2020 cheat sheet: What the Democratic presidential candidates have said about education

The latest education platforms of a primary field that's still changing

(Image credit: Maskot via Getty Images creative)

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Chalkbeat Staff on June 13, 2019. Updated on Jan. 3, 2020. 

Education is hardly the only issue driving the 2020 presidential campaign. But policies affecting schools and students are emerging as some of the most talked-about.

Within the crowded field of Democrats seeking to unseat Donald Trump, some candidates are reckoning with long-standing positions on education issues — including Cory Booker, who has downplayed his past support for charter schools on the campaign trail. Others, such as Pete Buttigieg, are formulating wide-ranging education policy plans for the first time. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have distinguished themselves by taking aggressive stands against charter schools.

We’ve collected what we know about each Democratic candidate’s views on education issues here and filled it with links where you can learn more. We’ll continuously update this page as candidates share more.

  • Michael Bennet, Colorado senatorRead More
  • Joe Biden, former vice presidentRead More
  • Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York CityRead More
  • Cory Booker, New Jersey senatorRead More
  • Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, IndianaRead More
  • John Delaney, former U.S. representative from MarylandRead More
  • Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. representative from HawaiiRead More
  • Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senatorRead More
  • Deval Patrick, former governor of MassachusettsRead More
  • Bernie Sanders, Vermont senatorRead More
  • Tom Steyer, philanthropist, former hedge fund managerRead More
  • Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senatorRead More
  • Andrew Yang, entrepreneurRead More

Michael Bennet, Colorado senator

  • After Bennet announced his candidacy in early May, Chalkbeat recapped his education track record as superintendent and senator.
  • The superintendent of Denver Public Schools from 2005 to 2009, Bennet became closely tied to the education reform movement. He closed low-performing Denver schools and changed the district’s merit pay system in a way that favored newer teachers. Both decisions led to pushback from veteran teachers and some students, but he’s defended them recently.
  • In Congress, he helped author the Every Student Succeeds Act, the overhaul of No Child Left Behind. Bennet is also known as a vocal opponent of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. He has tried to distinguish school choice as it’s played out in Denver from DeVos’s approach to choice.
  • In an August interview with Chalkbeat, Bennet called for debt-free college and more investment in neighborhoods where students “have no educational opportunities.” He also said he did not believe “there’s much of an appetite for busing” as a means to desegregate public schools.
  • Bennet released an education plan in September that called for a $50 billion investment in “regional opportunity compacts” that would create local partnerships among school districts, unions, nonprofits, and others. He also said he supported higher teacher pay and free preschool for all 4-year-olds by 2024 and for all 3-year-olds by 2027.
  • A number of prominent education reform leaders, including Success Academy head Eva Moskowitz, KIPP Foundation CEO Richard Barth, and Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp, hosted a fundraiser for Bennet in November.
  • Bennet defended charter schools in an interview with the National Education Association. “I’m proud of the work that I did as superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, including the replication of high-performing charter schools,” he said. “Today in Denver you can’t find a low-performing charter school because we put so many of them out of business.”
  • At December’s MSNBC public education forum, Bennet said states should not take over local school districts. He was the only one of the seven candidates to meet with a group of pro-charter school parents who demonstrated outside the forum.

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Joe Biden, former vice president

(Photo by Scott
Olson/Getty Images)
  • As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden is tied to the constellation of education policies that Obama encouraged. They include evaluating teachers in part through their students’ test scores, the expansion of charter schools, and common standards for what students should learn.
  • In late May, Biden rolled out his education platform while speaking to the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers unions. The highlights of his plan: tripling Title I funding, implementing universal pre-kindergarten, and doubling the number of health professionals in schools. Read his full proposal here.
  • Biden also said he doesn’t support any federal funding going to for-profit charter schools and wants to see charters do away with admissions tests. (Most can’t use them anyway.) His education platform doesn’t mention charters.
  • This came up during his first debate appearance in June, when California Senator Kamala Harris asked Biden if he was wrong to oppose busing. “I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden said. “I opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”
  • Recently, he’s expressed interest in reinstating Obama-era desegregation guidelines that were repealed by the Trump administration in July 2018.
  • At a town hall hosted by the National Education Association in July, Biden said the first thing he would do as president is to appoint a teacher as education secretary.
  • His campaign was accused of plagiarism because Biden’s education platform lifted a sentence from the XQ Institute without attribution.
  • Biden said he misspoke when he said, “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” while discussing access to Advanced Placement courses.
  • In August, Biden said he supported two years of free community college and reduced tuition at public universities; in the past he said he supported four years of free college.
  • Biden’s “education beyond high school” plan, released in October, includes free community college, including for part-time students and DREAMers; a grant program to help community colleges grow programs that help students complete degrees; spending $50 billion on workforce-oriented partnerships between high schools, colleges, and businesses; doubling the maximum size of Pell grants; and big investments in HBCUs.
  • Biden praised teachers strikes as “courageous” at a union event in October, and expressed his support on Twitter for striking Chicago teachers and support staff.
  • In an infrastructure plan, Biden pledged to invest $100 billion to modernize schools, including by addressing health risks and upgrading technology.
  • In an interview with the National Education Association, Biden suggested he would restrict charter schools. “No privately funded charter school or private charter school would receive a penny of federal money — none,” he said. He added that any charter school “worthy of being able to be in education would have to be accountable” to school boards and other “mechanisms” that govern traditional public schools. A campaign spokesperson clarified to Chalkbeat that Biden would seek to stop federal funding for for-profit charter schools.
  • At the December public education forum, Biden said he would commit to ending the use of standardized testing in schools. He also distanced himself from the Obama administration, saying that he opposes using test scores to evaluate teachers.

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Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City

  • Earlier this year, Chalkbeat took a deep dive into Bloomberg’s education legacy in New York, where he won mayoral control of the schools.
  • As mayor, Bloomberg believed that the same things that benefited him in business would yield better schools: information and competition. He created new schools and championed charter schools. He also transformed the high school admissions process, and then moved to close schools that did not post strong results or that did not draw interest from families.
  • He fought New York City’s teachers union vigorously, but raised teacher pay substantially.
  • During Bloomberg’s time in office, New York’s graduation rates rose and dropout rates fell, but the creation of new gifted programs and selective high schools introduced inequities. After he left office, many of his initiatives, like a ban on social promotion, were rolled back.

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Cory Booker, New Jersey senator

  • Booker has been a leader in the school choice movement, setting him apart from most other Democratic candidates. You can read our overview for details.
  • Booker released a K-12 schools plan in December. It calls for tripling Title I funding, creating a $10 billion grant program to encourage states to make their school funding formulas more equitable, and offering tax credits to teachers who work in high-poverty schools. His plan also calls for making new funds available to states to conduct racial equity audits and to address racial disparities in schools.
  • The plan also says he would support the growth of high-quality charter schools “when they help meet local community needs” and that he would expand how federal Charter Schools Program funds could be spent to include things like supporting student diversity and “understanding and mitigating impacts on home districts.” But he says he would not permit federal funds to be spent on for-profit charter schools.
  • His plan says he would “oppose public funding for vouchers and tax credits that take money away from public schools and send money to private schools” — a reversal of his past support for vouchers, a policy few Democrats favor. He is currently a cosponsor of a bill to reauthorize the federally funded D.C voucher program.
  • Booker has promoted charter schools, test-based accountability for low-performing schools, and ratings for teachers linked to student performance.
  • As mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Booker solicited and won a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that led to performance-based teacher pay, school closures, and more charters. Currently about one in three public school students in Newark attend a charter.
  • At his presidential campaign launch, Booker said he plans to run “the boldest pro-public school teacher campaign there is,” noting that his state’s teachers unions had previously endorsed him.
  • In an early version of his education plan, Booker said he would guarantee universal early childhood education, raise teacher pay, and give additional money to “underperforming school districts.” He would also expand the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
  • Booker threw his support to public schools at a campaign event in Iowa in May. “I’m a guy who believes in public education and, in fact, I look at some of the charter laws that are written about this country and states like this and I find them really offensive,” he said.
  • At an August forum, Booker criticized Michigan’s charter school law, saying it lacked accountability measures, and vowed to hire an education secretary who attended public school.
  • Booker proposed a federally funded “baby bond” program that would put money in interest-bearing accounts for all children, with higher payments going to children from low-income families.
  • In his environmental plan, Booker said he would remediate all schools with peeling or chipping lead-based paint.
  • Booker met with striking Chicago teachers in October and tweeted his support for them, saying: “Educators spend their careers caring for and investing in others — it’s our responsibility to care for and invest in them.”
  • Booker wrote an op-ed calling on the Democratic party to support high-performing charter schools “if and when they are the right fit for a community, are equitable and inclusive, and play by the same rules as other public schools.” This surprised some observers, since Booker has spent much of the campaign backing away from his prior support of charter schools and vouchers.
  • Booker released a plan to reduce child poverty, which he argued would also improve school performance.
  • Booker introduced federal legislation that would ban hair discrimination in schools and other settings, citing the case of a New Jersey high school wrestler who was forced to cut off his dreadlocks.

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Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana

  • Buttigieg released a K-12 schools plan in December that calls for tripling Title I funds, raising teacher pay, and banning for-profit charter schools. In many respects it echoes ideas promoted by his Democratic rivals. But it takes a somewhat less oppositional stance towards charters than Warren and Sanders, avoiding, for instance, a call to halt federal funds for all new charter schools.
  • His plan also includes a $500 million fund to incentivize school integration efforts and a process that would require school districts to seek federal permission before making major boundary changes to ensure they wouldn’t further entrench school segregation.
  • He also wants to make debt-free college a reality for some of the nation’s poorest students. I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires. I think the children of the wealthiest Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition,” he said during the first round of televised debates in June. (He has $130,000 in student loans of his own.)
  • As for for-profit charters, he doesn’t think they should “be part of our vision for the future.” He also said, “I think the expansion of charter schools in general is something that we need to really draw back on until we’ve corrected what needs to be corrected in terms of underfunded public education.” On the same note, he said, voucher programs “come at the expense of quality public education.” 
  • In a policy plan focused on his ideas for black Americans, Buttigieg proposes “dramatically” increasing funding for Title I schools. He also says he’ll up the number of black teachers by requiring states to disclose the race of the educators they hire and new guidelines on the use of Title II funds to recruit these educators.
  • An opponent of Florida’s guardian program, which gives districts the option to arm their staff, he said, “It’d be such an enormous, condemnation of our country if we were to become the only developed nation where this is necessary.”
  • The mayor’s husband is a theater educator who until recently taught at a private Montessori school. Chasten Buttigieg tweeted disparagingly about a poll asking whether South Bend schools should switch to a four-day week, saying that what teachers actually want is a “living wage please.”
  • Buttigieg told a crowd in South Carolina that federal intervention would be necessary to tackle school segregation. He acknowledged it would be a difficult task because so much segregation occurs between school districts.
  • In an interview with Education Week, Buttigieg said he believed the federal government should play a bigger role in addressing resource inequities between schools and that he was working on a plan to curtail the growth of for-profit charter schools.
  • In his mental health plan, Buttigieg said he’d require all schools to teach a “mental health first aid” class.
  • In November, Buttigieg released an economic plan that calls for larger Pell Grants and free public college for students whose families make $100,000 a year or less.
  • Buttigieg faced criticism for a 2011 interview in which he said there are children from “lower-income, minority neighborhoods” who don’t “know someone personally who testifies to the value of education.” Buttigieg later said those comments didn’t “reflect the totality of” his understanding “about the obstacles that students of color face,” and said he had been referring to the need for student mentorship and career pathways.
  • Buttigieg said he’d been “slow to realize” that schools in his county were racially segregated. “I worked for years under the illusion that our schools … were integrated, because they had to be, because of a court order,” he said. While that was “true within the limits of the South Bend Community School District, as they were drawn,” he said, it wasn’t true in the rest of the county. This statement isn’t completely accurate. South Bend’s schools have long struggled to meet the racial targets set in a desegregation consent decree, and even today some are out of compliance.
  • A number of charter school advocates, including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, have hosted fundraisers for Buttigieg. Buttigieg told reporters that these donors would not change his education positions, including his “support for labor.”

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John Delaney, former U.S. representative from Maryland

  • Delaney wants to guarantee students two years of free community college. He is also calling for a “rethink” of the education system, with a push for personalized learning and the addition of courses like financial literacy. Delaney’s full plan is on his campaign’s site.
  • While in Congress, Delaney twice authored unsuccessful bills to expand universal pre-K.

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Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. representative from Hawaii

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Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator

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Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts

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Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator

(Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
  • In a 10-point platform called “A Thurgood Marshall plan for public education,” Sanders outlines his agenda, including tripling Title I funding, creating a per-pupil spending floor, and spending $5 billion on summer and after-school programs. He also proposes using federal funding to spur school integration.
  • Sanders has proposed making community college free for all, with states paying about a third of the bill and the rest coming from the federal government.
  • He has expressed support for teachers across the country who have gone on strike or walked out to demand higher pay and better working conditions. He’s also said teacher starting salaries should be at least $60,000.
  • And he has proposed curbing charter school growth by eliminating federal grants and banning for-profit charters (which presidents cannot do).
  • In Congress, he voted against the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. In June, he introduced legislation that would forgive student loans, expand what Pell grants can pay for, and eliminate tuition at public four-year colleges and universities. The legislation was supported by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
  • In his criminal justice plan, Sanders said he would decriminalize truancy and work to end restraint and seclusion in schools. He called for more investment in school counselors and nurses, and said he would end federal incentives for “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies.
  • Sanders appeared at a rally for Chicago teachers in September, shortly before they went on strike, where he praised their demands for smaller class sizes and more support staff. In November, he also expressed support for striking teachers in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • The Los Angeles teachers union endorsed Sanders in November, saying he “has the most comprehensive, progressive plan for public education among the candidates.” Sanders had expressed support for LA teachers while they were on strike earlier this year.
  • Sanders released a plan that calls for spending $1.3 billion a year to support HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions so they can eliminate or significantly reduce tuition and fees.
  • Sanders has said he opposes standardized testing. At the December public education forum, he said individual schools should be responsible for monitoring the progress of students instead, though he didn’t spell out how that would work.

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Tom Steyer, philanthropist, former hedge fund manager

  • The billionaire gave $32 million to support a measure that closed tax loopholes for out-of-state corporations in 2012. According to his campaign website, the change has generated $1.7 billion for California schools.
  • Steyer and his wife’s foundation has donated millions to schools and education-focused organizations, including the Oakland Schools Education Foundation. In 2009, the foundation gave $100,000 to Teach for America.

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Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
  • Before Warren released her K-12 education plan, Chalkbeat dug deep into Warren’s record on schools to get a sense of where she stands.
  • Warren is campaigning on a promise of college affordability, including making community college free for all. She’s also proposed cancelling student loan debt for 42 million Americans.
  • Under Warren’s pre-K plan, anyone making under 200% of the federal poverty level would be eligible for free child care and free pre-kindergarten programs. For those above that line, child care centers and preschools would charge a maximum of 7% of that family’s income for their service.
  • In her K-12 education plan, released in October, Warren said she would quadruple Title I funding for low-income schools, spend $20 billion more a year on students with disabilities, and launch a $100 billion grant program called “Excellence in Education” that schools could use for a wide variety of things. (You can read our full breakdown of the plan here.)
  • Warren also said she would eliminate federal funding for the Charter Schools Program, and seek to “ban” for-profit charter schools — though the federal government doesn’t have much authority over this.
  • Warren would encourage states to use Title I money set aside to help low-performing schools “on integration efforts of their own design.” The plan also calls for greater scrutiny of communities that “break away” to form their own school districts, which tend to be whiter and more well-off than the districts they left.
  • She also vowed to appoint a public school teacher as education secretary under her presidential administration. “Betsy DeVos need not apply,” she said at a rally in Detroit.
  • Warren opposed an unsuccessful 2016 Massachusetts ballot initiative that would have allowed more charter schools in the state, while also saying that “many charter schools in Massachusetts are producing extraordinary results for our students.”
  • In a 2018 Senate hearing, Warren said, “Boston’s public charter schools are among the best performing charter schools in the nation and that is particularly true for low-income children and children of color.” (That claim is largely backed by research.) She attributed this to tight oversight, a prohibition on for-profit charters, and a limit on growth of charters in the state.
  • If elected, Warren won’t seek additional federal funding for charter schools, a spokesperson told the American Prospect in July.
  • Warren fought for stronger test-based accountability provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act, a stance that drew the ire of the Massachusetts teachers union. But at an NEA forum in July, Warren said testing is “not what education is about.”
  • At the NEA forum, Warren also called for strengthening unions and praised the string of teacher-driven strikes and walkouts that started in West Virginia.
  • In her criminal justice plan, Warren said she would decriminalize truancy and encourage schools to use “trauma-informed alternative discipline practices” and implicit bias training to reduce suspensions and expulsions. She also called for investments in school-based mental health staff.
  • At a Democratic National Convention event, Warren said she would push for higher wages for preschool teachers and child care workers, increased funding for Pell grants, and a $50 billion investment in historically black colleges and universities.
  • “Money for public schools should stay in public schools, not go anywhere else,” she said in response to a question about her support for teachers unions at the September debate. It’s likely she was referring to her opposition to private school vouchers.
  • Warren’s labor plan, which includes ideas to make it easier for workers to strike, cites recent teacher strikes in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
  • Warren put out an environmental justice plan in October that includes a proposed federal grant program to abate lead in schools and daycares.
  • In October, Warren released an LGBTQ rights plan that calls for amending federal education law to require school districts to adopt codes of conduct that forbid bullying and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. She also said she would reinstate guidance on the rights of transgender students that was rescinded by the Trump administration.
  • Warren appeared later that month alongside striking teachers in Chicago, where she praised teachers unions, saying: “Unions are how we have power.” In November, Warren also expressed support for striking teachers in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • In response to pro-charter school activists, Warren said her education plan would not close existing charter schools. She also left room for changes, saying: “If I don’t have the pieces right… I’m going to make sure I got it right.” The moment was overshadowed to some degree by her campaign’s acknowledgement for the first time that her son attended a private school for part of his education.
  • Charter school supporters criticized Warren for comments she made in a video interview with the NEA released in December in which she said: “If you think your public school is not working, then go help your public school.”

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Andrew Yang, entrepreneur

  • Yang was the CEO of Manhattan Prep, a test-prep company that was bought by Kaplan Test Prep in 2009. He was brought on by founder Zeke Vanderhoek who subsequently started The Equity Project, a New York City charter school. On his website, Yang praises the school, which pays teachers six-figure salaries.
  • He’s also the founder and CEO of Venture for America, a program modeled after Teach For America, which places recent college graduates in startups.
  • A proponent of early childhood education, the entrepreneur wants universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and supports increasing teacher pay.
  • In an outline of his education plan, Yang said he would promote vocational education, support HBCUs, “expand selective schools,” and provide life-skills education at all high schools.
  • Despite or perhaps because of his background in test prep, Yang tweeted in March, “As someone who was very good at standardized tests growing up I think they are a terrible measurement of anything other than whether you are good at the test.”
  • In a May Twitter thread, he said, “There are very good charter schools and very bad charter schools. The goal should be to make more schools high-quality and effective — not denounce an entire category.”
  • “I am pro-good school,” Yang said when asked about his support for charter schools at the September debate.
  • Yang released a mental health plan that calls for training for school administrators and teachers on suicide prevention and awareness and expanding mental health services in schools.

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This tracker was created and updated through August 2019 by Camille Respess. Matt Barnum, Kalyn Belsha, Philissa Cramer, and Sarah Darville contributed reporting. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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