Democratic Presidential Candidates On 5 Key Education Issues

Democratic Presidential Candidates On 5 Key Education Issues

The recent #RedforEd movement has underscored the importance of public education and drawn attention to the critical role educators play in shaping public policy. Since 2018, the movement has sparked successful community requests for the government to reinvest in public education, and it also made an historic impact on the midterm elections by prompting hundreds of educators across the country to run for local office. As a result, more educators are now being heard on their school boards, in state houses, and in Congress. 

Given the #RedForEd movement's success, it’s no wonder education has taken on such importance ahead of the 2020 presidential election. In June, the National Education Association (NEA) hosted the first ever #StrongPublicSchools Presidential Forum at the annual NEA Representative Assembly, moderated by NEA president Lily Eskelsen García and attended by 10 Democratic presidential candidates: former vice president Joe Biden, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Jay Inslee, Representative Tim Ryan, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, and Senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

One might say education issues are headlining the Democratic presidential debates, with candidates squaring off on topics such as diversity and equal opportunity in schools while detailing how their proposed economic plans would affect teacher pay, student debt, and more. With so many presidential hopefuls vying to run on the Democratic ticket in 2020, it’s essential to compare their perspectives and priorities on key education issues, including the following:

Teacher pay

At the #StrongPublicSchools forum, Senators Harris, Klobuchar, and Sanders—along with Representative Tim Ryan—discussed their plans for increasing teacher pay, with Ryan suggesting expanded tax credits for teachers who fund classroom supplies out of their own pockets. Sanders expressed support for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour (thereby ensuring a “living wage” for everyone who works at a school) and proposed that teachers earn at least $60,000 per year, while Klobuchar presented a plan to raise teacher pay by modifying estate taxes and incentivizing states to invest in their teachers’ salaries. Similarly, Harris proposed increasing teacher pay by about $13,500 and creating a matching fund between the federal government and individual states.

Candidates have also been speaking out individually. Answering a question from Education Next, Pete Buttigieg explained that his plan for a federal increase in teacher pay would focus on wages of teachers in Title I schools—and noted his own connection to the profession by pointing out that his husband, who holds a master’s degree, earns less as a teacher than he would as a bartender. Another candidate with personal ties to the education field is former HUD secretary Castro, whose wife worked as an elementary math teacher in public schools and whose presidential platform also proposes a pay increase for members of the profession. More specifically, Castro plans to implement a federal tax credit that could increase teachers' yearly salaries by $10,000.

Student debt

Presidential candidates have had a lot to say about the financial side of education, with many seeking to reduce or eliminate student debt. As Forbes contributor Robert Farrington pointed out, all the Democratic presidential hopefuls take a stance far left of the current administration when it comes to student loans. Notably, Senator Warren—herself a former college professor—released a plan that would completely cancel student loan debt for 75% of Americans and provide some relief for 95% of Americans. Paid for by Warren’s Ultra-Millionaire tax, the plan is intended to assist members of younger generations who faced high college education costs. 

Moreover, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has proposed an overhaul of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) that would expand the program's benefits to more student borrowers and decrease time spent waiting for loan forgiveness. Her fellow senators (and rival candidates) Warren, Harris, Sanders, Klobuchar, and Cory Booker all co-sponsor the bill. 

While Warren and Gillibrand have proposed cancelling or forgiving loans, other presidential hopefuls are focused on refinancing to make current loans more affordable. For instance, under Sanders’ proposed “College for All Act,” interest rates for student loans would be reduced and all borrowers would be able to refinance their loans at the new rates. Klobuchar and Harris also favor better student loan refinancing at rates around 3%.

Gun violence

Although relieving the financial aspects of education has been a major part of the national conversation, an even more pressing issue is the safety of students in American schools. With this in mind, both Inslee and Ryan addressed questions about school safety at the NEA convention, where they expressed support for a two-pronged approach: decreasing access to guns and increasing student access to mental healthcare and social-emotional learning. Inslee—who has previously voted to ban assault rifles, a decision he stands by despite losing his seat in Congress as a result—spoke of the need for a “functional mental healthcare system” in the U.S., while Ryan supported universal background checks before purchasing guns, along with studying gun violence and increasing mental healthcare and bullying prevention in schools. 

During the Democratic primary debates in June, candidates continued to speak out about gun violence and student safety, with the 10 candidates who participated in the June 27 debate largely agreeing on universal background checks and the majority favoring bans on assault weapons and weapons of war. In addition, Warren called for federal funding into research on gun violence, and Klobuchar was sure to mention “these Parkland kids from Florida [who] started literally a national shift" in the wake of the tragic 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  


Diversity and equal opportunity were brought to the forefront of the June debate when Harris spoke about her experience as part of the second class to integrate public schools in Berkeley, California. According to Harris, being bussed to an elementary school in a more affluent and predominantly white neighborhood had a profound effect on her life—and her first-grade teacher even came to her law school graduation years later.

Meanwhile, O’Rourke and Castro have prioritized creating equal opportunities. Castro’s $1.5 trillion plan would eliminate tuition at public colleges, raise the maximum Pell grant to $10,000, and close the achievement gap for LGBTQ students and students of color, while O’Rourke has proposed increasing teacher diversity, ending racial disparities in school discipline, and funding a $500 billion effort to counteract the $23 billion funding gap that currently exists between majority-white and majority-non-white school districts. 

Charter schools

Although the majority of Democratic presidential candidates are more focused on improving public schools for all children than on funding options through charter schools, Booker has been a proponent of the latter throughout his political career. During his two terms as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, the city's charter schools tripled their enrollment—something Booker characterized as having “liberated” students from “the imprisonment of institutions of failure.” Along with O’Rourke, Booker has avoided publicly speaking out against charter schools during his campaign; at the NEA forum, O’Rourke stated that although he strongly opposes unaccountable, for-profit charters and vouchers for private schools, he believes there is a place for “public, nonprofit, charter schools.” 

Sanders, however, spoke out strongly against charters during the forum; indeed, his proposed Thurgood Marshall Education Plan takes the strongest stance against school choice. The plan would eliminate federal funding of for-profit charters and put a stop to the creation of new charters “until we have a full understanding of their impact on public education.”

The bottom line

While the candidates represent a wide range of perspectives and priorities, there’s no question that education has emerged as a key consideration for voters in the 2020 election, with student loans, teacher pay, the achievement gap, and school choice all discussed frequently. Over the next year, we will likely see these and other education issues discussed in more detail as the Democratic ticket is finalized and the party's nominee goes head to head with incumbent President Trump. One thing is certain: As educators have gained momentum in public policy over the past few years, it’s become critical to gain their support and include their voices.

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