Democratic presidential candidates discuss tuition, unions at Public Education Forum


Sen. Bernie Sanders was one of seven 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who spoke about issues relating to public education downtown on Saturday.

By Janine Faust and Caroline Bourque, The Pitt News Staff

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers took the stage first at the Public Education Forum Saturday to speak about the importance of public education and why Pittsburgh was chosen for this forum. 

“We [in Pittsburgh] have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to weather disagreements…to come back together and lock arms to fight for our students and fight for our schools,” she said, referencing the City’s blue-collar history and labor movement. 

More than 1,000 people attended the forum at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center downtown. The event was organized by a coalition of 11 progressive groups, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. MSNBC Live host Ali Velshi and NBC News education correspondent Rehema Ellis moderated.

Seven Democratic presidential candidates attended, with Sen. Cory Booker cancelling his appearance Saturday morning after contacting the flu. The candidates did not share the stage, instead receiving about 20 minutes each to answer questions from the moderators and pre-selected members of the audience.

Topics included school investment, student debt and education equity in American schools. Here’s what the democratic candidates had to say about some of the hot-button issues in education today: 

Michael Bennet 

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) discussed how he plans to cut the childhood poverty rate in America by 40 percent with his American Family Act, which would provide a Child Tax Credit of up to $300 per month per child to middle-class families. 

Ellis asked the candidate about Denver’s ProComp merit pay system, which underwent significant changes in 2008. Under then-superintendent Bennet’s direction, ProComp — shorthand for “professional compensation” — saw an increase in the size of one-time bonuses and a reduction in permanent raises for veteran educators of fourteen years or more. The move brewed discontent with the Denver teacher’s union, leading to a strike in Jan. 2019.

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bennet speaks at the Public Education forum downtown.

Bennet defended ProComp as an initial success, and said his school district went from #6 to #1 in teacher’s salaries during his time as superintendent. Bennet said the education system has to now focus on providing teachers with competitive pay. 

“America has to make this commitment to our teachers,” he said. “Every local school board, every state and the federal government together needs to say, we are going to pay our teachers what they’re worth, instead of discriminating against them, which is what we’re doing today.”

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg, current Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was the second candidate to take the stage, introducing himself as a product of two parents who worked as educators, and mentioning that his husband is also a teacher. Buttigieg expressed his frustration with the autonomy being taken away from teachers, stating that they are being “reduced to test administrators.” 

“I see how … teaching is being automated in a lot of ways, as if it could be done by a formula or a robot,” he said. 

Buttigieg also touched on the issues teachers face for which they don’t receive adequate resources or compensation, such as counselling students through mental health issues, trauma and hunger, or purchasing additional materials needed in their classrooms. 

“I see teachers dipping into their own savings — just like those Target runs that my husband does — just to get supplies for a classroom that should be provided for,” he said.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Public Education forum downtown.

To help remedy these issues, along with teacher shortages, Buttigieg proposed the “Education Access Corps.” The program, he said, would partner with teacher training programs at colleges and universities, including historically black colleges and universities, to provide teachers with a “portable” license that would allow them to teach anywhere in the country. These teachers would commit to teaching at a Title I school for seven years, after which they would receive student loan forgiveness and a stipend to continue teaching. 

“It’s about our respect for the profession,” he said. “If we honored our teachers a little more like soldiers, as well as paid them a little more like doctors, we wouldn’t have this issue of shortages.”

Elizabeth Warren 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) called for the implementation of her proposed  wealth tax to fund fighting inequality in education throughout her time on stage. Her plan is to levy a two percent tax on fortunes worth more than $50 million and a 3 percent tax on fortunes more than $1 billion, which is estimated to hit about 75,000 families and raise about $2.75 trillion over a 10-year period. Warren supported using her tax to make all post-high school education — technical school, public apprenticeship programs, two-year college and four-year college — tuition-free. 

Warren also said she would use the money generated from her tax plan to invest $50 billion in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as cancel the student debt currently held by 43 million Americans, raise wages for educators and increase the award threshold for Federal Pell Grants. 

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Public Education forum downtown.

Velshi asked Warren what would prevent people from starting their own colleges in order to profit off of the money she plans to invest, and how to ensure college cost does not continue to rise as wages remain stagnant. 

“There’s no money going into the for-profit colleges,” Warren said, emphasizing it would only go to public schools. “With this ‘two-cent’ wealth tax we’ll pick up tuition as part of this, but in return the state has to continue to make the same investment.  You can’t push costs off to students in other ways. You’re going to have to manage those costs internally because we want to keep the cost affordable to everyone and we can use this federal lever to be able to do that.” 

Isacc Pickell, a graduate student representing  the graduate union at Wayne State University in Detroit, asked Warren what she would do to make life and work more sustainable for contingent faculty. Warren pointed to her plan to cancel student debt and emphasizing that graduate student labor needs to be taken more seriously. 

“All of my education plan emphasizes that educators are entitled to bargain collectively,” she said. 

Tom Steyer

Billionaire investor Tom Steyer took the stage next, introducing his platform as built on the idea that the government is broken and denies citizens of their fundamental rights — including the right to a quality public education in the form of pre-k, higher education and continued skills training throughout life. 

Steyer then mentioned several of his past initiatives, including a campaign for the passage of Prop. 39 in California, which closed a corporate tax loophole and allocated part of the resulting funds to rebuilding public schools with union labor. 

The candidate also spoke about a food program he and his wife started in California schools —  which provided farm-to-table school lunches to students — as well as his time spent campaigning for a “student borrower’s bill of rights” in the Ca. legislature. 

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks at the Public Education forum downtown.

When asked about the issue of accumulation of student debt, which often leaves students paying back double and triple in loans, Styeer said the borrower’s bill of rights in the only first step in alleviating the financial pressure. He proposes loan forgiveness after ten years for students who pursue careers in the public service sector, as well as an interest reduction to prevent debt from accumulating. 

“Why are we loan sharking students who are just trying to be good members of society and good citizens?” he said. “We can not have these interest rates ruining people’s lives.”

Bernie Sanders 

Sanders began his turn on the stage by stating several of his goals related to education, including mandating universal affordable childcare and a minimum salary of $60,000 a year for teachers. He also wants to triple funding for Title I schools and increase funding for programs mandated through  the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. 

Velshi asked Sanders about the candidate’s plan to cancel student debt in America, wondering if there was a way to go about the issue without covering the debt of those who do not “need” it covered. Sanders responded that he believes “in the concept of universality,” adding that those who may not “need” to have their debt covered would likely be the ones whose families would pay higher federal taxes to help cover college costs. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Public Education Forum downtown.

“What is simpler and more straightforward is A. making all public colleges and universities tuition free for all people, and B. Cancelling all student debt and in this case paying for that through a modest tax on Wall Street speculation,” he said. 

Jessica Tang, President of the Boston Teachers’ Union, asked Sanders how he planned to make it easier for teachers and school employees to unionize. Sanders responded that he would place severe penalties on employers for refusing to negotiate union contracts and do away with Right to Work laws. 

“I am perhaps have the longest and strongest pro-union voting record in the U.S. congress. I have introduced and will implement as president the most sweeping pro-labor law reform in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said.

Amy Klobuchar

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) got onstage and spoke briefly about her mother, who taught grade school well into her seventies, before diving into her three main goals for education — raising teachers’ salaries, putting more funds into school infrastructure and firing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos within her first 100 days in office. 

The Senator spoke of her efforts on Capitol Hill, serving as lead democrat on the passage of over 100 bills since she entered office — including a school safety bill in which she inserted a provision to prevent the use of funds for arming teachers. 

“How you budget things and the policies you put in place, that’s a value statement,” she said.  “I’m someone that’s not just talks about good things, but I actually get things done.”

Ellis then cited a recent study which revealed that two thirds of fourth and eighth grade students are not proficient readers, and asked how Klobuchar would utilize her role as president differently than her current role in the Senate to remedy these issues without simply “throwing money” at them. 

Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar speaks at the Public Education forum downtown.

Klobuchar responded with three key initiatives — improving teacher retainment, giving children a steadier home environments through increased accessibility to housing, establishment of a childcare policy to help people below the median income pay for preschool.

With so many policy items in common with her fellow Democratic candidates, Ellis asked Klobuchar how she will better get the job done if elected to office. Klobuchar cited her track record in Congress as well as a plan to take back states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa by meeting with constituents in both urban and rural communities. 

“I believe in organizing and bringing people with us,” she said. “I have won every election — teachers will appreciate this — all the way down to fourth grade, where my slogan was ‘All the Way with Amy K.’”

Joe Biden

Biden, the final candidate to speak Saturday, opened his time on stage by discussing how he views education as “overwhelmingly in the American people’s interest.”

“The better educated the public, the better off everyone is,” he said. 

Velshi asked Biden, who unveiled a plan in October to cut the cost of higher education by granting college students two years of community college free, to speak more about what he thinks the role of community college is in American education. 

“First of all, I think community college should be free for everyone.We can easily afford it,” Biden said, adding it would be useful for returning students seeking training and education later in life. 

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Public Education forum downtown.

Biden also spoke about doubling the maximum amount of money for Pell Grants from about $6,000 to $12,000 per year. 

Velshi asked Biden about his time working with former President Barack Obama to combat sexual assault on college campuses. Many Obama-era protections have been rolled back under the Trump administration, with critics such as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos saying they do not allow the accused a voice. 

Biden said he faced pushback during his time in office from universities that were afraid of gaining a bad reputation by opening up about the number of sexual assaults on their campuses. He plans to be tougher about ensuring that colleges are more direct about addressing the problem.

“No man has a right to touch a woman unless she can say yes,” he said. “The point is, if I’m president, Betsy DeVos’ whole notion from charter schools to this are gone.”

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