Education News

Educators, parents press top presidential candidates to address equity in education

Seven presidential candidates discussed matters of critical importance to the future of public education and the 51 million students in public schools before an audience of more than 1,300 educators, students, and union members at a forum in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

The “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Opportunity for All,” hosted by MSNBC at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, focused on issues of public education, and specifically economic, racial, and social justice that affect educators, students, and their families. Sen. Michael Bennet, Vice Pres. Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren addressed their plans for K-12 and higher education.

Following an opening statement, each candidate answered questions posed by audience members and moderators Ali Velshi, host of “MSNBC Live,” and Rehema Ellis, NBC News education correspondent. Some questions were submitted by educators, parents, and activists from around the country.

Topics covered include investing in public schools, the services students need for academic success, special education, college debt, and teaching conditions, along with how the candidates would address the persistent gaps in education equity experienced by students across the nation.

The National Education Association worked with 10 other public education groups to keep the candidates focused on public education as the primaries draw closer. NEA members account for one in every 100 Americans and one in 39 households, giving them a powerful voice in choosing the next president of the United States. Educators are working hard in the 2020 election cycle to ensure that students and their well-being are a priority for all candidates and for all voters. Find out more at StrongPublicSchools.org.

Here are highlights from the forum:

Students led the conversation throughout the day. This student asked about funding for arts educators and other full time teachers in her school:

NEA Vice President Becky Pringle highlighted some of our aspiring educators and union activists who asked questions of the candidates:

Sen. Michael Bennett was the first to take the stage. He addressed educators on his background as a superintendent, and issues such as charter schools and educational diversity. He was asked by a New York City parent, Tanesha, about the slim 13% of black and brown children graduating college and career ready:

He was also asked what he would do to protect the rights of local communities to preserve their schools rather than face closures & inequities imposed from privatizers?

Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke about increasing access to community schools for students who need extra support. He also agreed with Sen. Bennett on providing universal pre-K to all children.

Buttigieg was later asked about the accessibility to entering the field of public service for those who are not born into wealth. Specifically, he was asked by Oregon educators how the PSLF program can be fixed.

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren took the stage, she shared her experience in seeing teaching special education as more than a job, but a calling. She was asked by NEA VP Becky Pringle about how to make Universal Pre-K a reality.

Warren highlighted, “A child born into privilege has great opportunity in this country. I want EVERY child to have great opportunity in this country,” and supporting teachers’ unions is a step to making that a reality.

After a short break, Sen. Bernie Sanders was next to take questions from MSNBC hosts and educators in the audience. He kicked off the session by saying, “Instead of giving tax breaks to millionaires… how about investing in our children and education?”

Sanders took questions on increasing pay for education support professionals and school safety. Educators tweeted questions to him such as, “What would you do to make it easier for teachers and school employees to organize?”

Each candidate spoke about increasing the number of educators of color in classrooms and funding for HBCUs. Tom Steyer pledged to invest $125 billion into HBCUs over the next 10 years.

Steyer was asked by an NJEA member and 8th grade special education teacher, what criteria does a school need to meet to be considered successful?

Sen. Amy Klobuchar was the second candidate to mention Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She says that with the first 100 minutes of taking office she would fire DeVos.

Klobuchar also focused on her plans to improve childhood literacy rates, mental health support for students, and teacher pay increases. She was asked about ways to ensure that disciplinary policies are not discriminatory toward our students and how to encourage local school districts to implement peer mediation and restorative justice practices.

Vice Pres. Joe Biden was the last to take the stage. He was asked about ending the practice of standardized testing in schools.

He was asked about increasing funding to support students with disabilities and with low socio-economic statuses.


Overall, the forum engaged thousands of educators, students, union members, and families on ways to speak up for public education in the 2020 election.

23 responses to “Educators, parents press top presidential candidates to address equity in education

  1. Couldn’t help but notice that the only pro-union, woman-of-color who still has an active campaign was not included. Was Gabbard’s absence due to MSNBC’s or NEA’s omission?
    In addition, two other presidential contenders of color, Andrew Yang and Cory Booker are not listed as attending. It appears that someone needs to be more attentive to inviting candidates of color.

    James Smith
    Calif. Faculty Assn., Ret.

  2. Everyone is completely ignoring the true roadblock to learning…poverty. You may have the most experienced teacher, large budget, after school enrichment, amazing support staff including psychologists but when you have large numbers of students homeless, hungry, tired, fearful, or abused there is no way learning can take place. Their minds are on their hunger, or where they’re going to sleep tonight, will they get beat again, are they on sibling duty because mom or dad is getting high. That needs to be addressed before we can educate our students. Where are reforms for community development? Affordable housing? Trump wants to slash the food stamp program so what then? Our main job should be to facilitate learning not serve as a social worker and I feel many of us find ourselves primarily acting as social workers before we get to educate.

  3. During my 27 years in education, I have taught in both private and public schools, from 1st grade to 12th. I appreciate NEA’s effort to hear these 7 candidates, but we keep hearing the same topics: funding, salaries, rigor, standardized testing, etc. As I have said from my first day in the classroom, education will not change until it becomes the first priority of every parent. Look at nations where education is successful; children are expected to behave, do homework, study, and put in effort. Those societies consider teachers as important as surgeons. Where is the accountability for students and parents here in America? In NY, if students don’t pass their Regents exam, they don’t graduate. In my state (nearby), our standardized test doesn’t even count as a grade on the report card. Parents tell their kids “it doesn’t matter,” and even opt their children out of testing because “it’s too stressful.” The reason the private schools are better in some states is the emphasis placed on the value of education. If our society does not recognize that, then all the money, training, professional development, and organization in the world will not fix our education system.

    1. Thank you for your insight. You are so right on many points. The importance of education today is waning because, for some, it is not considered essential for a quality life. How did this come to be? Sad indeed!

  4. Speaking as a retired teacher in NYC. First, education in the US is a disorganized mess. Virtually every state has its own standards so it’s easier to graduate from high school in New Jersey than it is in NYC even though they are only separated by a river. Second, we often miss the purpose of education. It is NOT a tool to help the US economy (even Obama, whom I liked a great deal, fell in to that trap). Our goal is to encourage students to THINK CRITICALLY. If we’d succeeded, Trump would NOT be President because young people would have recognized his lies. Third, we must respect teachers and what they accomplish. We also need teachers who are prepared before they enter a classroom which requires a rigorous program of teacher training in ACCREDITED colleges. In short, we need to keep our eye on the prize which might well be the revival of not just democracy but social activism as well.

  5. by Karen Chapman Lenz—taught 6th grade with great joy for 8 years, shared a K with a friend after I had my son, and enjoyed both k, k-1, and 5 for 34 years plus 12 more years at Claremont CA Adult School. Now I care deeply about Climate change with Citizens’ Climate Lobby and assist in the Young Dems at Claremont High School twice a month. At 80 I still care deeply about education and our earth.

  6. We have the most expensive k-12 system in the world. And one of the least successful educational outcomes for kids.

    Why should we pay more money into a system that is not working, particularly for children of color and who are poor?

    Money is not the problem; what happens in the classroom is. if Teacher Union leadership don’t participate in changing what is happening to students, then more money will simply make the situation worse.

    We all know that “more money” is a code word for higher teacher salaries granted without any attention to whether kids in classrooms are learning,

    1. Good logic, except teacher salaries are relatively low in most states in the United States. If I wanted to teach right after undergrad in the Virginia county where I am currently studying undergrad, I’d be making two-thirds (or less) of what I’d make if I chose a non-teaching career. I honestly don’t know where all the money is going, but it’s not in teacher salaries, at least not in VA. If we paid teachers more, we might get better teachers.

      It’s also worth noting that since education funding is so localized, there are significant disparities in whether or not teachers and classrooms are funded. Some counties and states may be richer, have better student outcomes, and may drive up the nationwide average K-12 cost, but that’s not indicative of the nation as a whole.

  7. When teachers take leave for pregnancy or to have an operation, schools call upon substitutes. Some counties in Florida barely pay minimum wage for long term substitutes, even those who have a master’s degree in Special Education. One of those counties is Pinellas County that includes St. Petersburg, Florida. Across the state in the same latitude, Brevard County, that includes Melbourne, Florida, pays regular pay for long term substitutes. Why is there disparity? Long term substitutes play a very important role in school. I decided to withdraw my substitute status in Pinellas County because not only was the pay barely above minimum wage, one had to jump through hoops to even get on the list. The pay should be consistent throughout the state.

  8. Dems do nothing, all talk. They divide this country and always call the race card. Work for it! All they want to do is take from the wealthy and hard working citizens of this country. We all have the same opportunities, God created us all equal. It’s up to the students and parents to encourage staying in school and studying. President Trump loves this country and protects our constitution. Dems want to smear. Dems want to make everything free, but who pays for it? We the people in taxes. Get to work people and stop expecting a handout from the government!

    1. “All they want to do is take from the wealthy and hard working citizens of this country.”
      Taxes pay for civilization, and the wealthy benefit most from civilization and a government that protects their right to wealth and private property, so it makes sense that they should pay the most for it.

      ” We all have the same opportunities, God created us all equal.”
      Because education funding is so dependent on local and state government funding, children in poorer districts frequently have less opportunities than children from richer districts.

      “Get to work people and stop expecting a handout from the government!”
      Wealthy kids get “handouts” from their parents all the time. The government should invest in poor children like wealthy parents invest in their children.

  9. Where is the discussion about school safety?? Why did I have to cross yellow crime scene tape to enter my Phoenix high school classroom several times a year ? Why was my Student Loan still my biggest burden when I retired after 40 years of public school service in Title One Schools? Why was my salary allowed to be frozen for 8 years in Phoenix Az , thus significantly damaging my pension ?? Why is there not a national platform for teacher salaries so that teachers are not punished for moving? Why is class size allowed to be 35 and above in districts where the students are facing multiple social disadvantages that require teachers to be social workers, child protection liaisons, crisis intervention specialists, psychologists, thus doubling the job description of teaching?! Why are salaries in urban districts not commensurate with living expenses, thus making teachers so poor that they cannot afford to send their own kids to college? Why are performance standards for teachers linked to test results, even in disciplines like Fine Arts, which are not represented on standard tests ?? Why are classroom budgets so low that teachers have to spend out of pocket to fund their programs with basic supplies? Why are charter schools allowed to undercut public schools by hiring unqualified people? Why are student loans not forgiven for people retiring after 35 plus years of service in poverty-based schools? Why are Summer school programs predominantly remedial, with no enrichment classes offered in most districts? Why have preschool programs , even in public schools, become so expensive that working families, especially single moms and grandmothers, can’t afford them?

  10. Were there any Republicans invited to this event? If there were none invited it gives Republicans the ability to state that the NEA/Teachers are afraid to have opposing opinions discussed, and therefore it is a one sided discussion rather than an open conversation.

    1. This was a panel of 7 Democratic nominees for President. I can only assume that no Republicans were invited because there are no other Republicans opposing Trump. (And we all know where he stands since he hired Betsy DeVos.)

  11. Each one of these candidates have educational leadership qualities superior to the current administration in our country. Make sure you and every one of your friends and relatives vote!!

    1. They don’t really see the picture. The money through taxes for Public School Education is being rerouted to charter schools so the RICH Koch Brother and Devoss’s and other rich don’t have to pay taxes. Trivial but then We Don”t Have A Democracy. It is like everyone will hear only FOX T.V. I don’t know if you know Terry Goddard democrat and Tom Horne Republican, but they are past attorney generals of the state of AZ. and they are working to get the Koch brother out of our elections and buying the Phx, Mayor and running ruining our Education dollars that don’t get to the schools. I have worked with Terry Goddard on this for 9 years and this may be the time we get them out as we are putting it on the ballot with a bi-partisan group. It’s not that any certain people are not getting enough money due to ethnic groups it’s how much a teacher can afford to use out of their paycheck to help get the instructional materials that are needed. They need to stop the elite from ruling our DEMOCRACY and help all get an education.

      1. Absolutely correct and Bernie Sanders is the only candidate guaranteed to keep his campaign promises. Unlike these other corporate shills who claim to represent the people of this country.

  12. Thank you for hosting this well done and critically important opportunity to engage Presidential candidates with front line educators, students and parents of children in our public education system. As a retired educator and active artist who taught for 55 years in many venues from preschool to undergraduate college classrooms, as an artist in schools to basic skills adult educator, and as an alternative high school completion instructor I want to encourage all of my colleagues, students, and parents to make sure that education be kept in the forefront of the entire 202 election campaign. Our future as a nation and need to return our country to a leadership role in providing public education opportunities to every student in every community depends on making sure we elect a Progressive candidate to will take on and insist on solving the the plague of gun violence in our schools and urban neighborhoods, a candidate who as President will insist on truth in government that in turn will begin to realistically confront the systemic racism and sexism afflicting our nation, and provide real leadership in fostering an education renaissance that can and will provide students and communities with objective critical thinking skills and pragmatic openness that celebrates our differences and seeks real sustainable solutions to the climate crisis facing every young person world wide.

  13. Politicians, especially the ones who took part in this “forum”, have no idea what is occurring in public schools. Catering to the 10%, which our last two term president did, clearly isn’t working. When we get back to true learning, then we will make progress in our schools.

  14. Lily I have heard you speak several times as I’m a retired NEA member and watch all that occurs. You’ve been handed a very large job and I think it’s in good hands. Thank you for your hard work.! I believe I first heard you in Savanah, GA.

  15. I think Michael Bennett and Pete Buttigeg have very good ideas and both are people that are sincere with helping children to be educated. I think you have to get rid of the “Dirty Money” coming to get rid of the Education system we had inplace. They have drained the public education tax by building Charter schools with tax money filling them with teachers who are unqualified and taking the money from public schools. This has to stop. You have educated teachers with out raises for ten years using their money to help buy students materials because they have no money. This Needs to STOP and DeVos is part of it along with Koch brother. AZ. was the first to go on their list and we are desperately fighting until we can get help!

  16. If we got rid of the unfair teacher evaluations that are overtly subjective and prejudicial we would have more teachers in our society

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