K-12 Education: Democrats Must Choose Between Plans Of Biden and Sanders

Two plans about how to improve K-12 are before us. Which one are the Democrats to choose: Bernie Sanders’ plan or Joe Biden’s plan?

Both candidates presented their plans as centerpieces of their campaigns, Sanders announcing his on the 65thanniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark case making school segregation unlawful, and Biden making his plan the first policy rollout of his 2020 campaign. The differences in the plans tell us about both candidates and give the Democratic Party a choice about where to make its stand about K-12 education.

Difference #1: Biden and Sanders give two different views about teachers.                

Joe Biden sees teachers as suffering financially, stating incorrectly that “public school teachers’ average weekly wage hasn’t increased since 1996” and calling for using Title I funds (federal money targeted for at-risk schools) to increase their pay. Biden’s pledge is to “support our educators by giving them the pay and dignity they deserve”.  It is not just pay he wants to give teachers but also dignity.

Sanders seeks a different way to fund the same need for increased teacher pay. He advocates working with states to set a starting salary for teachers at no less than $60,000, tied to cost of living, years of service, and other qualifications; he also advocates protecting collective bargaining.  Sanders’ plan addresses more than salary increases; he addresses the professional excellence of teachers as he pledges to “give teachers a much deserved raise and empower them to teach”.

Biden, throughout his plan, has a condescending tone and portrays teachers as being without “dignity”, as victims. Sanders’ plan has a different tone in which the dignity of teachers is not in question. Sanders’ plan refers to the high professionalism of teachers. Biden, referring to teachers’ lack of dignity, treats teachers as “less than”. He fails to recognize that dignity is not something that can be given to another – although respect is.

Difference #2: Biden and Sanders both articulate the need for underserved children of color to have teachers of color but differ about how to recruit those teachers.

Biden advocates a fast track: providing training in non-university programs that have no professors, no classes, and no research-base to the practices they advocate and offer little chance of “graduates” passing state certification exams, such as a program that calls itself the Relay Graduate School of Education. Without certification, those trained in non-university programs are ineligible to teach in public schools but can find jobs in charter schools because those schools hire uncertified teachers.

Sanders, on the other hand, advocates the establishment of a dedicated fund to create and expand teacher education programs at historically black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities so that those already qualified and accepted at institutions of higher learning will be attracted to the teaching profession and prepared to enter it.

Sanders’ plan ensures the quality of teachers far better than Biden’s plan. Sanders calls for teachers who are “the best and the brightest educational professionals”. Biden calls for teachers who are under-qualified and get into classrooms by the fastest route.  With Biden’s plan, needy students who would benefit the most from their teachers being “the best and the brightest” will get teachers who are not qualified but quick.

Difference #3: Biden and Sanders have two different views about racial inequities as a leading cause of poor student achievement.

 Biden refers in his plan only obliquely to the fact that no one should be denied opportunities and resources for learning due to being a student of color. Sanders, on the other hand, identifies segregation and racial inequities as being a leading cause of poor student achievement. He specifically calls for providing federal funds to increase community-driven strategies for de-segregating schools especially at-risk schools, to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to address disciplinary practices in schools that disproportionately affect students of color, to fund school transportation that increases integration, and to increase funding for magnet schools as a means of increasing integration.

Sanders’ plan recognizes poverty and racism as central factors in poor student achievement. He does not follow past administrations which held teachers and schools accountable for raising standardized test scores without addressing the underlying causes of racial inequities and poverty.

Difference #4: Biden and Sanders differ about what they mean by safe schools.  

Biden plans to defeat the NRA and champion legislation to ban assault weapons.

Sanders, similarly, plans to enact comprehensive gun violence prevention laws. In addition, Sanders plans to pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act into law to protect the rights of LGBTQ students, enforce Title IX which assures gender equity, and ensure that immigrant children are free from harassment and surveillance at school, regardless of their immigration status. Certainly guns have no place in schools; neither does bullying or harassment. Sanders view of a safe school is far more expansive than what Biden offers. Sanders addresses the day to day safety of every student in every school.

Difference #5:  Biden and Sanders define a successful high school differently.

Biden’s plan states that the primary function of middle schools and high schools is to prepare students for jobs.  He plans to replace high school courses with courses that will give students industry credentials, actual licenses in the trades, gained by graduation from high school so they will exit to high school directly to jobs.  Biden also advocates that high school students take courses at community colleges that can count for credit in both high school and college; thereby, requiring students to take fewer courses and learning less but moving through their education faster.

Sanders, in the other hand, states that, in the 21st century, a rigorous and comprehensive high school education is just the beginning of what students need and, by itself, is not enough. He says that education beyond high school is necessary for all young people and advocates tuition-free public colleges and universities.

With Biden’s plan, a successful high school is one that gives students the quickest path to jobs, even earning industry credentials in high school. Sanders looks at the workforce needs of the 21st century as more complex and requiring a solid high school education, followed by further education in a trade or in colleges or universities.

Difference #6: Sanders takes a firm position in opposition to charter schools. Biden is silent about charter schools.

 Charter schools use taxpayer money for privately-managed schools that have no accountability for how that taxpayer money is spent. Charter schools have greater segregation than public schools. The NAACP has called for a moratorium on funding any new charter schools and accountability for existing charter schools because of their racial inequity and lack of financial transparency.  The charter school industry sets up an alternate school system, takes money from the public school system, and offers no greater student achievement.

Sanders supports the NAACP moratorium on public funds being used for charter school expansion until a national audit is completed and halting the use of public funds to underwrite new charter schools. Sanders states that the country does not need two parallel, taxpayer- funded school systems and insists that we invest in our public schools.

Sanders’ plan states that charter schools, since they use public, taxpayer funds, must:

  • Comply with the same oversight requirements as public schools.
  • Disclose student attrition rates, non-public funding sources, and financial interests.
  • Match employment practices with the local school district, including standards set by collective bargaining and restrictions on exorbitant CEO pay.
  • Allow teachers to unionize.

The words “charter schools” do not once appear in Biden’s plan for K-12 education. That is not acceptable. Those running for public office, most importantly for the Presidency, must take a stand on all charter schools, both the 95% that present themselves as non-profit and the 5% that present themselves as for-profit.  To object just to the 5% and not the other 95%, as some speculate Joe Biden may eventually do, is to give full approval and a green light to the other 95% of charter schools and accomplishes nothing.

Two candidates. Two different perspectives. Two different policy statements.

As an experienced educator of many years, having taught middle and high school English, been a central office administrator for curriculum and instruction, taught teacher preparation courses at universities, and been a consultant to schools at risk, I can tell you that the Bernie Sanders plan shows an understanding of what it means to learn and what it means to teach. Joe Biden’s plan does not.

With the goal of unseating Betsy DeVos and her boss in the White House, I hope that the Democratic Party heeds what Bernie Sanders is saying and makes his positions its own.