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Democratic Presidential Candidates Largely Agree On Education Issues In Pittsburgh Forum

The seven Democratic presidential candidates who spoke to union members and activists in Downtown Pittsburgh Saturday espoused similar goals: paying teachers more, ensuring more equitable resources for poorer schools, and unraveling an earlier generation of changes that include charter schools and standardized testing. 

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren -- among the favorites with the crowd of roughly 1,000 educators, activists and students -- captured the flavor of much of the day’s commentary in a discussion of school funding. 

“So long as we keep basing funding mostly on whether or not you live in a neighborhood where they can afford to pay high property taxes or low property taxes, we’re going to keep moving the opportunities for our children further and further apart,” she said.

Candidates’ answers differed, however, when it came to how they would make changes, and on who had the most credibility to deliver them. 

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders also received a warm reception from the crowd gathered --  along with the cameras of MSNBC -- at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Like Warren and others, he  gave a nod to the heavy labor presence at the event, whose hosts included the country’s two largest teachers unions. “All across America, in so-called red states … we have seen teachers standing up, fighting not only for their rights as workers, but equally important for their kids,” he said. 

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North Side Resident Janet Wolford attends the Public Education Forum with One Pennsylvania, advocating for education justice.

Sanders echoed something he’s said many times before: that teachers’ should be paid $60,000 a year and that he would triple Title 1 funding which goes to schools with high concentrations of student poverty. Warren similarly touted a proposal to put another $800 billion in public education -- money she said would come from a 2 percent tax on households worth $50 million or more. 

The crowd applauded the proposals, along with any mention of diversifying the teaching workforce and funding schools. By contrast, there was little mention of charter schools, independently run but publicly funded alternative schools whose existence has long been contentious among Democrats. 

Perhaps the largest advocate of charters among the candidates who had confirmed to be in Pittsburgh, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, did not appear at the event: His campaign cited a flu which prompted the cancellation of an event in New Hampshire earlier in the week. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Senator who previously served as schools superintendent in Denver, said charters there had been successful -- but largely because of efforts to ensure they were held to the same standards as public schools. He faulted Republicans, particularly the Trump Administration, for grading those schools on a curve.  

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Charter advocates outside of the David L Lawrence Convention Center Saturday ahead of the Public Education Forum.

Charter school advocates rallied outside of the Convention Center ahead of the forum. They said they felt excluded from the event.

“If we really want to make a change in public education, we need to hear … from all public schools,” said Tamara Thomas the principal of Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship.

She said she wants a president who will dispel what she called “myths” about charter schools 

“Part of changing people’s mindset towards charter schools is helping them understand what charter schools are, why they were invented,” Thomas said. 

Critics of the school model say charters take money from traditional public schools and don’t accept all students. Angel Gober, the Western Pennsylvania director for activist group and event co-host One PA, noted in her opening remarks that Pittsburgh Public Schools had to pay $87 million to charter schools. The money reimburses the charters for the cost of educating students.

Education policy is mostly set at the state and local level. While candidates took time Saturday to express what they supported, few made direct promises about what they could do as President to change the issues that audience members care most about.

The event was organized by 11 groups including civil rights organizations and the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The two unions represent nearly 5 million members and spent more than $40 million in the 2016 election.

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Local organizers on stage before the start of the forum.

The event was the first televised forum with presidential candidates focused specifically on education. AFT President Randi Weingarten said organizers want education to be a central election issue. 

“This today was not the be all and end all, but this was a paradigm shift. All of the groups here said it’s really important for the candidates for the President of the United States to see what we see,” she said. 

The candidates spoke one-by-one from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Highlights of their remarks are below. 

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet

Bennet introduced himself to the crowd as the first former superintendent to run for president. He led Denver Public Schools from 2005 - 2009. Like other candidates, he said teachers aren't paid enough. He said teacher salaries were set during an era when the labor market discriminated against women. 

“This is the hardest job that anyone can do,” he said. 

He said he wouldn’t make an “empty promise” about teacher pay, but that America has to commit to pay teachers “what they’re worth.” 

With Booker out of the debate, Bennet was perhaps the candidate most receptive to charter schools, which have operated in his district. He said that charters in Denver are held to the same standard as the public schools in terms of performance and student background. That, he said, should be the rule elsewhere. 

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden

Biden faced some questions about school segregation: MSNBC moderator Rehema Ellis asked several candidates about how to address the fact that many schools are as segregated as they were a half century ago. But for Biden, the question had an additional urgency: As a Senator he had backed bills to prevent the use of busing to address segregation. On Saturday, Biden said, “I make no apology for my record on civil rights,” citing his work with President Obama and his efforts to stop “redlining” communities to exclude minority groups.  

Biden said community college should be free throughout the country. 

“We can afford it and we can get it done,” he said. He said that would be especially useful for middle-aged people without college degrees who lose jobs in retail and need to be re-trained. 

“All of a sudden, their life ends. What do they do? …. They’re going to go back to community college and get retrained. It’s hard as the devil for them to be able to do it, but they gotta be free,” he said. 

Mayor of South Bend, Ind. Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg said he hears about issues in education almost daily while brushing his teeth. His husband is a former teacher and “we live and breathe this,” he said. 

He said teachers are losing autonomy in the classroom and using their own money to buy school supplies. 

Buttigieg joined other candidates in saying teachers should be paid more. He’s proposed offering financial incentives for teachers in the poorest schools.

“It’s not just about pay, but let’s be honest, a lot of it’s about pay. We’ve got to pay our teachers more. 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,” he said. 

Estimates suggest there is a shortage of over 100,000 teachers nationwide. 

Speaking with reporters after his speech, Buttigieg also addressed criticism that some of his financial backers were prominent supporters of charter schools. “There are 700,000 donors to my campaign. Some of them may disagree on some of those issues,” he said. “But my stance will not change, including my support for teachers and my support for labor.”

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar

Klobuchar pledged to reverse education policies enacted by President Trump, and said her first step would be to fire his education secretary.

“I have a hundred-day plan to do a whole bunch of good things, and one of those things I would do in one hundred seconds is fire Betsy DeVos,” she said. 

Asked about mental-health concerns in schools, Klobuchar said a rise in suicides and other problems could be linked in part to immigrant students’ fears of being deported by Trump. 

A moderate who has won majorities even in areas that support Donald Trump, she said she could beat the president even in states where Democrats have struggled. “I have won every election all the way down to fourth grade,” she said. 

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

Sanders said he wanted to create universal high quality early childhood programs and make sure every teacher is paid a minimum of $60,000 a year. He would also triple funding for Title I funding,  a federal program for schools with a high concentration of low-income students.

Sanders was asked how he would address the school-to-prison pipeline, a term referring to the disproportionate number of students of color suspended or expelled from school. He said it was one of his highest priorities. “One of the aspects of it is if you want to keep people out of jail, you invest in education, you invest in jobs, rather than jail and incarceration,” Sanders said. “We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. We have the resources not only with teachers, but support staff, to make sure that our kids get the attention that they need so they don’t drop out of school.”

Sanders, who opposed the “No Child Left Behind” education reforms of 2001, also had tough words for standardized testing -- an approach backed by both the Bush and Obama administration. 

"The problem with testing is that we end up...spending too much time teaching to the tests,” he said. When pressed on how to track student performance, he said it should remain a priority to monitor progress on individual students, but expressed wariness about using metrics to gauge entire schools.

Businessman Tom Steyer

Steyer said that the U.S. can’t continue to cut education as a way to save money. 

“The idea that cutting education is cutting expense is the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” he said. 

He said universal pre Kindergarten should be a priority, and noted that community colleges and HBCUs have a track record for positive outcomes for low-income students.

Steyer, a billionaire and former hedge-fund manager, says the “whole thesis” of his bid was that “corporations have bought the government … The corporations determine our priorities.” 

Steyer has previously been active in funding efforts to combat climate change and “Need to Impeach,” an effort to encourage the removal of President Trump. Asked by a reporter after his appearance whether his campaign meant a retreat from that effort just as Democrats are taking heat for the cause, he said he still provided money to the cause. But because he was running,  I can’t consult” with it. “Otherwise I would be.”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren 

Warren said she’d increase public school funding with a tax on the country’s wealthiest: a 2 percent tax on wealth above $50 million. 

“So long as we keep basing funding mostly on whether or not you live in a neighborhood where they can afford to pay high property taxes or low property taxes, we’re going to keep moving the opportunities for our children further and further apart,” she said. 

She said a wealth tax would put another $800 billion dollars into public schools.

“This is about equalizing opportunity. This is the big division in America today,” she said on quadrupling the Title 1 program, funding for schools with high concentrations of low-income students.

Warren did have a somewhat tense exchange with MSNBC moderator Rehema Ellis, who said it would take time for Warren’s programs to take effect, and asked what she would say to parents who wanted access to a charter now. Warren said her plan was to curtail future charter funding, rather than strip it from existing programs. But she pushed back on Ellis’ assertion that increasing school funding had been tried for years.

“I can’t let you … tell me that we’ve already put plenty of money into our schools because we have not,” Warren said. 

WESA's Chris Potter, An-Li Herring and Ariel Worthy contributed to this report.