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro are introduced Thursday before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston.--David J. Phillip/AP


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