When Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and former vice president Joe Biden got into a dispute about busing at the first presidential debate, it felt for five minutes that maybe, just maybe, we would have a wide-ranging discussion about the continuing inequities in public-school education. The moment passed quickly. Worries about public schools have hardly factored in the Democratic primary. Yes, free state college tuition, student loan forgiveness and universal pre-K are subjects of constant talk, but K-12 issues are relegated to the second tier of topics. Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have released plans, and Harris has proposed raising teacher pay, but these ideas are barely discussed, and other prominent candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., haven’t yet detailed their policies.
Democrats need to remedy this. According to the Brookings Institution, we are spending less on education as a percentage of gross domestic product than we did in 1970. A decade of underinvestment in education, and lagging teacher pay following the Great Recession, led to a wave of teacher strikes in red states in 2018 and in deep-blue Los Angeles this year, with robust public support.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2017 discovered more Americans considered the nation’s public schools “below average” than “above average” when compared with those in other countries. While only a small percentage of whites and Asian Americans are dissatisfied with their local public schools, the same is not true for other groups. Almost two-thirds of African Americans say black children do not enjoy the same access to a good public education as whites. The same is true for just under half of Latinos and four of 10 Native Americans. And they are right to be unhappy. By the fourth grade, Latino, black and Native Americans are far behind white children when it comes to reading skills. Calculus is offered in half of high schools – an embarrassingly low number in and of itself – but in less than 40% of those that educate large numbers of black and Latino students.
As Scott Sargrad, the vice president of K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress, and co-author of the new report released Tuesday and made exclusively available to The Post, “10 K-12 Education Policy Questions Every Presidential Campaign Should Answer,” noted, “We do have universal access to schools. We just don’t have universal access to very good schools.”
Yes, it’s a matter of racial justice. But it also affects all Americans’ futures. “It’s not only a moral impetus, but the country’s economic status can be at stake if not all children are not getting access to the types of schools that can prepare them for the future of work,” says Khalilah Harris, the managing director for K-12 policy at the Center.
So Thursday’s debate is a good time for some questions about K-12 education, including:
• What role do the candidates believe the federal government has in, to quote the Center for American Progress, “eliminating racial disparities in investment, discipline, and access to quality learning options in American schools”? Do all the candidates, like Biden and Sanders, support upping federal contributions to education? In the United States, where districts are heavily reliant on local taxes for funding, this is no small contributor to gaps in spending between districts. It’s also worth noting our school funding system is why spending was slashed so dramatically in the wake of the Great Recession.
• How would the candidates better target funds to schools with the greatest need? (One thing the Center’s report doesn’t mention: The Trump administration offered up a proposed budget that would cut back on funds that allow districts to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of need, if a high enough percentage live in poverty.)
• Demand that candidates answer how they will ensure K-12 schools offer a curriculum that prepares all children for college and the workforce. And ask how their education policies will “break down barriers” between public schools, higher education and employers so students are prepared for the workforce of the future, where automation and artificial intelligence will feature prominently.
• Push the contenders on what they will do to up teacher and other education professionals pay, improve their working conditions and increase the teaching profession’s racial diversity. (Minority teachers remain significantly underrepresented in the nation’s teaching ranks.)
• Finally, ask candidates where they stand on school choice, as well as magnet, specialized and charter schools.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to know why candidates would rather not address some of this stuff in too much detail. While raising teacher salaries and upping federal funding for education are bound to be popular items, charter schools and rezoning designed to foster economic diversity – which often serves as a proxy for race – are issues that get contentious fast. But the Center for American Progress put the questions out there ahead of the debates because we need answers. Our 50 million public school students deserve it.