HOUSTON (CN) – At a Democratic presidential forum in Houston on Friday, 10 candidates promised teachers’ union members more federal funding to transform the U.S. public education system with universal pre-kindergarten, teacher pay raises and more on-campus counselors to prevent school shootings.
Teachers across the country left their classrooms and went on strike in 2018 and early this year, fed up with low pay and underfunding that forces many to pay for their own school supplies.
The teachers adopted the slogan “Red for Ed” and wore red T-shirts on the picket lines as a show of solidarity.
Though most of those strikes ended with agreements from state lawmakers to raise teachers’ pay, the movement is still going strong, as 7,000 members of the National Education Association turned out Friday in red T-shirts to hear the candidates give quick spiels about their education plans.
The candidates took questions submitted by NEA members before the event. Several spoke from their own experiences as educators.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she knew in second grade she wanted to be a school teacher.
“I used to line my dollies up and teach them. I want you to know I was tough but fair,” she joked.
“I became a special needs teacher. I have lived my dream.” Warren, 70, also taught at Harvard Law School for several years before going into politics.
As president, she said she would implement a 2 cent per dollar tax on fortunes worth more than $50 million dollars, which would be levied against 75,000 of the top-earning U.S. families.
The tax would raise more than $1 trillion, Warren said, enough to pay for child care for every baby in this country from newborns to 5 year olds, universal pre-kindergarten for every 3-and-4-year-old child, and tuition-free technical school, community college and four-year college for everyone who wants a higher education.
“Plus we can cancel student loan debt for 95% of people,” she said.
Warren reiterated her earlier campaign promise to nominate an educator as secretary of education if elected president.
“Betsy DeVos need not apply,” Warren said to cheers from the audience.
Julian Castro, former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Barack Obama, said he worked for a semester as a substitute teacher in San Antonio in his early 20s. He said he taught classes with nearly 40 students.
“I thought that was against the law in Texas, but it was not,” he said of the large classes. “I remember going home every single day that semester and feeling like I had to take a five-hour nap, but I also liked the moments when I helped students understand something that wasn’t getting through,” he said.
Castro, 44, said the two San Antonio school districts he attended as a youth were 80-85% Hispanic, a stark example of how Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found school segregation unconstitutional, did not end the problem.
He said he wants to invest in “voluntary busing” programs in which willing minority students are bused to majority white schools. But Castro said he would also address the issue by investing in fair housing enforcement.
“Because too often families of color are turned down for housing because of the color of their skin” he said.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he’s calling for a change in national priorities from giving tax breaks to oil companies to investing in children and education. Sanders, 77, said striking teachers invigorated the movement for pay equality that’s a cornerstone of his campaign.
“The courage of teachers is reverberating all over this country, working people from coast to coast now demanding an economy that works for all of us, not just 1 percent. Teachers, thank you very much,” he said.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he’d recently visited an African-American neighborhood in Houston called Kashmere Gardens that’s been flooded by three 500-year storms within the past five years.
He said a neighborhood leader had told him schools are the only bright spots there, thanks in large part to teachers who also pay for school supplies and meals for their students.
O’Rourke, 46, said he wants to forgive 100 percent of teachers’ student loan debt if they dedicate their lives to the career to ensure they don’t have to work second and third jobs.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said her mother taught second grade until she was 70.
Klobuchar, 59, said she would put young immigrants who are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, many of whom have attended college, on a path to citizenship.
She said school infrastructure is badly needed as she’s visited classrooms in Nevada that have air conditioning that barely works and schools with no playground equipment and bad piping.
She criticized President Donald Trump for not coming through on the pledge he made the night he was elected president in November 2016 to invest in infrastructure.
Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio touted steps they’ve taken to improve education for their constituents.
Inslee, 68, said his father was a biology teacher at a high school in Seattle.
“I believe we need well-compensated, skilled teachers. I’m the governor who this year signed the biggest teacher pay increase in the U.S., 31%,” Inslee said.
In New York City, de Blasio, 58, implemented a universal pre-kindergarten program that increased enrollment from 19,000 children in 2013, his first year in office, to 70,000. He said New York City is expanding the program to 3-year-olds, 20,000 of which will enroll in “3K” in September.
De Blasio was the only candidate Friday to call for a constitutional amendment making a quality public education a right for every child in America.
Former vice-president Joe Biden’s joked that he got into education due to his wife Jill Biden.
“The reason I became a university teacher was I was tired of getting mail addressed to Dr. and Joe Biden,” said Biden, who was an adjunct professor at a law school in Delaware in 1991 while also serving as a U.S. Senator.
Biden, 76, said he would increase federal public education funding under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act from $15 billion to $45 billion.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, 45, said his wife teaches first grade right down the hall from their 5-year-old son’s classroom.
His education plan calls for an emphasis on social and emotional learning, and a mental health counselor and school nurse in every school.
After a gunman shot 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, including 20 young children, Ryan said the school system did a study that recommended three things: more gun control, enhanced mental health services and social and emotional learning in schools.
“So help me God, if we are going to transform schools before we do anything, before we start talking about tests, we need to address how we are going to take care of our kids in schools,” he said.
California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has enjoyed a recent surge in support since the first Democratic debate, spoke last. Asked how she would ensure students are not burdened by large student loan debts, Harris said during her six-year tenure as California attorney general, she sued Corinthian Colleges, one of the largest for-profit colleges in the U.S.
“I put them out of business,” Harris said. “The business model [for for-profit colleges] has clearly been to put profit over education of students. Promising students with large payments they would get an education that would allow them to get good jobs.”
Harris, 54, also focused on school safety. She said U.S. leaders don’t have the courage to pass gun safety laws, so school districts have to put their students through active-shooter drills.
She said she will give Congress 100 days to get its act together.
“If they don’t, I will take executive action for a universal background check and ban importation of assault rifles in our country,” she said.
After the forum, Houston teacher Angela Tillman said she left a 15-year career as a probation and parole officer in Alabama to become a social studies teacher.
“I wanted to make a difference so I decided to come on the front end and try to change lives, instead of waiting until they come into the justice system,” she said.
She said she was impressed that all the candidates understand education is about more than getting children into classrooms.
“Their parents are in jail, some of them are being bounced around. What stood out to me is they were in touch with the real issues. They didn’t just give me fluff answers.”
Tillman said the candidates who stood out for her were Harris, de Blasio and O’Rourke.
“I’m very impressed he went to Kashmere, he’s walking around the schools of this district [Houston ISD],” she said of O’Rourke.
Keith Swanson, a high school English teacher in Walla Walla, Washington, sat down on a bench outside the conference room to chat after the forum. He said he came away impressed by Warren.
“I think she’s awfully smart and she has been an educator really her whole professional life and it shows,” he said.
Swanson said the candidates are right to focus on students’ social and emotional health because that is really important these days. He said those needs are not being met in his high school, which has four counselors and one psychologist for 1,500 students.